Tour the Storied Cellars of Champagne, France
Beneath the vineyard landscapes of Champagne lies a clandestine labyrinth of tunnels and caves. It was constructed by Romans to quarry chalk, and Benedictine monks later discovered its suitability for wine storage. During World War I, French citizens operated cities within the hidden complex to avoid German detection. Today, a tour of Champagne’s crayères, or chalk cellars, captivates visitors with its intersection of fine wine and history.
While the slopes, houses and cellars of Champagne have held UNESCO World Heritage Site status since 2015, only a handful of crayère tours exist.
One of the few belongs to Champagne’s oldest production house, Ruinart, established in 1729. Located on Rue des Crayères (street of caves), it boasts fascinating chalk-mining pits 125 feet below ground that were officially classified as a historic monument in 1931. Two-hour tours are available, during which the guide will identify traces of the past like score marks left by third-century Romans. Afterwards, relax in the salon with a glass of Chardonnay-driven bubbles, or for intimate affairs, make a reservation for lunch or a multicourse pairing dinner.
Clos19, a lifestyle retail platform of French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH, sells immersive experiences featuring its brands. Private, multiday tours, like “Champagne Tour with Your Private Guide: Moët, Veuve Clicquot & Ruinart” include transportation, meals, hotels and cellar visits.
The Gallo-Roman quarries of Taittinger were dug in the 4th century and unfurl 60 feet or so below ground. In the 13th century, this was the site of Saint-Nicaise Abbey, widely thought to be one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in France until it was completely destroyed in the 1800s. Today, the winery’s flagship Comtes de Champagne ages inside. When visiting, allow at least one hour for the whole experience, which includes a short educational movie, a guided tour and explanation of their Champagne production, followed by a custom tasting for visitors of legal drinking age. Options include “L’Instant Signé,” a two-glass comparative of Brut Réserve and Comtes de Champagne Blanc, and “L’Instant Oh My Rosé,” one glass each of Prestige Rosé and Comtes de Champagne Rosé, among others.
Based in Aÿ, Champagne Ayala features a cavernous network of cellars. For around $30, the “Prestige Experience” leads you through its corridors, then takes you up to the roof for a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. The journey is capped with a taste of the entire range.
Beyond chalk caves, phenomenal and historical cellars abound. A few years ago, Champagne Bollinger discovered and auctioned off a stash of early-20th-century wines hidden from German pillagers during World War II. Customized private visits, upon request, include a cellar tour, hand-riddling demo and tasting of the Bollinger range, with optional lunch in Madame Lily Bollinger’s garden.
If you’re interested in learning more about Champagne’s iconic chalk-based soils and geology, head to the commune of Fleury-la-Rivière in Marne to visit Champagne Legrand-Latour’s unique exhibition, La Cave aux Coquillages. The paleontology site-turned-museum offers classes, workshops and guided tours of the tunnels, which offer a glimpse of the marine environment of past through restored and studied fossils. —Lauren Mowery