Amazing treasures under your feet
Reims Cathedral, sun-baked vineyards, Art Deco architecture… the city of kings has plenty of treasures at eyelevel, but reveals a lot more when you start to dig... Plunged into the bowels of a city unlike any other, with only a candle to light the way...
Situated in the heart of the chalky region of Champagne, the ground under Reims has been mined since antiquity for its chalk, an easily-accessible building material offering many advantages. The hillock of Saint-Nicaise in particular, in the south of the city, is riddled with Gallo-Roman chalk quarries linked together by tunnels, whose conversion into cellars for the ageing of champagne was initiated by Nicolas Ruinart in the mideighteenth century, thereby making the hillock famous. For although champagne is the ideal companion for every celebration, regularly sparkling under the spotlight, this prestigious wine requires quiet half-light and humidity for its intrinsic qualities to be revealed.
Nicolas Ruinart was the first wine-merchant to understand the significance of these damp underground cellars with a steady temperature of ten or so degrees for the process of developing the sparkling wine which was then all the rage in the highest levels of society. He therefore decided to set up his business on Saint-Nicaise hill in 1769, prompting a great many Champagne Houses to set up too, all equally prestigious. Today, there are therefore no fewer than 200 km of cellars and chalk tunnels stretching out under our feet, protecting millions of bottles of Champagne slowly developing 20 to 40 metres below ground level.
A real underground existence
Champagne is one of the regions in France which suffered the most in the two World Wars which shook the end of the second millennium. And it was in the 14-18 war when it experienced the darkest moments in its history: bombed for nearly four years by the German army, over 80% of the city of Reims was destroyed.
As for its inhabitants, they sought refuge under the ground, in the famous Sparnacian tunnels of Reims where millions of sleeping beauties were peacefully at rest. A real underground existence was organised here, with a school, hospital, headquarters and so on.
As you wander along these long, dark corridors, it is not unusual to still find traces of these difficult times: An inscription saying “shelter” with a red cross and an arrow, a rosette recording the Napoleonic battles, a calf’s head wearing the pointed helmet of the enemy, and even the name of an American prisoner engraved in a jail improvised by the Nazis. Well hidden under our feet, these cellars conceal genuine treasures and today still give us moving evidence from the past, engraved forever in the stone...