In March of this year, I was passing through Reims and took the opportunity to drop in to see "where the magic happens" and tour the Veuve Clicquot cellars. It is just off the A4 motorway on the Rue Albert Thomas and is hard to miss on the impressive Avenue de Champagne. Guided tours happen throughout the day but you must make sure you book in advance to guarantee yourself a place on the tour (booking details can be found at the end of this post.)
As we walked through the perfectly manicured gardens and into the visitors centre where we were greeted by a very friendly tour guide who spoke immaculate English. She ushered us into the souvenir-riddled waiting room to wait for the remainder of the group.
A short wait later and we were ready to go. We started off looking at the basics of how champagne is made and where Veuve Clicquot sources it grapes for their various champagnes. The tour guide was interesting and eloquent at talking to us and had ample visual aids to engage us including a giant 3D map of the whole of champagne. We then moved through the room to learn a bit about La Grande Dame herself, and how she came about becoming the most famous widow in France and possibly the world.
There were many original letters and manuscripts to read, as well as some examples of the different bottles and labels Veuve Clicquot have used over the years.
On with the tour and to the cellars. Down we went into the first of the stunning caves or "crayeres," where we would have been in pitch-black darkness if it were not for the yellow Veuve Clicquot spot-lights and the small pot hole in the top of each of the crayeres. Here, we were told a little about the ageing of the bottles and a bit about the role the caves played in the wars.
Then on to the next crayere. At this point, our bubbly tour guide went on to explain how the yeast deposits are extracted from the bottles before they are ready to be sold to the public. Interestingly, it was Madame Clicquot herself who invented the riddling racks called "pupitres," used to slowly tilt the bottles into an upright position to get the deposits in the neck of the bottle before "dégorgement."
After a short look at, what is believed to be the oldest existing bottle of champagne in the world, which was found in the baltic sea last year (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-10673322) it was time to go upstairs and have a taste of the Veuve Clicquot tete de cuvee, La Grand Dame 1998. This unveiled tremendous depth and freshness. It is clearly a wine that has not reached its peak. It displayed lots of smokey, burnt toast-like notes and light, sour apple and apple blossom fruit components. It was very pleasant but not quite up to the standard that the price tag sets. You never know, in a couple of years this may unravel into a beautiful champagne.
Booking info for Veuve Clicquot cellar tours: