by Michael Alderete on 10/8/2002

Our first Maison de Champagne, or House of Champagne, was Taittinger. “Maison” is a term generally reserved for the larger champagne producers, and while Taittinger is far from the largest, they’re still huge, producing about 5 million bottles of champagne a year.

Taittinger is one of the many houses to take advantage of the chalk quarries dug by the Romans for building material in and under what became Reims. These quarry pits follow a formula, and are remarkably similar from house to house. The pits are connected by tunnels, and have additional galleries added, where racks upon racks of champagne are stored. The excavations, or caves de champagne, are quite cool (virtually every tour guide had a cloak to wear when visiting the caves) and humid, which creates the perfect conditions for aging champagne.

Champagne is aged in the bottle, for varying lengths of time depending on the house, and while Taittinger produces about 5 million bottles in a single year, at any given time the tunnels, pits, and galleries hold nearly 20 million bottles. Most of the major houses give tours of their extensive tunnels, and take justifiable pride in them. Our tour at Taittinger was fascinating, descending into the tunnels and seeing more champagne than we ever imagined in one place at a time.

In the photos we took you can see some of the features of the caves, and the use to which the maisons now make of them, as well as ancient carvings in the chalk, which pre-date the maisons by centuries (see the photos).

One of the most interesting photos is of the various sized vessels in which champagne is bottled. Rochelle is in the photo for scale, and you can plainly see that the largest bottle is nearly as big as she is!

Here’s an interesting tidbit: the best size bottle to buy champagne in is the magnum (1500 milliliters, or the size of two regular bottles); the volume inside the bottle is larger compared to the area out which the gasses which make champagne sparkling can escape. It stays more sparkly than champagne in smaller bottles.

You would think that would mean that the larger the bottle the better, but no, most houses don’t normally bottle champagne in sizes larger than the magnum, because they are too large and heavy to handle, require special machinery, etc. When they need to fill larger bottles for a special order, they actually decant magnums into the larger vessel, which obviously causes some of the fizz to dissipate.

It’s still pretty damn good; when I worked at Be we opened a giant bottle of Veuve Clicquot at one summer picnic, shortly after we went public, and while I drank my share, others did not, which surfaces another problem with these big damn bottles: what do you do if you don’t finish it? (The answer: don’t open it if your guests won’t finish it, because it’s impossible to preserve.)
Taittinger (Photos)
Champagne Bottles (Photo)

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