It was a breakthrough moment not only for its simplicity but because it was one of those times when you finally understand the series of small and surprising events, some of which must have seemed quite unfortunate, that help to make big things so wonderful.
I was with Nicolas Rainon who runs Oenovision, a business that teaches people about the sequence of natural events that make Champagne taste as it does.
We had driven up and parked on a hill above the village of Villers-Marmery. Behind us was the Montagnes de Reims, the mountain range which also gives its name to the mostly pinot noir growing region of Champagne. The lush forest that rides the spine of the range is a cluster of beach, oak and walnut trees that are home to deer, boar, foxes and rabbits. With a clear view across the valley floor, the forest is also home to bunkers and bloodshed from the human wars that came before. Early October, the treetops were turning, from lush dark greens to deep rusts and ember reds, like a stovetop element slowly heating up before our eyes. Underfoot, between the rows of vines we were standing in, licks of white chalk peppered the uneven ground.
“There are five things that make up terroir,” he says looking at my notebook waiting for me to write before he handed them over. I obeyed. “Soil, subsoil, altitude, exposure and gradient. Change one, you change the terroir.”
Nicolas, wearing a neat striped shirt tucked into jeans, opened a multi-tool pocketknife with speed and flow and used the knife, a dry sense of humour and a voice raised by passion to bring home his points. With nature as his classroom and a combination of finger drawings in the ground, fistfuls of crumbling dirt and arms sweeping to the hills and valleys, he explained how Champagne – the place – works.
He explained that an inland sea covered this area 70 million years ago. When it dried up 20 million years later, it left the crushed remains of the belemnite crustaceans that flourished in the sea. He said that, when compressed, the shellfish remains formed the layer of chalk a few hundred metres below a covering of topsoil. Twenty million years ago, an earthquake shook the land so ferociously that it broke up the chalky seabed and pushed it up above ground, like the steps of an escalator rising out of the flat, still with the layer of soil on top. Another earthquake 10 million years later pushed the hills we were standing on even higher, filling in the gaps between the steps with slopes of white chalk. This explains why – when you look at Champagne now – the forests are on the top in the layer of fertile soil, the vineyards are on the slopes where the chalk is and the crops remain in the fertile flat lands that yawn across the valley floors of Champagne.
Nothing but vines can grow in this harsh chalk. And not just any vines: all of the best grand cru vineyards grow on this type of belemnite chalk. Vines, of course, need poor conditions to be the best they can. They respond well to a kind of viticultural tough love. When it rains, the chalk draws the water away from the surface and stores it deep in its porous layers that act like water tanks for the drier times.
Brilliantly, the chalk also retains the warmth of the suns rays and throws it back up to the vines, helping them nudge the 11.5 degrees they need to ripen. This is vital in a climate as marginal for viticulture as Champagne.
The scene before me was clicking into place.
Nicolas went on. All the villages, he explained, are built low in the valleys where the potentially harmful fog collects, and the vines are planted high on the rises.
“That’s dedicated of them,” I thought, trying to imagine if anyone building a house these days would make such a sacrifice.
“Yes,” said Nicolas, “but without the grapes there is no wealth.”
He went on. It is these old crustacean deposits, rich in limestone, that help develop the acidity in the wines: something as vital to Champagne as the bubbles themselves.
Then he explained something I always hear thrown about when it comes to Champagne. It completed the picture perfectly.
“To lick,” he said, “this chalk tastes of nothing”.
“And to drink?” I asked.