How many kilometres of cellars lie under the city of Reims?
A subterranean city below the surface
Reims is the unofficial capital of the Champagne wine-growing region, home to many prestigious champagne houses, including Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot and Krug. Above ground level, Reims is much like any other historic French city,but below ground, the city houses something quite unique: a huge network of tunnels and caves covering a total distance of around 200 kilometres.
'Les Crayères', the caves that are now used as cellars for Reims' many champagne houses, are the product of ancient Gallo-Roman chalk mining. They are buried 20 to 40 metres below the city's surface, a maze of high, imposing arches and grey chalk walls - a whole subterranean city.
In medieval times, smugglers and other small-time criminals used the caves to stash their ill-gotten gains. Many centuries ago, these caves belonged to monasteries; religious icons from that era adorn some of the cellar walls to this day.
The perfect environment for champagne
Ruinart was the first official champagne house to open in Reims, in 1729, and its founder, Nicolas Ruinart, was quick to realise the potential of these caves as an ideal environment for champagne to mature. They are dark, slightly damp and their temperature is a steady 10 degrees Celsius, conditions which are just right for maturing champagne. Today, millions of bottles of champagne lie in these cellars, stacked in wooden frames, waiting patiently for time and chemistry to do their work. Ruinart's cellars (which he acquired in 1768) are amongst the largest in the region and the most spectacular, reaching a height of 50 metres in some places.
As time went by, the cellars became a popular venue for fancy dinners and receptions. In 1798, when François Clicquot (son of Philippe Clicquot, the founder of the champagne house) married Barbe Ponsardin, the wedding took place in one of these cellars. It was at the height of the French Revolution, and the service was held in secret. The priest who officiated the wedding gave the newlyweds a book by Dom Pérignon as a gift. The bride would later come to be known as Veuve Clicquot and was the first woman to run a champagne house. Today the cellars of Veuve Clicquot house thousands of bottles of champagne as they go through the maturation process. In Veuve Clicquot's cellars, non-vintage champagnes are aged for a minimum of two and a half years. For vintage champagnes, the minimum ageing time is five years, and La Grande Dame is aged for a minimum of seven years
An underground sanctuary
During both world wars, the wine cellars of Reims kept scores of people out of harm's way while German bombs rained down on the city above. Many Reims inhabitants and employees of the champagne houses also subsequently moved into the cellars after their homes were destroyed.
A whole community flourished underground during World War I. Shops, schools, kitchens and laundries all opened for business, while above ground, the champagne houses continued to harvest their grapes. Champagne supplies didn't dry up just because there was a war on!
During World War II, the cellars once again became a place of sanctuary. Jewish refugees hid in them from the Nazis who occupied the city, and the French Resistance used them to hide allied airmen and soldiers.
A world-renowned attraction
In 2015, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee awarded the Champagne houses, cellars and hillsides of Reims the prestigious accolade of being listed as a World Heritage Site. The cellars continue to be one of Reims' biggest tourist attractions. All the major champagne houses in Reims offer guided tours of their cellars every year to millions of visitors from all over the world - usually with a glass or two of champagne thrown in.