Our weekend in the champagne Region climaxed with a visit to De Castellane Champagne house in Epernay.
De Castellane was founded in 1895 and quickly became the “Champagne du Jour” in Paris during ‘La Belle Epoque’. The popularity of their champagne in France and neighbouring Belgium has led to the brand selling 90% of its bottles to those two countries leaving only 10% for the rest of the world.
We were met by our tour guide, the excellent and charming Bela. She led us through the impressive entrance hall, into the picturesque cellars (where they used to host wedding receptions) and deeper to begin the journey through their champagne process.
De Castellane produces 3 million bottles of champagne per year. If that is difficult to compute at the start of the tour, you will quickly get a visual aid when you see the vast grape juice vats housed in the first room, each holding 240,000 litres of grape juice.
The De Castellane tour is unlike many other tours in that it is not shy about showing you the whole process, including the mechanical side of champagne making. You get to see all the machines that are used in this process, including a corking machine that can handle up to 13000 bottles per minute. With this machinery it only takes a staff of 36 people to produce 3 million bottles per year.
Their champagne takes between 2 and 5 years to produce, mature and be ‘dressed’ to enjoy. That means that there are usually around 8 million bottles of champagne in the house, maturing in its cellars. This is where the more romantic part of the tour begins.
The Champagne region and Epernay in particular is the perfect and only place for champagne due to it weather and its caves. Under the city of Epernay there are 120km of tunnels. The tunnels are mostly chalk which keep a constant cool temperature of 11-12 degrees centigrade, and are humid as the moisture from ground soaks through the chalk.
De Castellane has over 6km of cellars scattered with precisely stacked mountains of champagne.
Some corridors are as long as 700 meters and are named after important, long-time serving employees of the De Castellane House. The names are displayed on road signs and gives the cellars the feel of a secret, underground city.
In addition to seeing the champagne being matured, a number of corridors and cellars are dedicated to the tour and the evolution of champagne making. From Monks making ‘Devils Drink’ (named because during fermentation roughly 50% of the bottles would explode and therefore been seen as ‘evil’, right through to the machines and techniques used today.
My one drawback from the tour was the fact that some displays featured mannequins. Due to the quality of the guide’s information and the clarity of the displays, they didn’t seem necessary. However, they could be a hit with the younger generation who might not be as excited as I was to be in a cave with 8 million bottles of champagne.
One of the things that I enjoyed about the De Castellane tour as opposed to some of the other tours we went on was that De Castellane takes you on a journey, from grape to cork in chronological order. For a process that essentially involves repeatedly bottling a solution, adding some yeast/flavour and leaving it to ferment for a few months, it can be quite confusing to understand what is added, when, to what and for how long in what order if not taught in chronological order.
The De Castellane tour does an excellent job in teaching you the step by step evolution from grape to wine, wine to champagne and onto the shelf. In our view it offers the most insight into the world of a Champagne House and also the oenologist, the master champagne maker.
The tour lasts approximately 45 minutes, at the end of which you can enjoy a tasting of one of the House’s 5 excellent champagnes. We would strongly recommend paying a little extra to also taste the house 2007 Vintage, which was our favourite during our visit to the region. It was a beautiful day in Epernay and we were lucky to be able to sit on this terrace for our tastings.
After the tour there is also a museum and the opportunity to climb the iconic tower for unrivalled panoramic views of Epernay (237 steps). It took us almost 2 hours for the tour and to take advantage of everything De Castellane has to offer.
Our guide Bela also gave us some excellent advice on how to become a champagne connoisseur (or how to not make a fool of yourself) so if you interested check back soon.
Thanks for having us and “Santé!”
Thank you to the Champagne de Castellane House for hosting our visit. However this was a fantastic experience and as always our opinions are honest and our own.
Last modified: 25th July 2016