Thursday, September 29, 2005

Visiting Champagne No. 2: The Cave

Following our visit to the cathedral and the centre of Reims, we got back in the car and headed out to the edge of the city where a number of Champagne producers are situated. Our host wanted us to visit the Pommery champagne factory which has a very large underground 'Cave' (the French word for a cellar where wine is stored). Factory doesn't sound like quite the right word, but I don't know what else you would call it, since it's constructed in the style of a factory, albeit a somewhat ornate one as the photograph below shows. The silver lorry is most likely delivering grape juice from one of the villages in the hills surrounding Reims.

Visits to 'Caves' have become a notable tourist attraction for the Champagne region, and probably they have been welcoming visitors for as long as they have existed. The Pommery brand of champagne became famous at the end of the 19th Century under the directorship of Veuve Pommery (Widow Pommery) who seems to have been a canny promoter of her brand. There is also the well known Veuve Clicquot as well, directrice of another competitor. The Pommery operation reeks of large advertising and promotion budgets. The welcome area is a vast converted storehouse decked out with weird 'art advertising' stuff such as a large picture of a bulldog 'laying' a 'golden egg'. This rather strange interest in faecal remains extends further than the foyer, as I'll mention later.

You descend into the 'Cave' via a long staircase, the steps of which have been worn into trough shapes by the countless visitors. The cellar is vast, a system of 18 km of tunnels connecting pyramid shaped holes that rise to the surface. These holes are actually Gallo-Roman quarries that were widened as they descended downwards. Our friend told us that, when it is about to rain, mist starts rising in the cellars because the build up of condensation in the air and the narrow opening at the top of each pyramid-shaped quarry prevents the normal escape of damp air from inside.

Pommery have been boosting their sales by selling metallic blue, pop-sized bottles of champagne to be drunk with a straw. The idea is to appeal to the young and trendy, rather than the middle-aged, 'weddings and baptisms' set. To help promote this youthful image, they are sponsoring young artists to produce art works that utilise their products. These art works litter the 'visitors' route' and provide a less than scintillating counterpoint to the gloomy spaces of the 'Cave' that they occupy.

The cave itself was, for me, more interesting. I love gloomy underground spaces: rows and rows of dusty jeroboams with names of visitors written on them through thick, congealing dust. Odd little telephone cabins for the wine man to call up base and let them know that a balthazar has just blown its top. In case you don't know, these strange names I am referring to are the different titles given to various magnitudes of oversize champagne bottles.

Widow Pommery introduced a system of naming in the cellars based on her global champagne conquest. Every time she succeeded in having an agent in a new corner of the globe, she put up a plaque in her cellar to commemorate the fact.

She also commissioned an artist to carve large bas-reliefs into the soft limestone rock of the cellar walls. He was also obliged to follow the champagne theme. The picture below illustrates a bacchanalean feast...

So there we have it: Champagne, a prestige product that isn't sure it wants to be a prestige product any more (well, maybe a bit) since, in this day and age, fun products shift more units. For me, Champagne has become synonymous with business entertainment, something that I abhor, and hence the taste of Champagne has become somewhat devalued for me. Maybe my experiences in the fields picking grapes tomorrow will change that?

Oh, and that poo thing. Well, there is a temporary exhibition in the 'Cave' which features numerous, very large models of fossil poo, or 'coprolite' to use the technical term. The sculptures are made of a material that is like non-fossilised poo and the artist plays on the supposed similarity between coprolites and the Venus figures created by stone age man some 15,000 years ago. I told you it was all a bit odd. There's a picture of a coprolite and a Venus figure below to show you what I'm talking about.

Maybe there's something in it? Who knows...

1 comment:

Andrea said...

OHHH that is alll soooo cool! I totaly would love to see all of that.