Champagne and 'les crayeres', a Gallo-Roman legacy.

Posted on Aug 05, 2013 in category

Undoubtedly, the highlight for most visitors to La Champagne would be tasting the bubbly from the numerous champagne maisons throughout the province especially in the cities of Reims and Epernay. However, as a teacher, it must be my attraction to chalk that made the underground cellars or 'crayeres' of the champagne maisons the main attraction.

Reims is famous for its 'les grandes maisons' like Pommery, Taittinger, Mumm, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin and Ruinart. Although all of these champagne maisons utilise cellars that were previously 'crayeres' or chalk mines in order to maintain a constant 10% celsius, only a few crayeres are Gallo-Roman in origin.

Surprisingly, large-scale chalk mining in Roman Gaul began as early as the 1st century A.D. Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D.79 as a consequence of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, mentions in his Natural History XVII.4.6 the design of these chalk mines in Gaul and Britain as well as the interesting uses of chalk in antiquity. Pliny describes the great depth of some of these mines at 30.5 metres and their shape beginning with a narrow mouth at the entrance but with the shaft expanding in the interior. The Gallic 'dove-coloured marl' or chalk was excavated in huge blocks which easily broke up when exposed to the elements. The Gauls called it 'eglecopaia'.

Chalk had many uses in antiquity:

  • fertiliser for cropping/grazing lands and drainage for wet lands
  • lime-burning (quicklime) used in construction work for mortars and whitewashing walls as well as block/rubble work in fortification walls or roads, the textile industries for cleaning cloth, tanners for removing the hair from skins, and painters for preparing surfaces for wall paintings.
  • cleaning silver plate

It is estimated that there are in Reims alone 2,000 chalk quarries with an extraction volume rate over the centuries of 300,000 m3, most of which was used in the city's defensive rampart walls from the 13th. to the 14th. centuries.

Madame Jean Alexandrine Louise Pommery was a patron of the arts who commissioned the Nair brothers (1882-1884) to create inside her 18 kilometre crayeres complex the above 'children in vineyards' bas-relief sculpture along with three others. This tradition of art patronage lives on at Pommery as visitors are treated to a number of bizarre art installations within several of its 120 Gallo-Roman mines. Note the round, relatively small entrance at the top leading down to a beehive-shaped mine. Ruinart champagne maison boasts that they were the first champagne maison to utilise the Gallo-Roman mines for wine production in the late 18th. century. In 1820 Madame Ruinart was the first Champenois to connect 24 crayeres by digging 8 kilometres of galleries on 3 levels.

Over the centuries the crayeres had many other functions such as providing a safe haven for the citizens of Reims during the 1914 German offensive. Within the first five months of the Great War, 600 citizens had been killed, 4,000 homes obliterated and Reims Cathedral was a blackened shell (D. and P. Kladstrup 2005). Life went on; but, now it was within much darker yet safer, les crayeres. Imagine a city functioning underground! Shops, schools, laundries and yes, even the champagne maisons continued to harvest their grapes from the shot-up vines in 'No Man's Land' to produce champagne. After all, vintages must go on as each French 'poilu' or 'hairy-one' soldier along the Marne Front was to be given 2 bottles of champagne to lift his spirits! In World War II, the French resistance used them to hide allied airmen and soldiers.

During the 'Great War' people 'lived among the bottles' in Pommery's crayeres, some for as long as two years!

Reims was first mentioned in Caesar's Gallic Wars 6.44 as a substantial oppidum or hill fort of the Remi tribe situated north of the Matrona (Marne River). Like the Aedui tribe (Burgundy area), the Remi was an ally of Julius Caesar during his Gallic Wars. Caesar suffered some heavy losses in his northern campaigns and he was able to seek sanctuary there and to summon a Council of Gaul to the Remi oppidum. During Augustus' principate the Remi oppidum of 90 hectares, now called Durocortorum, was rewarded with 'civitas foederatus' status (only three other towns in Gaul were given this privilege!). By the end of the Augustan principate,  Durocortorum had experienced 'un veritable revolution'.(R.Neiss, 2005) evidenced by the development of an artisan quarter which produced 'terra rubra' tableware ceramics.

Reims cenotaph

The above memorial 'Princes de la Jeunesse' (Musee Abbaye Saint-Remi) was erected in honour of Augustus' adopted sons, Gauis and Lucius, who both died young in 4 A.D. and 2 A.D. respectively. Dorocortorum was the capital of Gallia Belgica and this centotaph is evidence of the town's importance in the early empire. Most of today's Gallo-Roman monuments in Reims are dated to the 2nd century A.D. The forum measuring 250 metres long by 100 metres wide is now part of the Place de Forum with only the cryptoporticus remaining at its northern end. 'La Porte de Mars' or triumphal gateway to Mars was one of four impressive entrances to the city. In fact, its 32 metres length makes it the largest known in the Roman world.

'La Porte de Mars'


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