Champagne. The word conjures up decadence, luxury, a love of life, tiny bubbles and… seashells? Seashells may not be on the top of your list when the word champagne pops up but they are an integral part of what makes champagne, champagne. Hidden beneath our feet lies the soul of champagne, the calcarous soil.
While it may seem that vignerons bang on and on about soil and the terroir, it is important and does have an effect on the wine, which is very apparent in the the Champagne region. The area is uniquely situated on top of an ancient seabed which gives it its famous limestone chalky soils, that basin of limestone marl, the Kimmerdigian Ridge (as a side note, the white cliffs of Dover are also a part of it and the ridge extends into English wine country).
45 million years ago, Champagne was under a tropical sea, teeming with life. Vertebrates like fish and sharks, existed along with invertebrates such as gastropods, nautilus, crabs, and ancient cuttlefish, as well as sea urchin and a multitude of coral. They all made their home in the Sea of Champagne (before it was bubbly). The shells (and in the shark’s case -teeth) of the creatures settled into the soft sand and today, they make up the limestone and chalk that is Champagne. In this particular site, there are over 200 metres of seashells excavated at a depth of about 8 to 10 metres below the surface and that is just literally scratching the surface. The most prevalent of the shells, they are found literally one on top of the other, is the giant snail, Campanile Giganteum, the specimens they find can be up to 60 cms long! Our tour guide and part time excavator, Sarah, speculated that they were in such abundance in this area because of a lack of natural predators and that they literally died of over-population. An interesting theory and one that they hope some enterprising geology researcher will come to prove or disprove.
It was a very illuminating afternoon at the Cave aux Coquillages (Cave of Seashells) in Fleury-la-Riviere in the Damery. The caves have been excavated by local winemaker, Patrice Legrand since 2004. Patrice originally started the cave digging as a hobby(he was there digging the day we visited) but it soon became an all consuming passion and he and his wife have now set up a working museum where you can take a tour, participate in digging and after all that hard work, relax with a glass of the family champagne before you retire to your room (they also have a small hotel attached to the site).
As part of the tour, you get a glass of the family champagne at the end. Well, it wouldn’t be Champagne if there wasn’t at least a small glass offered! I swear, they do drink champagne like water there. I don’t know if it was because we had just spent 2 hours looking at seashells but I could definitely taste the sea. Sarah opened up a vial of iodine for us to sniff while we were drinking the champagne and I could definitely pick out the iodine in the wine, along with chalk and a red currant finish. The Legrand-Letour non-vintage champagne is 90% pinot meunier with a dash of pinot noir and chardonnay. It was a delicious thirst quencher after all that tramping about in the caves. I would have liked to have stayed for more but we were running late for our next appointment.
It was another side of Champagne that the average wine tourist doesn’t really get a chance to see but it is worth a visit. If you’re a frequent visitor or even if you just go now and then, I’d highly recommend the Cave aux Coquillages, it was fascinating to see, excavate (they let us do a little bit of digging) and hold the remains of creatures that existed over 45 million years ago. Sadly, at the moment the tours are only in French but hopefully, Sarah says she’s going to crack on with her English so she can do tours for international visitors.
Cost of the tour is 8 euros and includes a glass of champagne at the end, 6 euros for kids, no champagne at the end. Tours run on Friday and Saturday. Consult their website for more info… Cave aux Coquillages
Know of any unusual tourist attractions in wine country? Leave your recommendations in the comments section…