When you need to collect a consignment of Vintage Champagne from its Reims Domaine, the car of choice is a Panamera 4S Sport Turismo. Packed with bubbly, the latest Porsche load-lugger is fizzing with energy all the way along the autoroute.
Bucks fizz? Not likely. We’re after the total bubble bath. With a very special Yuletide ceremony on the horizon, our camera-toting chum borrows an estate car and pops over to the Pommery vineyard at Reims to pick up a dozen cases of Vintage Champagne. Along for the ride are his close friend, Ms Ingrid Williams, and me. Not so much grape as gooseberry.It’s not just any old shooting-brake, either – this is a Panamera 4S Sport Turismo, offering plenteous capacity for the fizz, plus our luggage and his camera gear. No coincidence our allotted vintner is Pommery, because they support the Porsche GB Carrera Cup series,of which,aptly,we catch a round at Brands Hatch on our return from France.
Late September we convene at Port Early Arrivals, AKA Folkestone services on the M20, where I park up my Boxster for the week. In the interests of swift onward motion (and the hour’s time difference), we elect to make the outward-bound channel crossing courtesy of Eurotunnel, opting for a more leisurely return aboard DFDS’s ferry from Calais. Breakfast consists of egg ’n’ bacon rolls and Latte from the gallant ladies running the chuck wagon where you queue for the tunnel, and munched aboard the train. The run to drop off Ms Williams for her appointment at Fontainebleau is straightforward enough, cruising 300km of the Autoroute A1, circling the eastern periphery of Paris and heading for Évry and Melun before arriving in the palatial town. I’ve brought along a digital device that expedites our passage through payage tolls: simply by waving it at the overhead cameras on approach it triggers the barrier to rise. The Sanef bill catches up a few months later.
We have a day or two to kill before our appointment with Pommery, so we explore vineyards further south in Burgundy. The terrain is coarser here, interspersed with rocky outcrops and escarpments, compared with the rolling hills of the Champagne region. It gives me a chance to evaluate the Panamera, and first impressions are of a large, stately and imposing limousine. Going slowly, it feels a bit ponderous, but the grander the road the lighter and more purposeful it gets.A squeeze of the throttle hints that it is quite nippy. Despite its big front-engined, four-door frame, the Panamera’s character is not like a Cayenne or a Macan. The 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 engine develops 440bhp and 550Nm, allied to an eight-speed PDK, and it does do the business, despite the size of the car, but it isn’t effortless in the way the old 4.8-litre V8 was. But the world moves on and emissions rules prevail, and Porsche is nothing if not pragmatic. Sure, there’s plenty of oomph, it’s just short of enthrallment; but hey, we’re talking practicality here, not to mention transcontinental comfort.
It’s a long-distance cruiser, a station-wagon, and obviously not a track day special.We see 26mpg, and discover it costs €150 per 90-litre tankful of 98-octane to brim, so that’s a range of just over 500 miles. Travelling at 80mph on the Autoroute we’re able to have a normal conversation (in the front) so inner tranquillity is clearly one of its attributes; there’s no wind noise from the wing mirrors and just a general acoustic hum from the tyres.It feels a bit tight in the front, though there is plenty of room for this six-footer in the back; only difficulty is I can’t hear what they’re saying (about me) in the front. By compensation, we balance up the speakers so I can at least hear the music properly. There’s also more glass area in the Sport Turismo, which makes it feel less claustrophobic than the saloon version.
The controls are augmented by the speed dial on the wheel for Sport and Sport Plus, and the shift knob engages reverse, neutral and drive with ‘P’ for parking as an ancillary button on the lower end of the stubby lever. I can push it across for manual mode to employ the flappy paddles. As is now customary, the parking brake is a little switch under the dashboard, and, as my companion never tires of demonstrating, the heated seats are remarkably efficient. I respond by surreptitiously applying Sport mode.
We pick up Ingrid in Fontaine bleau and drive the two hours to Reims. Located in the downtown restaurant and clubbing quarter, our hotel is decorated like a jaded bordello – it’s what you get for booking rooms on the move with your iPhone. Nevertheless, it does mean we get a decent dinner nearby. At cameraboy’s behest, we are on the move at 6.00am next morning so he can catch the spectacular sunrise at Reims racetrack, even though that means pointing our Panamera the wrong way alongside the pits –contrary to the racing direction. Snaps taken, we motor over to the other side of the city and drive imperiously through iron gates up to Domaine Pommery’s grand entrance.
This Champagne house was founded in 1836, and Monsieur Pommery took over in 1856. After his death in 1870 his daughter Louise ran the business, increasing production from 45,000 bottles a year to 2 million. In 2002 Pommery became part of the Vranken Group, the world’s second most prolific champagne producers.
The Domaine is quite extensive, including the residence and the production winery where the Champagne is made. The adjoining vineyard is named after Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, while the architecture was inspired by Inveraray Castle in Argyll and Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders, both by Robert Adam. The entrance to the spacious reception area is pure Gothic Revival, its chequered masonry reminiscent of Siena cathedral. There’s a great deal of modern art on show too, including the perplexing spiked aluminium sculpture in the forecourt. As well as the remarkable ceremonial barrel from the 1924 New York World Fair, there’s the WSC LMP2 “bitsa” that raced at Le Mans in 2013. But most of the art is down in the cellars, suitably illuminated.
We’re greeted by PR lady Bénédicte, who introduces us to our personal guide, Louise. We pass through a portal the size of a church door into a dimly lit stairwell. Lights play disconcertingly up and down. Deeper than any underground station, the stone stairs lead down to the maze of cellar tunnels and galleries 100ft below. The astute Madame Pommery bought an ancient chalk mine and planted up the vineyards at ground level. The atmosphere down here is suitably weird. The acoustic soundtrack is a slowed-down Ave Maria and the neon lighting follows the natural cracks of the chalk walls. Lots of modern art installations augment the 19th century ones.Appropriately, a large-scale bas-relief sculpture dated 1884 depicts Silenus, the adopted father of wine god Bacchus, on the lash,quaffing with satyrs and dancing girls.
These chalk pits were dug by the Romans, mining for building material in the days of Julius Caesar. ‘So, they were originally quarries,’ says Louise, ‘and the site was abandoned till Madame Pommery bought it. She employed Belgian coal miners and they dug 18 kilometres of tunnels linking 118 chalk pits, and that’s how the chalk caves finally became champagne cellars. It’s 30 metres deep, and that means we have a constant 10-degrees Celsius and 80-percent humidity, which is ideal for the ageing of champagne.’ During WW1 Reims was close to the front line and much shelled, so the cellars and tunnels were transformed into an underground city where inhabitants were relatively safe.
Champagne was very different in the 18th century. ‘They drank from V-shaped glasses,’ Louise tells us, ‘because they didn’t know how to get rid of the dead yeasts, so diners would need to decant the champagne before their meal and let it sit for two hours, so by the time it was drunk it had become warm, with no bubbles, so it was always a dessert wine. Even in Madame Pommery’s day it was really sweet, sweeter than Coca-Cola, which the English didn’t like at all. Great Britain was the most powerful country in the world at that time, so, to attract the British market,Madame Pommery set out to create a champagne that would correspond to their tastes. In 1874 she made the first ever Brut Nature, which only contained the natural sugars of the grapes, so that was one of the major innovations in the history of champagne. Nowadays the Bruts represent over 80-percent of the production of the whole region, so it’s thanks to the good taste of the British that we have champagne.’
Only one person has the key to the locked caves, and that’s the Cellar Master.‘He is the most important person in the champagne house,’ says Louise. ‘The Cellar Master has a perfect sense of taste and smell, and he and his team of five people are responsible for the quality of the product, so we need their approval for the lighting and environment, which has to remain constant, and they are responsible for the blends, because the grapes vary from one year to another,due to the weather.Our grapes are mostly Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, so they all have their unique personality, and blending is the art of marrying them to create our champagnes.’
The Champagne region’s climate and chalky earth are unique, so that the same grape variety grown in another region with a similar climate but different earth would produce another style of wine. ‘Even the distance between the rows of vines is controlled, even the quantity that we can harvest, and we need to harvest the grape by hand as well.’ As well as the 25-hectare Madame de Pompadour vineyard, the grapes are also picked from other vineyards. ‘We have vineyards everywhere in the Champagne region,but we’re also purchasing grapes from other producers. Grand Cru is the top quality, and there are only 17 vineyards in the whole region able to achieve this standard.’
Here comes the biology. Champagne making is a long, regulated process,and there are many rules, starting with how the grapes are grown. The first step is the harvest – the vendange – when the grapes are picked by hand, usually in September, 90 days after the first blossoms. The grapes are pressed to extract the juices, which are delivered to the winery for the first fermentation, which is the yeast transforming the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide to create alcohol. The first fermentation takes place in an open vat, so that the gas escapes and it’s a still wine at that stage, and then they’re blended to create the personality of champagne that the cellar master is looking for. Sparkling wine needs a second fermentation in a closed environment, and for champagne that takes place in the bottle. So, the bottles are filled with the still wine and a little yeast and liqueur, and then stoppered. The gas is trapped inside, and that’s how the champagne becomes sparkling. The contact between the wine and the deposits creates a chemical reaction that forms the aromas and taste of the champagne. That’s why it’s important to lay the bottles horizontally for several years.
The sedimentary deposits are removed using riddling racks – the remuage. The bottles are horizontal when they’re placed in the rack, and every day each bottle is rotated one-fourth of a turn to the right and one-sixth to the left. This ratio is perfect to allow the champagne decant itself, and every time it’s turned the bottle is also tilted so the sediment gradually accumulates in the neck. Then the neck is immersed in a freezing liquid to freeze the sediments. The bottle is then turned upright, and because it’s frozen the deposit remains at the top of the bottle. There’s 6-bar of pressure in the gap between the champagne and the sediment, and then the bottle is opened and the sediment pops out, while the champagne liquid remains in the bottle.This is called the disgorgement, and to retain the pressure they very quickly add a liqueur - liqueur de dosage - which is the sugar content that’s always stated on the label. ‘It was a matter of trial and error, invented in the middle of the 19th century,’ explains Louise,‘and nowadays we use machines: we place 500 bottles in a metal cage, and the machine rotates them constantly for three or four days, as opposed to four weeks when it was done by hand. The largest bottles are still turned by hand because they don’t fit in the cage.
Vintage Champagne is made solely from the grapes from the same harvest, so it has to be a great year, and the year named on the bottle is the year of the harvest, not the production year. Some years the harvest isn’t good enough to make a vintage. Non-vintage Champagne is a blend of different harvests, and the purpose of a non-vintage is to provide the same overall characteristic taste and aroma, so it doesn’t matter if you buy a bottle produced this year, or two or three years ago, it will still have the same aroma and taste. The difference between vintage and non-vintage Pommery is 30 months for a non-vintage and minimum 12 years for a Vintage.
Annual production numbers some 20 million bottles.The regular 0.75-litre bottle is called a Champenois; a 1.5-litre is a Magnum, 3-litres is a Jeroboam - the one they spray each other with on the podium after an F1 race; 6-litres is a Methuselah and 9-litres is a Salmanazar. The cork is shaped the way it isso it doesn’t pop out because of the 6-bars of pressure within the bottle, with a cork knob on the top for you to rotate. After the final corking the wire cage - the muselet – is fitted. When poured, the smaller and more intense the bubbles, the better the champagne quality.
Our lecture tour finished, we’re refreshed with glasses of Pommery’s Brut Royal at the expansive ground floor bar. No question, this is a delicious drink and I need no persuasion to buy a case of samples. Fraser and his companion are equally sold - mission accomplished - and we load up the waiting Panamera. A quick look around nearby Champagne city Épernay reveals one well-known champagne house after another. The surrounding vineyards are labelled according to brand, and all the famous ones are here. Serried ranks of green troopers, the vines stand sentinel across every hillside, like giant green toast racks; roses planted along the periphery foretell the presence of bugs.
We programme the satnav for Calais and hit the Autoroute once more. DFDS’s priority boarding means no queuing on quay at Calais, and we quickly settle into the top deck Premium Lounge for a serene crossing back to Blighty. ‘Glass of Champagne?’ asks the steward. ‘Don’t mind if I do!’ We sip the champers, the Panamera guzzles the miles.