The identity of the Taittinger Family flows from the creation, the selling and the very art of champagne. Their essence is so tied to the unique sparkling French creation that they remain the only family to build a champagne empire and sell it – only to buy it back again, unable to bear living without it.
Tucked into downtown Reims amidst the center of the Champagne region, Taittinger traces its history back to the 1700s. Established alongside the 13th century Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Nicaise, what would become the Taittinger facility survived the destruction of the monks’ church and its grounds during the French Revolution in 1789. The Taittinger family – formerly wine merchants from the northeastern France region of Lorraine – moved to Paris in 1870 and took its first steps into a champagne business that would bring them to Reims after the turn of the century.
In 1932, company founder Pierre Taittinger bought the Château de la Marquetterie, a country estate about thirty minutes outside of Reims. Formerly used as a command center and hospital during World War I, it would become the home of the winery and its family. While Taittinger monitors and sells its champagne from its downtown Reims HQ, the grapes that forge its flavors originate from the 290 hectares of vineyards surrounds the Château. Legend has it those Chardonnay grapes ventured to France from the Holy Lands, carried by a knight of the Crusades.
Still, a journey through the world of Taittinger begins at the winery. While only a few remnants of wall remain from the long-lost abbey, Taittinger makes important use out of the monks’ one remaining extraordinary achievement.
Centuries before the Benedictines took up residence in the area, the Roman settlers discovered naturally occurring subterranean chalk caves beneath the town. The ever-industrious Roman conquerers began carving out deeper formations, and the monks would push that work further until they completed some 4,000 meters of open caves perfect for dry, temperature-controlled storage space.
Some seven centuries later, locals would use those same chalk caves as bomb shelters while warring armies dropped bombs on the French town. Today, Taittinger employs the caves as its cellars – storing various varieties and vintages of its champagne for at least eight to 10 years before moving its finest bottles to market.
A tour through the chalk caves is more than a course in the finer points of making and aging champagne. It’s a journey through time. The names of lovers who met in the bomb shelters sit carved in the soft walls alongside runes left by the monks. And, lined up in every alcove and arranged by year and type, more than 10 million dusty bottles of wine fill every available space.
After a tasting of Taittinger’s varieties ranging from the darker, heavier Brüt Prestige Rosé to the lighter, sweeter Comtes Blanc de Blanc, champagne explorers take in the beautiful country roads en route to the beating heart of Taittinger: the Château de la Marquetterie and its vineyards.
From founder Pierre to the former president Claude Taittinger, the family looked on the Château as its spiritual home. Still maintained as a private residence, the family members live elsewhere and gather at the estate for events. They invite special guests to the Château’s dining room for multi-course meals of French cuisine paired to Taittinger’s vintages.
For a brief period, the family nearly stepped away from the wine that forged its identity. Claude and his family sold the winery and its holdings to a private investment group in 2005. The move sent shockwaves through the wine industry and, if you have the good fortunate of dining at the Château, you’ll hear tales of the empty space the sale left in the soul of the Taittinger family.
So, just a year later, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger teamed with the Northeast Regional Bank of the Crédit Agricole to acquire the business back into family hands for €660 million.
Over the last 11 years, Taittinger went back about the business of growing its Chardonnay grapes and producing champagne. A walk amongst the thousands of grapevines reveals a red rose on the end of every long row. Of course, the use of flowers alongside grape vines is a common practice from France to Italy to California. Called the “Guardians of the Vineyard,” the roses’ health mirrors the viability of the fruit. If the roses are healthy, the grape harvest should be a success.
The same legends that brought the grapes from the Templar’s Crusades to France say the scarlet flower variety tagged along for the ride. The special rose marks Taittinger’s vines from other vineyards also growing fruit on adjacent land.
There’s no way of telling if such legends are true. But, there’s no arguing that the otherworldly beauty of the Taittinger chalk caves and its Château vineyards created a world that the founding family could not sacrifice for any amount of money.