How the Avenue de Champagne, and the bottles in its cellars, have endured the test of centuries, from Napoleon’s conquests to the world wars.
What would you suppose is the most prosperous street in the world? Park Avenue? Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills? The Champs-Élysées in Paris? You’re getting closer. A strong contender for the title is about 88 miles east of the French capital, in the historic town of Épernay—epicenter of the sparkling wine universe. Bounding its northern edge is the Avenue de Champagne, a mile-long thoroughfare lined with palatial mansions behind wrought iron gates.
The real value of this boulevard is hidden below ground, where over 200 million subterranean bottles of bubbly are stored in the dark, under constant climate control. The cellars of champagne: In addition to several billion dollars’ worth of product, these labyrinthine corridors hold their fare share of history.
It begins 70 million years ago. Long before there were grapes—or humans—in the region, an ocean covered what is now northeastern France. The water receded over eons, leaving behind a former seabed rich in limestone and sandstone. On its surface, this chalky soil is ideal for growing vines. Below, it’s ripe for excavation.
The first to dig under the earth in Épernay was Claude Moët, founder of the maison that now bears his name (Moët & Chandon). It wasn’t that he needed extra space; the traditional method of champagne production, the méthode champenoise, involves bottle fermentation, which thrives in a dark, cool environment. A modest cellar was established in 1720, when it was discovered that at a depth of at least 10 meters, temperature and humidity remained optimally consistent throughout the year. The project expanded in 1793 under Claude’s grandson, Jean-Remy.
“It was positioned front and center at the crossroad of France’s history,” explains Veronique Foureur, documentarian for Moët & Chandon.
Until the mid-19th century, Maison Moët was the sole champagne house along the Avenue de Champagne. It was a strategic placement: the street followed the main royal access road connecting Paris to Strasbourg and onward to the German border. “It was positioned front and center at the crossroad of France’s history,” explains Veronique Foureur, documentarian for Moët & Chandon.
It’s the road that carried Louis XVI in 1791 as he fled the capital during the French Revolution. It’s the same path that Napoleon traversed on his way to battling in Poland and Russia. “In 1807, Napoleon paid Jean-Rémy Moët a first visit, enjoying a tour of the cellars,” says Foureur. According to Foureur’s records, the emperor stopped in Épernay several more times during his eastward military campaigns. Today, the room where they first met still holds bottles of wine and a marble plaque commemorating the meeting.
Auspicious meetings above the surface were paving the way for prosperity below street level. It wasn’t just that Napoleon had developed a personal reverence for champagne. He helped spread it throughout his expanding empire, part of why the celebratory drink is poured to this day. It’s also why champagne makers of the time kept digging: They needed more space to age a product with skyrocketing appeal. Soon joined by half a dozen more maisons along the avenue, Moët expanded its underground footprint to cover three levels ranging from 10 to 30 meters below the earth, 17 miles of tunnels in total.
It was a pivotal decision, not just for the champagne, but also for the people of Épernay. “In 1814, as Napoleon waged war in the east, invading armies passed through the town in the emperor’s wake,” Foureur says. Jean-Rémy Moët sacrificed the stock of his cellars, using the space to cache military resources (food, water, munitions) and, at times, to protect his fellow villagers. As a result, he was awarded the Legion of Honor later that year—for his efforts in saving Épernay and for bringing “distinction to France with the excellence of his champagne,” as the merit decreed.
It wouldn’t be the last time champagne provided refuge. The town’s tunnels became increasingly useful as modern warfare evolved. “The underground cellars represented an invaluable shelter for the people of Épernay during both World Wars,” says Foureur, helping them escape bombings.
In September 1914, invading forces from Germany gained access to the cellars and took over 25,000 bottles worth of champagne in less than a week. During the Nazi occupation, Hitler, who had acquired a taste for the effervescent wine, instructed his soldiers to pilfer the cellars.
“The [bottle] withdrawals of the German force had become so remarkable,” says Foureur, “that Moët & Chandon was rumored to have walled off parts the cellars hiding some champagne bottles from being stolen.” It appears to have worked: A tour of the oldest parts of the tunnels today reveals an unbroken lineage of vintages dating back to the late 19th century.
As with any ancient, darkened space steeped in lore, tales of the supernatural persist. Is that distant pitter-patter merely moisture dripping from the arched-earth ceiling? Or is it the spirit of a fallen soldier from Napoleon’s Grande Armée? Ghost tales might seem apocryphal, but consider this: in July of 1918, near the end of World War I, an inexplicable fire swept through the dank layers beneath Moët & Chandon. Not a soul was there to start the conflagration and candles hadn’t been used in the tunnels for 30 years.
One thing we do know is that the eight maisons now along the Avenue de Champagne maintain a combined total of more than 60 miles of cellar snaking below. Wine worth some $2 billion ages there quietly. But that value extends beyond the bottles. Dig deep and the most expensive street in the world offers all sorts of historical riches.
No journey to Épernay is complete without a descent to marvel at the bottles as they age to perfection. Most of the major maisons now open their cellars to daily tours: Here’s a list of the tastiest.
The granddaddy of them all is this 90-minute ramble through the dimly-lit caverns beneath the Avenue de Champagne. You’ll walk past literally millions of bottles, stacked from floor to ceiling, as you observe decades-old vintages. You’ll even get to sample some of the goods after familiarizing yourself with the famed méthode champenoise.
Although not as physically expansive as some of its competitors, Domain Comtesse Lafond is full of history. And it’s based in a stunning, twin-spired chateau directly along the Avenue de Champagne. Book the Sabrage Experience to enjoy quality cellar time here. Learn of its history, hauntings and how to use a sword to open a bottle of bubbly. Sabering is a skill that everyone should possess.
Mercier is the only cellar providing an actual ride through its cellars. With an almost amusement park–feel, it’s Willy Wonka for wine geeks but no less immersive. In fact, you’ll see more of the 11 miles of aging tunnels than you ever could by foot. “[Visitors] appreciate the amazing contrast between our traditional heritage and the originality of touring the cellars in a little train,” says chef de cave Christophe Bonnefond.
This fifth-generation family of champagne makers dates back to 1834. Its cellar still hold bottles from that era. The tour expands upon the lengthy history of the region and how it earned its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Drink it all in with a tasting of two early 2000s vintages.