A Trip Through Champagne's Oldest Cellars
“This place is full of secrets,” says Maison Ruinart’s hospitality manager, Olivier Livoir, as we sipped rosé Champagne in a 125-foot-deep chalk quarry. Under the French city of Reims alone, thousands of these chalk quarries, or crayères, form a mazelike collection of tunnels that started as chalk mines in Gallo-Roman times (with excavated chalk forming the city’s rampart walls) before serving as everything from wheat silos to smuggling routes. Nearly five miles of hand-dug chalk tunnels silently snake their way under Maison Ruinart, opening up to over 20 caves—the deepest in the region and only crayères to be classified a national monument—where the world’s oldest established Champagne house ages its collection of cuvées.
Glancing up at the cathedral-like ceilings, which spiral nearly 100 feet above your head, signs of the crayères’ colorful past are as subtle as the strokes of the picks that originally carved them. In the 18th century, Claude Ruinart, the founder’s son, is said to have rappelled down with a double rope to explore the crayères, later transforming the quarries into the region’s first Champagne cellars since the naturally cool climate helps these bubbles mature beautifully in their bottles. When the maison was destroyed during the First World War, sixth-generation owner André Ruinart moved his office underground and transformed the chalk cellars into the city’s bomb shelter. A few decades later, Nazis ransacked Ruinart’s crayères, making off with their entire stock of pre-war vintage. These are the kinds of stories that slowly seep out over the course of a Champagne-fueled evening at Ruinart. “We can’t give away all of our secrets at once,” says Frédéric Panaïotis, Ruinart’s chef de caves, or cellar master, with a smile.
The team perpetuates the mystery of the crayères, leaving a few of its secrets—and its caves—to still be discovered. During a 10-day residency at Ruinart last August, Beijing-based artist Liu Bolin stumbled upon one of these “secret” cellars. It’s easy to glance over the centuries-old graffiti roughly carving out names and dates like “1898,” but for Bolin, these were the details that first caught his attention and prompted a photoshoot in the depths of the crayéres. “Having started out as a sculptor, the date (1898) and the word (Classe), which are etched on the wall, struck me immediately,” the artist explained in a statement about his collaboration with Maison Ruinart, which resulted in a collection of eight images that will be displayed at art fairs around the world, including Frieze in New York.
After examining the markings, Bolin picked up a piece of chalk from the floor and used it to paint his left hand—the one he creates with. He then held up a bottle of the house’s Champagne, shining a light through the hay-colored liquid to create a sort of spotlight on the graffiti. “Because I’m an artist, I’m very sensitive to color and figure; I’ve never seen a bottle like that before,” Bolin explained while replicating the scene down in the Blanc de Blancs crayère, where he shot another image with riddler Pablo Lopez, who impressed the artist with his ability to “read the wine” and precisely rotate up to 30,000 bottles per day. “It was important that the workers had a role, had a place in his artwork since this place has such a deep connection to those behind the scenes,” Bolin explained through an interpreter. “He wanted to put a spotlight on these people.”
Known as “The Invisible Man,” Bolin works with the concept of camouflage to blend himself—as well as others like Lopez and Panaïotis—into the backdrop. At Ruinart, his disappearing trick was a way of showcasing the invisible footprint left by the human labor that goes into the making of Champagne, from grape to bottle. “It was a real puzzle,” Lopez says when describing the two-day photo shoot in which he was painted to blend into gyropalettes of Blanc de Blancs. “At the start, we didn’t know what was happening, but at the end of the day we could see how all of the pieces came together and understand what the artist was trying to express.”
Bolin arrived a week before harvest as the Grand Cru Sillery Vineyard was exploding in vibrant shades of green, with hints of yellow peeking through from younger leaves, which the artist mimicked in army motif style on himself and cellar master Panaïotis. Bolin started his series of photographs shooting in the vines, strolling through the vineyard with Panaïotis, who pointed out small imperfections in the leaves from insect attacks and lack of magnesium. “It was really interesting to show him my expertise and then to have his expertise,” Panaïotis says. “I was just an actor, my input was fairly small, but what amazed me was Bolin’s eye. I think I have a good nose and a good palate, but he has an amazing eye. He could see right away where to do it, how to do it.”
Over the course of the 10-day residency, Bolin disappeared into everything from the science fiction-inspired disgorgement production line alongside three of its workers to Ruinart’s original “advertisement,” an Art Nouveau poster painted by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha back in 1896. “I’m very interested in Mucha’s work, but it was a different period,” Bolin says. “At that time, it was considered a very artistic poster, but I wanted to express my vision of Champagne through Mucha with a different medium that’s more contemporary.”
While shooting in the dining room on a Saturday, he decided to run across the courtyard to Ruinart’s art collection to check that the white he painted on his clothing perfectly matched the white of the original poster. A tour group watched as the artist dashed into the room and put his sleeve against the poster—considered the world’s first Champagne advertisement—giving guests a quick glimpse into the work of The Invisible Man before he once again blended into the backdrop amongst the winery’s bottles.