The ancient underground shells flavouring France’s Champagne

In caves deep underground in France's Champagne region lie thousands of shells that are 45 million years old, a site researchers describe as "rare and exceptional" -- and which may have influenced the flavour of the local bubbly.

The ancient underground shells flavouring France's Champagne
Photo: AFP

“It's my paradise,” says Patrice Legrand, a champagne producer and owner of the “Cave aux Coquillages” or Shell Cave, in the Montagne de Reims regional park in northeastern France.

Legrand, 55, who is also an amateur paleontologist, acquired the vineyard in the early 1990s and set about excavating the caves, which are now open to the public.

Trapped in a thick layer of limestone, in around 250 metres (820 feet) of underground galeries, are thousands of shells that have been untouched since their sudden disappearance for reasons that are still unknown.


Apart from cephalopods and tiny seashells, some of them microscopic, which Legrand has painstakingly cleaned and catalogued, the star of the visit is undoubtedly the Campaniles giganteum — gastropods with spiral tube-shaped shells that are 40 to 60 centimeters (16 to 24 inches) long.

In the Lutetian age, or between 47.8 and 41.2 million years ago — and some 40 million years before the emergence of Homo Sapiens — “the Champagne region was covered by a warm sea and it enjoyed a tropical climate,” Legrand said in the winding galeries which are up to 28 metres (60 feet) underground.

“These are not fossils as such, as in reality they are not fossilised. The homogeneity of the calcified rock and the impermeable clay layer led to this conservation,” says Legrand, pointing to the shells, which are smooth inside and have a pearly sheen outside.

'Link to champagne'

Legrand has catalogued some 300 species. And his work has attracted the attention of French and Belgian researchers.

“This site has given us a look at the past,” says Didier Merle of the Museum of Natural History in Paris, who has visited the site several times.

“It's exceptional because you can find a large quantity of Campaniles giganteum. We have thus been able to better understand the evolution of the shellfish, the environment and the biodiversity of the era.”

He says there “are no longer many sites from this era due to urbanisation. 


This one is rare from the point of view of the geological heritage and we must preserve it.”

The caves, where ancient shells have replaced champagne bottles, attracted about 7,000 visitors last year.

In some places, the shells are stuck together in a tangled lump.

“You need patience when you find shells: you take them out in a block, it's the best way not to damage them,” says Legrand, who has been excavating tirelessly since 1997, with the help of some basic tools such as an electric jackhammer.

“The Digger” as his neighbours call him, spends his days in the cool subterranean galeries like “a real kid” dazzled by the profusion of shells.

The shells are “inexhaustible, even frightening. I will never have time to dig them all out, I will leave them for future generations.”

Besides guided visits, tourists can receive tastings aimed at showing the link between the marine sediments, the vines and the champagnes of that particular part of the region, including the owner's own Legrand Latour brand.

“Shells hold the marine iodine and only release it when it dissolves,” explains Legrand, who has developed a champagne with a low level of sugar that is specific to the region.

“And that goes very well with shellfish, like oysters,” he adds with a smile.

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French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over ‘sparkling wine’ label

Russian elites could soon find themselves without their favourite French bubbles if Moet Hennessy makes good on a threat to halt champagne supplies following a new law signed by President Vladimir Putin.

French Champagne makers threaten boycott of Russia over 'sparkling wine' label
Russian lawmakers adopted legislation saying the word "champagne" can only be applied to wine produced in Russia. Photo: Alexander NEMENOV / AFP.

Moet Hennessy’s Russia office warned local partners it was suspending supplies after Russian lawmakers adopted legislation stipulating that the word “champagne” can only be applied to wine produced in Russia, while the world-famous tipple from France’s Champagne region should be called “sparkling wine”.

Leonid Rafailov, general director of AST, a top liquor distributor which works with a number of brands including Moet Hennessy, said on Saturday his firm had received a letter from the French company notifying it of the suspension.

“I confirm that such a letter exists, and it is justified,” Rafailov told AFP.

He said that in accordance with the legislation – signed off on by Putin on Friday – the company would have to undergo new registration procedures, among other requirements.

Sebastien Vilmot, Moet Hennessy managing director in Russia, declined to speak to AFP.

But in a statement released through Rafailov, Vilmot called the suspension a “temporary” measure before a solution could be found.

Moet Hennessy is part of French luxury goods group LVMH and known for such brands as Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon.

The French are fiercely protective of the term “champagne”, and it can only be made in the French region of the same name.

A copy of Moet Hennessy’s letter was first published on social media on Friday by a representative of a Moscow-based liquor importer and distributor.

Drinks market expert Vadim Drobiz suggested the legislation was open to interpretation but added that Moet Hennessy’s share of the Russian market was relatively small and well-heeled clients could find a replacement.

“If there is no Moet, there won’t be a state coup and Russian elites will not commit suicide,” Drobiz quipped.

But wine consultant Anna Chernyshova questioned the purpose of the amendments. “My phone has been ringing off the hook,” she said. “Me and my clients are thinking what to do next.”

Chernyshova, who helps people build wine collections, said she was not sure why the Russian parliament had passed such a law. “How will they walk back on it?” she told AFP. “So many officials love this champagne.”

Social media was abuzz with jokes, with wits making fun of the latest piece of Russian legislation. “Now it’s necessary to ban Scots and Americans from using the word “whisky”, joked restaurateur Sergei Mironov.

Popular singer Vasya Oblomov said Russian lawmakers could now adopt similar legislation regulating the use of the name “Mercedes” and even place names.

“I thought it was a joke,” wrote Putin’s self-exiled critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “I was wrong.”