Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A River Of Champagne

As we were driving up north to the Champagne region from Provence, we wondered where the vineyards were. The fields of wheat and rapeseed (canola in the US, colza in France) stretched to the horizon on either side of the autoroute but no vines, not even when it seemed we were in the right region. And then we came over the last set of hills down into the Marne valley, and there they were, straight lines crosshatching the slopes in all directions up to the clumps of trees on the tops of the hills, if they'd left trees standing. Small towns dotted here and there, and white trucks out in the midst of the vines, people clipping and pruning and tying up vines, replacing posts and wires. At that point it was nothing but vineyards. Oh, and spraying. Everyone sprays the vines with sulfur, and sometimes when we'd get out of the car by the fields it was like opening the door into Yellowstone National Park. The many-armed high-tired sprayer trucks were driving down the roads or parked for the afternoon, waiting for the next day's chemical assault.

Each house has its own set of fields, as does each independent grower. Some of the smaller growers sell most or all of their harvest to the big houses, some sell a portion and keep the good stuff to make their own, and some use all of their grapes for their own bottlings. We learned a lot about champagne that week, including the fact that we must not use the word "champagne" to refer to anything other than the vintage from that region, so when talking about the stuff we were drinking in Provence, we needed to use the words "sparkling" or "bubbly" wine. But not "champagne." We met a lot of people who are very passionate about their work - the most interesting kind of people - and everyone was quite nice. Even the man we offended after dumping out his high-tannin rosé champagne was placated eventually by our approval of the blanc de blancs, and after explaining that it was an allergy issue. We'd asked him (since we'd been wondering about this) what people did with all the half-empty bottles from tastings such as we were given, and he said that they don't dump it out, since it's too hard to make and too good to toss. Hence his pique when we rejected mostly-full glasses after one sip. Enough tourists and tasters come through, he said, that it rarely has time to go flat, and if worst comes to worst, he takes it home to drink. Ah, to have such problems in my life ...

And it really was mostly-full glasses we were poured, and all, except once, for free. Tasting two or three different champagnes at each location meant that we'd each had probably nearly a full half bottle by the time the afternoon was over. Or more. And then we'd open another bottle for dinner. It was glorious. I don't know if the production and consumption of champagne in this area leads to the effervescent spirits of the people we met, but if that's what causes it, I obviously need to be drinking more champagne.

We got several tours of cellars, one a modern high-tech cellar with concrete walls and mechanized bottle-turners and a huge expensive wine press that they only use for a week or two each season. In the original hand-dug area of this cellar we saw mushroomy mold growing on the walls over the bottles, rich-smelling and soft to the touch. Another cellar was under a 16th-century building that had probably been in the same family all that time, home to an independent winemaking couple with a blacksmith's forge in one of the outbuildings. The wife raises cactus and orchids and forges kitchen knives in her spare time, along with the tools they use in the vineyard.

I'm realizing here that I was so busy listening and translating that I didn't use my handy notebook, in which I generally write down all the important photojournalism things like names and dates and addresses and details of what people are talking about, to write down any of that. So I am not entirely sure of where we went or when, but I do have some names if you're interested. My recommendation, however, is to just get over here and start driving (or boating) around and looking for open places, and tasting, tasting, tasting.

Because it's all good. And it's all relatively inexpensive. And every day should have champagne in it.


  1. Hi there,
    I just read your little piece on champagne... I'm a Dane living in Champagne for 10 years now and still happily drinking champagne as well ;-D
    I'd like to share it on my own blog bobler.blogspot.

    Cheers Solveig

    1. Solveig -

      Jeg er glad for at dele dette stykke skrive, hvis du gerne vil linke til det!

      (or at least I think that's what I meant to say ...)

      Please share the post, and I envy you your residence in the area - happy bubbly drinking!