Second stop during my wine life in France is the sparkling center of the universe – Champagne! I moved up from the Rhône Valley at the end of July, in order to learn more about Champagne, both the beautiful region and the process that creates such magical wines.
Before leaving Cornas I had one important stop to make; Château Crussol, the 1,000+ year-old ruins I had looked at every day from my back patio. I’d written about it briefly in my blog post about the winery at its base, La Beylesse, but I hadn’t really explored the ruins. I packed a picnic lunch (including a 1/2 bottle of wine – this is a wine blog, after all), and spent a wonderful couple of hours climbing all around the hilltop. See the lower window in this picture to the right? I sat on a stone ledge just inside the window to eat my lunch and drink my wine, and took this memorable photo of my silhouette on the castle floor.
I’m not sure quite how I managed, in less than 3 months, to go from two large suitcases and a cat to two large suitcases, 15 boxes (okay, that includes 2 cases of wine and a Jeroboam of yummy Cornas syrah), an old wooden bookshelf, a planter of fresh herbs and a cat. With a little help, I loaded up the rental car and headed 6 hours north to my new lodgings in Avize, a small village near Epernay, my new workplace.
On the Avenue de Champagne in downtown Epernay, sometimes referred to as the Beverly Hills of Champagne, I spent several months leading visitors from around the globe in delicious explorations of champagne, and shared my new-found knowledge about the region and the wine’s history as fast as I could accumulate it!
Avize is a small, quiet place (did I mention that it’s small?), one of 319 villages in Champagne. There are many champagne producers in the tiny town, some of whom open their doors to the public, and even more winegrowers who sell their harvests to major champagne houses or to cooperatives such as Nicolas Feuillette.
My new employer, champagne house Michel Gonet, own 40 out of the 34,000 hectares (about 84k acres) of vineyards which make up the territory of Champagne. In order to create the delicious adult beverage called Champagne, there are many rules to which strict adherence is required. I won’t go into them all now, but I’ll cover a few more rules in future blog posts, so stay tuned!
In order to be labeled Champagne, the wine must, first and foremost, be made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. Three major varietals make up over 99% of the grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, or Pinot Meunier. Blanc de Blancs Champagne (TR: white from white – in other words, white wine from white grapes) is 100% Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs champagne (TR: white from black – white wine from dark-skinned grapes) can be made from either or both of the two dark-skinned Pinot grapes. Classic blends (cuvées) can be made from all 3, in equal or disproportionate measure, but then the wine will not be labeled Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs.
The characteristics of these different grapes? Chardonnay brings fragrance, minerality, and wonderful ageability; Pinot Noir adds structure and body; and Pinot Meunier provides soft fruit. Older vintage Blanc de Blancs champagnes can be absolutely spectacular, showing complexity and aromas of nuts, white or yellow flowers, citrus fruit and sometimes honey.
I was lucky to arrive in Champagne while the grapes were maturing through the month of August. Planted quite densely at 8,000 vines per hectare (1 hectare = approximately 2.5 acres), the grapes are trellised close to the ground, to allow the day’s heat, given out slowly by the chalky limestone soil at night, to assist in the maturation of the grapes. As Champagne is at the northernmost region of successful winegrape growing, Mother Nature is often stingy with sun and heat, so the winegrowers have developed several methods for ensuring the best possible harvest.
For example, you can see in the photos that the vines are kept closely cropped on top, so the plant’s energy stays close to the fruit, and the bottom level of trellised bunches can be quite low to the ground. Although some work can be done with machines, the harvesting must be done by hand - a truly laborious, back-breaking proposition. This may help you understand the costs involved in making true Champagne!
Some winegrowers use small, wheeled seat/carts, which help when Grandpa is picking. Yes, the whole family pitches in for the harvest, from youngest to oldest.
The vineyard machinery used in Champagne is insectoid, quite high off the ground in order to pass over the trellised vines, and with multiple arms for trimming, spraying, etc. When I first saw these creatures out of an “Alien” movie set, my mind boggled as did my eyes. Over time, they came to seem almost normal.
The Champagne harvest was fascinating for me. With over 15,000 winegrowers, it seems that nearly everyone in Champagne owns a vineyard, and to some degree, that’s true! Over 56% of the winegrowers own less than one hectare, however. This is in large part due to the division of family vineyard properties with each new generation. It used to be more cooperative, with multiple generations working the land and keeping the family vineyards together, but in recent times, many offspring prefer to break up the property and either work it themselves or sell it off.
Avize is on the Côte des Blancs where Chardonnay is king. Every day during the normally two weeks of harvest (this year stretched to nearly 3), I saw trucks with bins full of the mouthwatering fruit-of-the-vine on their way to the pressoirs (wine press) to have their delicious juice gently coaxed out of them. When the juice is allowed to run free, and contact with the skins is avoided, that’s how Blanc de Noirs champagnes are made.
Over 100,000 people work the Champagne harvest each year, many of them migrant workers from all over (Poland, Iraq, even the US and Australia!). There are also large groups of gypsies who arrive to work the harvest, often the same vineyards each year. Just like the American Old West, they “circle the wagons,” only now the “wagons” are made by Renault, Peugeot, and Mercedes Benz! Geez, maybe I’m in the wrong line of work!
The harvesters pick grapes every day until the work is done, then some head south to help with harvests in Bourgogne, Bordeaux, the Rhône, etc.
I’ve been able to explore a bit both within and outside Epernay, and found several small producers who make lovely champagnes, but I’ll save their stories for my future blog posts (the old Vaudeville trick – always leave ‘em wanting more!). I’ll also suggest champagne and food pairings which would make the French gasp. They can be so conservative! Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is the home of nouvelle cuisine!
Do you have a favorite champagne? Please share your most cherished champagne memory by leaving a comment.
Úntil next time, I hope the bubbles are tickling your nose!