It’s dirty work, but someone’s got to do it.
When you think of visiting the vineyards of France, it’s usually to taste the wonderful vintages from Bordeaux or Burgundy or even the Loire Valley. Often overlooked is the venerable region of Champagne, the home of the finest sparkling wines in the world.
After visiting friends in Paris last September, we hopped on a train for the easy trip to the city of Reims and soon arrived at our hotel, L’Assiette Champenoise. That evening, we enjoyed the beautiful weather on their outdoor patio while we waited for our table in the gastronomic restaurant. The bartender appeared, rolling a trolley topped with the largest ice bucket I’ve ever seen, brimming with a dozen different bottles of Champagne. Ready to indulge, we started our evening with a glass of the luscious Krug Grande Cuvée. Then for dinner, we enjoyed scrumptious dishes such as scallops with white truffle and langoustines with a hint of tandoori spices, each complemented beautifully by local sparkling wines – what an introduction to the region! By the time our meal was over, we were eager for the vineyard tours and tastings we had planned for the next two days.
We visited some of the most famous names in the area – Taittinger, Bollinger, and Veuve Clicquot – and the tour guides reviewed how each label achieves its optimum flavor. Most important is the mix of grapes they choose; Champagne is made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and/or Pinot Meunier. Another important component is the terroir at each property, referring to the limestone in the soil and the weather during the growing season, among other factors. Finally, they explain the famous méthode champenoise bottling technique, which creates the effervescence that tickles our palates so delicately. We contemplated all we had learned during a wonderful degustation, savouring a flight of different sparkling wines all produced from the vines we could see just outside the window of the tasting room.
Tasting all this delicious Champagne was terrific, but I wanted to go deeper – to learn more, to taste more, to get my hands dirty and feel this terroir we kept hearing about. As luck would have it, we were travelling during the harvest season, so we registered to help pick grapes at a local vineyard the very next day.
Soon after arriving at Chateau Launois in Mesnil-Sur-Oger, our harvest day started in a huge, no-frills building set up with a buffet breakfast. Along one wall was a table filled with large platters of charcuterie, big rounds of Brie cheese, and baskets of bread and fruit. And while there were large pots of coffee available, the servers were pouring copious amounts of – you guessed it – Champagne! There was quite a large crowd there, including French tourists on holiday, German co-workers on a work retreat, and even some locals. The supervisor for the day, Bruno, gave everyone a colorful baseball cap and since we were the only two English speakers, we were given red caps, aka Team Red.
After breakfast, Bruno explained how grapes are cut from the vines as they are very delicate at peak ripeness. Using a pruner, we were to remove the grape clusters and gently put them in the yellow bins placed every 5 meters along the ground. “And please, do not eat the grapes – they are for the Champagne,” Bruno reminded us.
My partner and I started to work on either side of a long row of Chardonnay grapes. I have to admit, once I started handling the grapes and saw that they were so ripe that they let off a little juice with each bunch, I did steal a few to taste them. So very sweet and literally bursting with flavour! Returning to work, we enjoyed views of the beautiful countryside crisscrossed with vines as far as the eye could see. We developed a certain rhythm and were really moving along, when Bruno came over to ask (in broken English), “How does the Americans?” I responded with my limited French, “L’équipe rouge – ça va bien!”
By noon, Bruno called everyone over; it was time for a break from work and we all needed to quench our thirst. The bubbly was flowing and corks were popping and pretty soon, people were getting quite tipsy. We all started chatting and it became a fun party, everyone sharing stories about their morning among the vines. I started wondering if we were going to return to harvesting with those very sharp pruners after multiple glasses of sparkling wine. Fortunately, it was time for lunch, so we went back to the dining hall for a lavish buffet, more drinks, and a party that continued into the afternoon. After this wonderful immersion into the world of Champagne, I’ll never look at a flute of bubbly the same way again. Santé!
Phil Tremo is the France Today Ambassador for Washington D.C.
By Phil Tremo
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