Writer Juliette Lyons visits her grandparents’ Champagne vineyard in Cumières, a quiet farming village in northern France that is home to what are arguably the most revered and sought-after brands of Champagne in the world. But the beverage’s pervasive international image of luxury and grandeur is at odds with the humble, dedicated work ethic of Juliette’s grandfather. During a recent harvest, Juliette is reminded of her childhood that was spent among the vines and explores how the legends and economics of Champagne gave way to a billion-dollar international industry.
It’s springtime in Cumières, and the vegetation cycle has resumed after the crisp and numbing winter in northern France. It’s now the flowering season. The stakes are high. The months of work ahead will be the pledge of the harvest to come. The flower will promise the fruit, and the fruit will promise the harvest. A sweet and soft yet penetrating fragrance floats in the air. Soon, the vine leaves will engulf Champagne-Ardenne’s landscapes like wild liana. According to UNESCO, the area “combines the works of nature and humankind, expressing a long and intimate relationship between a people and their natural environment.” To me, it’s where my grandparents live.
Cumières is a quiet little village that is tucked away in a valley approximately three miles north of Épernay. The village is home to Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger and Mercier, some of the finest Champagnes in the world, but its existence is barely noticeable as the green vineyard landscape unfolds before me on the drive south from Reims. The area is steeped in history and lore. Local legend claims that King Henri IV preferred the wines from Cumières, and from the neighboring village of Aÿ.
Along the last stretch of road leading into Cumières, the vineyard plots are already filled with champenois — the name that locals from the region go by — restoring order to the overgrown vines. They diligently separate the offshoots from the grapevines (l’ébourgeonnage), spreading the plant across the wires to allow for ventilation. They trim, pluck and trellis (palissage).
It is a clear day and I am just in time for lunch at my grandparents’ house. It has been three months since I last saw them. I park the car in between a couple of barrels and some empty crates, and as I walk past the cellars up the stairs to the main house, I am confronted by a burst of smells so intense that I can already picture the vibrant colors of what must be roasting in the oven. The table is set and, of course, the Champagne is chilling in the fridge. I embrace my grandmother and then watch her prepare the first course as I discretely pick at the dish each time her back is turned.
I hear the familiar sounds of my grandfather’s van approaching the courtyard, his heavy steps and the front door opening as he rattles his cluster of keys. His clothes are ragged and his hands are brown with dirt. I sit down to eat and ask him how his morning in the vineyards went. He leans over to the fridge to take out a previously-opened bottle of Champagne. He pours me a glass.
At that moment, staring at the endless and hypnotizing stream of micro-bubbles that magically form at the bottom of the glass and gently float to the top, I am struck by the contrast of my humble, hard-working grandfather and the delicate glass of Champagne before me. I think back to the last time I drank Champagne. I was in a club in London, England, surrounded by men in white dress shirts and women in stilettos. It’s a centuries-old contradiction. I wonder how this modest scene before me has evolved into a world-wide cliché of extravagance.
* * *The prestige of Champagne is nothing new. Although wine was being made in France’s Champagne region prior to the Middle Ages, the reputation of the drink began to cross borders in the 12th century and its symbol of excellence has not ceased to grow since. But how has this fusion of geography and history provided Champagne wines with a destiny that is so out of the ordinary? Why is it that Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava have not enjoyed the same success as “bubbly” from the northern French countryside? The answer lies in the town of Reims, and traces back to the 19th century.
From 816 to 1825, the coronation of French kings took place in the Notre-Dame de Reims cathedral. The illustrious ceremony called for copious amounts of the region’s finest wine: Champagne — thus forming the inextricable link between Champagne and la haute bourgeoisie (France’s upper class). The French aristocracy took a liking to the delicate local beverage and began drinking it on other special occasions as well. Over time, the popularity and consumption of Champagne increased in tandem with one’s financial success. It soon became understood that drinking Champagne was a luxury reserved for the wealthy, or in the very least, a treat for the middle classes to enjoy as they began their climb up the social ladder. The 19th century saw an explosive growth in Champagne production, going from a regional production of 300,000 bottles a year in 1800 to 20 million bottles in 1850.
Eventually, farmers in northern France recognized the beverage’s social and economic value and began exporting large amounts of bubbly all over Europe. In fact, well-known growers even started producing proprietary Champagne blends, cuvées de prestige, which were considered to be the top of a producer’s range. Famous examples include Louis Roederer’s Cristal(strictly for the private consumption of the Russian tsar), Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, Duval-Leroy’sCuvée Femme and Pol Roger’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
The early success of the great Épernay and Cumières Champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon, Pol Roger and Mercier enabled the producers to allocate increasingly larger parts of their budget to international marketing and advertising in order to strengthen both international and domestic sales. The Comite Champagne (formerly known as the CIVC) estimates worldwide Champagne sales reached $4.9 billion in 2014, up from $4.7 billion in 2013 and the second highest annual total on record, behind 2007.
Still staring at the beautiful effervescence dancing in the glass, I am reminded of swallows in their hundreds, flying in formation, painting pictures in the sky. Fundamentally, so my grandfather tells me, it is this effervescence that marks the identity and the quality of a Champagne. This greatly observed and wonderfully mastered delicate and complex phenomenon is essential. Yet its existence is discrete and not often spoken about.
Effervescence is the result of a second fermentation that occurs in the bottle during the wine-making process. The champenois, my grandfather explains, have spent centuries perfecting the phenomenon to make it their own unique trademark. And it goes back much further than just thechampenois. The first recorded mention of effervescence is found in an Egyptian papyrus document dated 23 October 522 AD.
Dom Pierre Pérignon, a Benedictine monk considered to be the ‘spiritual father’ of Champagne, was originally instructed by his superiors at the Abbey of Hautvillers to get rid of the bubbles since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to burst in the cellar. He didn’t invent Champagne, as is widely believed — it was actually a British physician named Christopher Merret who discovered the méthode champenoise — but, Pérignon did make crucial contributions to production techniques during the late 17th century.
Unable to get rid of the bubbles, he found ways of preventing their catalyst impact on explosions by imposing the use of stronger, thicker glass bottles in his quest for a solution. Pérignon exercised his creativity. He broke rules, followed his intuition and applied his savoir-faire to perfect the méthode champenoise that is still in use today. All of this took place a couple of miles up the hill from my grandparents’ home and vineyard in quiet little Cumières. And according to most connoisseurs, of the 300 Champagne producers and 15,800 wine makers active in the entire region, the finest production still comes from Cumières.
Taking a sip of my grandfather’s Champagne, the finesse of the effervescence is like a wave of electric shocks that caress my tongue. It is delicate yet powerful. “How can one recognize a fine Champagne?” I ask him as we sip from the flutes. “Compare others to this one,” he jokes. It’s not only about recognizing the harmonious balance between the alcohol, acidity and oxygen, he explains, but that the quality also depends on the area where the grapes are grown. The character varies from one region to the next due to the differing angles of the slopes upon which the vines grow.
* * *Traditionally, after lunch, my grandfather would climb back into his van and drive to the vineyards for an afternoon of vine grooming. But now, he is feeling the sting of old age. He doesn’t need to be in his vineyards anymore. The family production has been passed on to his son, just as it was passed down to my grandfather by his father, and from the generations before him. But these vineyards are his life. He cannot detach himself from the trimming, the plucking and the trellising, nor from the harvesting, wine blending, bottle racking and labeling. It’s all he knows.
Despite his fatigue, he insists on a short walk through the vineyards up the hill to Hautvillers where, in 1668, Dom Pérignon began his lifelong commitment to Champagne. Under his stewardship, the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers flourished and doubled the size of its vineyard holdings. When Pérignon died in 1715, as a sign of honor and respect, he was buried in a section of the abbey cemetery traditionally reserved only for abbots. Today, the abbey is owned by Moët & Chandon, and back in 2012, in association with the Architectes des Bâtiments de France, they restored the abbey’s cloisters that had been damaged during the French Revolution, bringing the structure back to its original state.
On the way, as we walk past the last houses of Cumières, we are thrown into a breath-taking sea of green. The landscape before us contains some of the oldest vineyards in the region, spreading from Cumières to Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. In fact, along with the buildings of Champagne houses in Reims, the Avenue de Champagne in Épernay and the network of cellars that lie beneath the regions’ towns and villages, this small spread of vineyards very recently obtained status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The international recognition of these geographical characteristics combined with the rich regional culture that transformed the land, provides champenois with an enhanced and holistic identity. It’s not just the excellence of their production that would define the champenois’ distinctiveness abroad, but also, the terroir, the architecture and their toil, too.
My grandfather veers down a row of grapes. I choose a parallel one, two plots down. It’s a beautiful day. It’s amid these blue skies and chalky soils — the result of ancient lake deposits — that grapes gorge themselves on the occasional sunlight. Climate is a major factor in wine-making and nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of Champagne. The Champagne province is located near the northern limits of the wine world, along the 49th parallel. This high altitude combined with a mean annual temperature of 50°F, creates a difficult environment for wine grapes to fully ripen. But, ripening is aided by the presence of forests which helps to stabilize temperatures and maintain moisture in the soil. It is pricesly these cool temperatures that serve to produce high levels of acidity in the grapes, which is ideal for sparkling wine.
In fact, it is because of the region’s weather irregularities that the local producers don’t focus their production on red wine. Red grapes need an abundance of sunlight, something that the vineyards of Champagne are deprived of. The weather has been kind to the champenois this year, which calls for an early harvest (vendanges). In late August and early September, truck loads of harvesters will be coming and going from the vineyards. In the meantime, as spring turns to summer, the attention of the winemakers becomes a permanent daily requirement. The workload increases.
As we approach the mid-way point of our walk to Hautvillers, my grandfather points out a cluster of tiny green bulbs hanging from a vine. It’s hard to imagine that over the next couple of months, these little bulbs will blossom into flowers whose petals will guard the reproduction of the plant (la floraison and la fécondation). These flowers will fall, giving birth to the fruit (la nouaison) that will fill itself firstly with organic acid (la croissance) before turning to sweet juice. Over a span of just two short weeks, the grapes transform, moving their way through a spectrum of colors: chlorophyll green to pink to a purple-red before they turn black and are ready to be hand-picked, pressed and bottled.
“C’est une grape de Pinot Noir,” my grandfather explains to me, a bundle of red Pinot Noir grapes in the palm of his leathery hand. Pinot Noir is the most cultivated variety of grapes in Champagne (38%), along with Meunier (32%) and Chardonnay (30%). All must be hand-picked. Thechampenois follow the strict rules and criteria of the Champagne Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC), which governs all stages of production, in order to label their product with the prestigious and exclusive name of the region.
This required hand-picking process calls for many hands on deck. This is why harvest is my favorite time of the year in Cumières. It is a time of reunion. Friends and family get together in the name of the grapes. For two weeks of the year, men and women, young and old wake up every day with the sun. Wellington boots on, secateurs in hand and eyes barely open, we have piled into the back of the Land Rover for a short drive to the vineyards, on the way acknowledging with a honk the other harvesters who had woken up even earlier and were already hard at work.
As a child, I remember playing hide-and-go-seek with my cousins between the vine plots for hours while the adults worked nearby, filling their buckets (paniers) with bushels of the black grapes.
Harvesters would dot the Champagne region’s landscape, as they do today, rain or shine. The women of the family would be in the kitchen preparing enough lunch and dinner to feed four or five dozen people at once. When my cousins and I weren’t playing in the fields, throwing grapes and ducking between vine plots, we would be in the vendangeoir, a building dedicated to the harvest where workers are housed and fed and where tractors and equipment are stored throughout the rest of the year.
All the while, my uncle and fellow workers from the village would be at the pressoire, the pressing room, reducing the sweet red grapes to a pile of dark purple skins and harvesting the juice that drained into barrels via large pipes. At 5 p.m., over in the vineyards, my grandfather would call it a day.
Upon arrival back at the vendangeoir, the harvesters would flood in like eager children on the first day of school, rushing for the showers. Those who were too slow would play ping-pong in the courtyard or pass the time with a guitar and song. When my grandmother finished setting the dinner table, my grandfather would ring a bell with one hand and start pouring Champagne into his starving harvesters’ glasses with the other. It felt a lot like summer camp. There was companionship, gratification and the feeling of a job well done..
* * *Just shy of an hour later, we reach Hautvillers. My grandfather is worn out so we take a seat on a small rock at the top of the hill. I carry on with my questions but he cuts me short. “Arrête un peu avec tes questions et regarde le paysage devant toi,” he says, demanding that I stop asking questions and simply take in the landscape around us. I listen to the sound of birds echoing from the ancient forest just behind, I smell the delicate flowering fragrance that lingers at the tip of my nose and I stare into the waves of rolling green terroir.
What has always struck me about coming back to Cumières, and all the surrounding villages, is how normal and modest the home of such an internationally-prestigious drink can be. Of course, it has its charm, and a wonderful one at that; but there is nothing about Cumières that shouts money, extravagance or luxury like Champagne does abroad. When you think of those bubbles that spill out, uncontrollably, as the bottle is uncorked, you likely think of celebration, parties, lavishness and expensive taste. Yet, when I think of Champagne, I think of my grandfather heading into the vineyards at 7 a.m. as the frost reflects the first rays of sun at the crack of dawn. I think of him coming back in the evening, his black t-shirt and boots covered in mud.
I think of the hours I spent as a child, watching the bottles glide past on the conveyor belt of the labeling machine, my duty to double-check that each label had been stuck on perfectly; not one miniscule fraction of an inch off-center. I think of sitting, trapped between crates of grapes as big as my six-year-old self in the open-back Land Rover during the harvest season with my cousins; all moaning from stomach pains due to acute grape overdose. I think of the evenings spent with foreign harvesters who came from afar to cut grapes in September, singing songs, playing ping-pong, eating meals cooked by my grandmother, great-grandmother and great-aunts.
To the rest of the world, it’s a billion dollar industry. But to me, Champagne is a memory, a tingle, a lingering pang of nostalgia, a thought that leaves a smile, a passion that kept a family together.