Repeat until the wheelbarrow is full. Repeat until the sorting containers are full. Repeat until the truck bed is full. Repeat until the vines are shorn.
If the process sounds cathartic, it is. Not for its repetitiveness, but for its isolation: a man, vines fat with grapes and some sharp tools. There’s something rather primal about it.
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And so we found ourselves, quite literally, on foreign soil, amongst a few friends and colleagues at the invitation of Veuve Clicquot to participate in their yearly harvest. But before we get to the act itself, a bit more about the history of the origins of champagne (lower case “c”) and the region of Champagne itself.
Blended by Design
A spirit for the hedonists
The reputation of Champagne as a wine of fanfare, a spirit for the hedonists, belies its complicated nature. In French wine production where geographic origins dominate — a ruling concept called terroir — Champagne moves against the grain, vine if you will, placing emphasis on the brand (the house and its own proprietary blend) rather than its “sense of place”. The intent: to achieve Champagne consistency through the art of blending. The best pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay are harvested from independent growers (as well as proprietary fields) around the cities of Reims and Épernay and combined with other vintages to achieve the intended consistency.
You can be certain this isn’t happening in Burgundy.
Though wine has been produced in Champagne since the early centuries, the wine in the form we know it today dates back to the 1600s. The vignerons of the time had not only learned how to stablize and store their wines for several years, but also mastered effervescence: the effect of gas escaping from a liquid and the ballyhooed foaming and fizzing effect (champagne sabres in tow).
Several centuries later, it became clear that champagne could only be crafted through specific grapes and techniques. And so laws were decreed on the processes and regions of Champagne, enacting rigorous rules on every touchpoint of the process: the growing of grapes, the methods of pruning, harvesting and fermentation.
With it the appellation of Champagne (AOC) was born, and today after centuries of honing a singular process, we mark celebrations, occasions or just a long hard day with wine that hails only from Champagne. Anything else? Oh yes — its bitterly plebian relative: sparkling wine.
History of Veuve Clicquot
More than iconic packaging
You may know Veuve Clicquot by its unmistakable saffron labeling, but for the uninitiated, here’s another GP 5-second history lesson. Founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, the business passed into his son, Francois Clicquot’s hands. Francois later married Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin who, at the age of 27, took the business to dizzying heights following her husband’s passing in 1805 — also becoming one of the richest women of her time at the young age of 30. Barbe-Nicole is also credited as having brought champagne to the mainstream through innovative techniques and making the spirit synonymous with style. It’s safe to say Veuve Clicquot has done a good job.
Harvesting the Pick of the Litter
Scores of grapes, ready for crushing
But back to our harvest.
In an era of mechanical agriculture, the Champagne region prides itself as the epicenter of an opposite reality — one where crowds flock to the region to pick grapes. By hand. Champagne’s expansive 84,000 acres teem with visitors and pickers both experienced (not us) and novice (us) to celebrate the harvest through participation — scores of grapes, ready for crushing, awaiting as their bounty.
The spirits were high during our visit, against the darker backdrop. This year’s season delivered a heavy dose of capricious weather that tore into yield by 40% (as of this writing). Still, little could damper the mood of the harvest. We found ourselves, with the slightest tinge of a shiver, downing espresso and carefully listening to our strict orders (in vigorous French) given by our head of affairs, and later that day, over the quintessential French sounds of a tenor sax accompanied by an accordion.
Soon we were issued picking shears, a basket and a row. Ours? Row “C”. Putting our cameras and Field Notes aside — serious harvesting calls for serious attention — we took to culling our thick vines, increasingly confident with each cut, repeating the steps that had been so vigorously laid out earlier: spot, cut, fill, repeat.
Soon, panniers (baskets) were filling, brouettes (wheelbarrows) were rolling, and a quiet silence fell on our group as we took in the bucolic spectacle of it all — pushed on only by the dull thuds of our crates being loaded onto the truck atop the vineyard. Breaking only for a quick snack — terrine and croissants; these are the French after all — and a topping off of espresso, we worked our way through the day, toiling in the row and never forgetting to sneak away a few tastes of the fleshy fruit. When in Reims, right?
Nothing mechanical, nothing wired, just us and the grapes. Further out were others, in staggered formation, working their own rows, acknowledging each other in bits of French, Pannier s’il vous plaît, Merci. Soon, as such primal things often go, it became a bit of an unintended race without firsts or lasts. We buckled down, shearing and wheelbarrowing in a sort of labor-induced trance.
Suddenly, the fields were empty around us. The trucks were piled high with grapes. The day was ending, and our harvest was over. We would later find out our group had picked the equivalent of 640 bottles worth of grapes.
So where does that truck brimming with Chardonnay go?
Simply: Grapes are fragile things and treated with minimal handling to avoid bruising. Our reaping would eventually be carefully driven to a vat for crushing to extract the juices. Collected into reservoirs, the liquid is sampled and tested by people with attuned palettes — the best selected to begin a highly controlled champagne process (something deserving of its own article) — and the complex art of nuanced blending begins. This is followed by fermentation in Clicquot’s caves beneath the town of Reims. Here, several hundred thousand bottles lie in vast tunnels awaiting consumption.
But for the time being, we relished the utter lack of complexity of Row C. As the sun fell toward the horizon, our simple goal stayed in sight: the end of the row, a few bites along the way, and a renewed appreciation for champagne — a spirit with a story far more complex than a popping cork.