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The Misconception of Champagne

Today, October 21st, 2016, is International Champagne Day. To commemorate this day, I wanted to take a look back to the time I participated in the Champagne harvest. This is something I wrote just following those eight magical, but grueling, days in the vineyards. It was originally published on October 9th, 2009, and I have left it unedited from when I first posted it. Enjoy.

Champagne is not the drink everyone thinks it is! Sure, it’s the wine from France with the little bubbles that sparkle on your tongue, and the celebratory wine to mark birthdays, weddings, and to ring in the New Year. But this notion of Champagne being elegant and refined is simply untrue. I didn’t always think this way though. In fact, just a week ago, I was like everyone else in my belief that Champagne was classy and sophisticated. Then, with a snap, my perception was turned upside down. What changed my mind? The answer: the vendange, or harvest.

Champagne makes up roughly 34,000 hectares, or about 84,000 acres, of land east of Paris. There are a massive number of vines covering the sloping chalk-limestone hills, which produce tons and tons of grapes, all of which need to be ever-so-gently clipped off by a real human being. It’s an enormous job, requiring thousands of people. As a student of the new Diplôme de Sommellerie course at Le Cordon Bleu, I, along with fourteen others, was sent to Champagne to get my hands dirty, clothes stained, and back broken in the contribution to the harvest.

On the first day of the vendange, my classmates and I were picked up from our hotel at 7:30am by a shady-looking, windowless white van. Skeptically, we climbed in the back doors and sat down on long wooden benches unattached to the floor. We felt like illegal immigrants being trucked through borders for work as we were driven to the Champagne house, Alain Bernard.

The ride was like a roller coaster, being tossed from side to side as the driver took quick turns, bounced over bumps in the road, and slammed on the breaks occasionally. He seemed to find enjoyment in throwing us around the van, letting out little chuckles here and there between puffs on his cigarette. It was way too early for this much action.

When the van finally came to a halt, the back doors flung open and we filed out from the van. Our driver led us into a small wooden building, which acted as a cafeteria. The other pickers were already inside.

There was bread, meat, and jam to eat either a small breakfast, or what most everyone did, make a sandwich for a snack later in the vineyard.

In groups, we were loaded back into the windowless van and shuttled to some area in the eight hectares of the Alain Bernard estate. This time, as we exited the van, we were in the middle of long rows of vines, which wrapped around tightly strung wires tied to aged wooden posts fixed into the ground. Each vine carried bunches upon bunches of beautiful dark bluish-black grapes. It was a gorgeous and picturesque landscape as the morning fog still hung calmly over the terrain.

With little training beyond, “Here are your scissors,” and, “Don’t cut the unripe green grapes,” we teamed up into pairs with one person on each side of the vine and began snipping the delicate clusters of pinot noirs at the top of the stem where the grapes clung tightly to the vine.

The task wasn’t as easy as we had imagined, and soon everyone was in agony from kneeling on the rocky soil or hunching over to clip the bunches that only grew around knee level. Nevertheless, we all cut, and cut, and cut, filling green plastic baskets with the grapes and any snails, ladybugs, or spiders who clung to them. Then, when a basket was piled beyond the brim, a cry of, “Pannier!” was called out. Upon this cry, someone would come and hand you an empty pannier while taking your full one away to be dumped into a larger plastic bin, and so on.

The first vines took about an hour to clear and already we had worked up an appetite. Fortunately, we were granted a ten-minute break to eat the sandwiches packed earlier at the house. Those who hadn’t packed anything were regretful, and sure to remember the following day.

As we savored our snacks and time to rest, I had a chance to gaze over the pruned vines. They looked sad and far less romantic than they had before when they bear bunches of fruit. There was little left besides twisted, gnarled vines and a few leaves. This was also the time go to the bathroom between the vines, aiding and “flavoring” next years crop. Our break concluded and it was back to work.

The group was herded to another area of sloping, vine-covered hills to continue our cutting and clipping. Along with yells of, ”Pannier!,” there wasn’t much noise beyond sounds of snipping and the Taiwanese students of the group speaking Mandarin back and forth in a heated manner. I assumed they were plotting an escape from this servitude.

It was only noon and we were exhausted. Our white window-less chariot returned to take us back to the Champagne house for lunch.

While we, and the men from Alain Bernard were harvesting, the wives of the Champagne house had been in the kitchen cooking.

The class commandeered one of the small picnic tables and soon the women began bringing out large bowls of vegetable salads, followed by mountains of buttery mashed potatoes and rare roasted beef. We pounced on the food like animals, nearly inhaling it and washing everything down with the estate’s Champagne served in small glasses. After the Champagne was depleted, rosé wine, and beer followed.

When we could eat and drink no more, bowls of salad, cheese, and lastly, a homemade apple tart were marched out. It was the meal we were craving, but also one that requires a long nap afterwards. Sadly, there wasn’t time for a nap, it was back to work.

Returning to the vineyard, we continued cutting pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay occasionally. The morning fog had burned off and the warm sun radiated down. Hour after hour passed and we moved from one area to the next, stripping the vines of their fruit. The repetitiveness of the task led to odd conversations and the learning of information about others probably better not to have known. I found enjoyment in selecting the perfect little snails to incorporate into my panniers, which I believed would add great flavor to the final Champagne.

It seemed endless, and sore muscles became even sorer. Those who kneeled earlier now tried to stand and hunch over to relieve some pain but instead just ended up with both with a sore back and knees. There was no comfortable way to perform this task. In the end, I could only crawl along the ground to move from one section of the vine to the next. Finally, they called it a day and we were shuttled again back to Alain Bernard.

To commemorate the end of the day, Champagne bottles were popped open and everyone celebrated with a glass together. When a glass went empty, it was refilled and the pain and soreness of the day melted away.

After returning to the hotel, the group showered and took a quick rest. Those who felt up for it went out to dinner at one of the many small restaurants not far from the hotel. After dinner, nobody had the energy for much else, and turned in early to wake up the next morning and continue the vendange.

The next six days followed the same formula, wake up, breakfast, picked up in the van, harvest, snack, harvest, lunch, harvest, Champagne, and attempt to stay awake long enough to eat dinner before crashing in bed. Everyday, one or more students wouldn’t show up in the morning from either pain, illness, or something else, until there were only four of us who remained.

We final four stuck out the harvest, and in the end became great friends with the others we worked with. As a further reward, we were given a tour of Alain Bernard’s caves, followed by a tasting of their Champagne, and a box of six bottles to take home.

Champagne is not the drink everyone thinks it is. Its not elegant, refined, classy, nor sophisticated, it’s labor. But it should be celebratory, because besides a beautiful, sparkling liquid, every bottle is filled with hard work, dedication, and a commitment to a craft, along with the occasional snail, spider, and ladybug. Cheers.

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