on the weekend we drove east and a little north to pick up the champagne for our wedding. florian, a good friend of gilles’, was raised in the region, and it’s through him that we know this particular champagne: the producer is a family friend.
on leaving paris it very quickly becomes rural and it is easy to drift into pastoral reverie. the fields and hills are very green, the cows are very white (“trois vaches dans le pré,” i dutifully practice), the villages are tiny and far away.
after the highway we drive an unmarked country road past stacked bales of hay, turning a corner and descending into a valley, a hamlet with perhaps 25 houses nestled at the heart-center of the hills of green.
the vitner and his wife invite us in and we all sit down together. they answer all our questions. this year’s harvest will be later and smaller because of the cold summer. we need to pray for rain in september, otherwise the grapes won’t flourish and the fruit will be tiny — all skin.
he brings out a bottle of champagne — uncorked and very young, but still exceptional. as he pours she tells me that the key to lots of bubbles is that the glasses have to be a little less than perfectly clean. that it’s actually the minuscule particles of dust and debris with which the champagne comes into contact that cause the oxygen to rush upward. never wash your champagne glasses in the dishwasher, she instructs me.
the vitner’s parents owned the vineyard, and it was divided into three parts between their three sons. of the brothers, he is the only one who still makes champagne. the others just grow the grapes and sell their harvest to the big houses (“grosses maisons,” somehow appropriate), which is a more secure way of life. less dependent on prayers for rain. the big houses don’t have their own vineyards — did you know that? they buy their grapes from the regional growers, and so their champagne is always a mix, never single-origin.
here at this vineyard they produce less than ten thousand bottles a year. their largest customer is a man who owns a restaurant near bordeaux; he buys 400 bottles each year. mostly, they tell us, it’s little grandmothers who come around for a demi-bouteille. if they advertised — had a sign in front of their house, for instance, as many of the local producers do — they would sell out their year’s production very easily. but this doesn’t seem to be the primary goal.
there are two ways to harvest: the traditional way, with a team paid by the day, everyone working alongside each other — harvesters and owners alike — for eight days straight (though not on sundays) and all breaking to eat all together: breakfast, lunch and dinner. or you can hire workers who are paid by the kilo. they are very fast, but they will harvest “anything that weighs.”
with the economy and the climate, the horizon doesn’t look promising. each year they set aside half the grapes for the next year, in case of a bad harvest. but two bad harvests in a row you can’t prepare for.
investors have already bought and seeded vineyards in cornwall, england, anticipating that in five years the best grapes for champagne will be grown even further north. there are always folks lobbying the european commission to declassify champagne — to make it a variety and not an appellation, which means it could be grown anywhere. which means it could be grown anywhere.
there is a french expression gilles uses when we’re cooking together, or when i’ve made something he finds especially good. he says, “we’re close to the truth,” or “baby, you’ve found the truth.” it’s a charming idiom that also belies centuries of french culture: we know something by its origin. and we know it is good by its origin, and we can rely on the truth of its goodness because we know its origin.
two hours and one bottle of champagne after we arrived, the man who harvested the grapes loads the magnums into the back of our car. he and his wife stand in their driveway and wave goodbye until we are gone from view.