Beyond the bubbles
The cruel cycle of the seasons in France’s wild Champagne region
A DRAMATIC midwinter night descends on an ancient northern village. Icy gusts race off the Montagne de Reims, howl through the narrow cobblestone streets of Rilly-la-Montagne and disappear into vines clinging to the slopes below. The clock strikes midnight and the temperature plummets to -9C.
A blizzard whips up, spiralling around corners, battering pointed rooftops and blasting a whitewash of snow at vines outfacing the elements. Then, as quickly as it came, everything falls into tranquil silence. The last, lingering snowflakes dance in slow motion before completing a perfect white veil over one of Champagne’s oldest wine villages.
There’s an eerie calm to the stillness of this place. The streets are deserted. Safely tucked away behind thick stone walls, tired bodies thaw in warm beds. At dawn, frozen feet will crunch along countless rows of vines, heaving giant, rusted wheelbarrows ablaze with this year’s prunings, bringing what warmth they can to numb fingers, shaping vines for a harvest that will not come to life for eight months.
Vines stand in lifeless silence in the frigid darkness, sullen under star and sky, speechless in the deathly cold. A rabbit darts up a row, hopeful for green shoots. It will find no life in this frozen landscape for at least two months. The cold kills oidium, lurking in the soil to pounce at the first opportunity in spring, with the menacing power to destroy a harvest. And so the cycle of the seasons has gone for centuries.
There is a timelessness to this place. Vines have thrived around Rilly-la-Montagne, on the foothills of one of the highest points of the Montagne de Reims, for 1500 years, and probably much longer. As the snow settles tonight, the twinkling lights of the ancient city of Reims come into view, winking across the plains below. This is a sacred city, the spiritual capital of France, the birthplace of the monarchy, where its kings were crowned for eight centuries, now the world’s spiritual home of sparkling wine.
Deep below, cavernous chambers hewn into solid chalk by Roman hands in the third century are home to a billion bottles, tiny glass tombs buried in the silence of the earth, in blissful ignorance of the snowstorm above.
The lazy sun will show its pale face for the first time in two weeks tomorrow, lurking limpid above the Montagne, reserving its energy for another day when it will reluctantly bring a new vintage to life in one of the coldest wine regions on the planet. The vivid colours of warmer days have long faded to bleak browns and stark greys. Vast plains and gentle slopes are transformed by brilliant snow white, etched with the dark lines of meticulously pruned vines.
This winter wonderland evokes joyful childhood memories of white Christmases, of magical storybook scenes of quaint villages clinging to the edges of an ancient Montagne, pinpointed by fairytale steeples reaching out of rooftops perfectly iced by a blizzard’s fury. Bathed in soft, golden, angelic light, it’s easy to imagine everything is perfect in this blissful panorama. The truth for Champagne is a very different story.
Rilly-la-Montagne stands as a sentinel to the sweep of history, never lifting its gaze from the remarkable drama that has played out on the fields below over four millennia. Champagne has always been a flashpoint of tension. Attila the Hun was defeated here in the Catalonic Field Battle in the fifth century, it was here that the Knights Templar was founded in the 12th century, crusades planned in the 13th, Napoleon fought the Russians in the 19th, and bitter conflict ensued in World War I and World War II. The fight today is a different one, as vignerons battle earth and sky in the ultimate quest to nurture grapes to ripeness.
‘‘It is very difficult to grow wines in this terroir — we have so many wars!’’ exclaims Veuve Clicquot chef de cave Dominique Demarville. A struggle with the elements is a day-to-day battle in this land. Of all the fabled winegrowing slopes on the planet, none is more formidable than these for ripening grapes. The average annual temperature here is an icy 10C. In February 1985, it plummeted to -22C, killing vines. Louis Roederer chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon refers to a tension between continental and oceanic weather. ‘‘The balance of oceanic push and continental neutrality is the story of Champagne and the diversity of our climate,’’ he says.
The drama of this story is intensifying. In June last year, one of the most ferocious hailstorms in the history of Champagne battered the village of Urville, leaving a corridor of destruction in its wake like a typhoon. In 15 minutes, more than half the vines of the village were obliterated. Damage was estimated at 130 per cent, as the entire 2012 crop was lost and likely one-third of 2013.
Such is the adventure, and such is the menace, of growing grapes in Champagne. ‘‘In Champagne, we have two advantages: bad weather and bad soils,’’ quips Pol Roger’s managing director Laurent d’Harcourt. Cham-
ALAMY pagne’s landscape below the ground is just as wild as that above. While limestone is considered the holy grail of the greatest chardonnay and pinot noir, this stark, lifeless, infertile chalk stone is a harsh environment in which to implant any living thing. ‘‘It is amazing that people have the passion to continue to make wines in this region,’’ Demarville says.
The magic of Champagne is alive in this cruel place, not in spite of its tough soil and dismal climate, but because of it. If this were some idyllic, sundrenched haven, there would be no sparkling wine at all. Champagne would be just a northerly outpost of Burgundy, celebrated for nothing more than chardonnay and pinot noir.
There is a romance to Champagne quite unlike any other wine land on earth. Contrary to everything hopeful marketers would have us believe, this is not a romance of glamorous estates, illustrious histories, elaborate packaging, fabricated prestige, flirtations with royalty, sightings with supermodels, or websites with more animated glitz than you can point a cursor at. It’s a romance that goes beyond the bubbles, beyond the atmosphere of ancient chalk cellars and chalk-infused vineyards gracing gentle slopes, beyond even a people as dignified and determined as the champagnes they devote their lives to raising. The real romance of champagne is a tough love. It’s about a desperate struggle to root vines into stark white stone. About grappling for survival in the most harrowing winegrowing climate on the planet. And about transforming an insipidly austere and unpalatably acidic juice into the most celebrated beverage in the world. This is an edited extract from The Champagne Guide 2014-15: The Definitive Guide to the Champagne Region by Tyson Stelzer (Hardie Grant, $39.95)