Be­yond the bub­bles

The cruel cy­cle of the sea­sons in France’s wild Cham­pagne re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - TYSON STELZER

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)

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