Champagne (and more)

The blog page about our activities in the 33rd week contained a promise about coming back to the subject ‘Champagne’ during the winter ‘in case we run out of subjects’. Although it is far from winter yet here we go. This picture shows the bus we traveled in. The weather on the 16th of August was lovely, so you’ll be not surprised when we reveal that we took two seats in the open part and left Reims full of expectations of the things to come…

On the way to a wine-growing area; a Champagne-growing area to be more exact. The fields are already visible on the slopes in the background. The dedicated Champagne-area consists of over 33.000 hectares (80.000 acres) and the allocated areas (4, not necessarily connected) are specified by law. There is an ongoing procedure since 2003 aiming at 2 to 3.000 extra hectares (5 to 7,5 thousand acres) for Champagne-growing. A former wheat field increases 350 times(!) its value after becoming a recognized Champagne-vineyard. Would you believe that even cemeteries are to be removed to become Champagne-growing areas?

The soil of the vineyards is composed of limestone and marl, a condition ‘sine qua non’, as the creation of Champagne would be unthinkable using a different type of soil. In 2010 the price of a hectare (2,471 acres) in one of the Champagne-producing areas, La côte des Blancs, was an astonishing € 1.500.000,00.

The vineyards are classified into three categories: non-classified, ‘premier cru’ and ‘grand cru’. These classification determines the price for the grapes; ‘grand cru’ represents 100%, ‘premier cru’ 90 to 99% and non-classified 80 to 89%. The price for the grapes is yearly to be fixed by a special dedicated committee.

We seem to remember the touring-guide telling us that harvesting the grapes starts exactly 100 days after the vines started to bloom. An army of grape pickers invades the Champagne-area and there is a huge party at the end of the harvesting-period for everyone involved. The grape-production is fixed at 10.400 kilograms (1.650 GB-stones or 23.000 US-pounds) per hectare (65 hectolitres, 143 GB-gallons, 170 US-gallons) although in reality it might be 50% more than that. The production of grapes is tempered by the density of the grapevines. The best parcels contain 10.000 of them – but never less than 8.000. It is forbidden by law to have the grapevines closer than 1,25 meters (4 feet) next to each other.

A typical feature are roses, frequently visible at the head of a row of grapevines as shown on this picture. The reason for this is a much feared botanical illness, by the name of mildew. As the rose bush is earlier harmed by mildew than the grapevines, the winegrower is given a chance to take adequate measures before it is too late, thus sparing not only his grapevines but also his way of making a living.

Three variants of the family of grapes are used to create Champagne: Pinot Noir (38% of the production area); Pinot Meunier (32%) and Chardonnay (30%). All three of them have colourless pulp, hence the colour of their juice. Mind you, pressing the grapes is a delicate process as the skin of the pinot noir might colour the juice – which has to be avoided.

A last view of the fields with the city of Reims visible in the distance. It was, as you probably can imagine, a highly interesting and entertaining sightseeing-tour.

The windmill of Verzenay, built in 1820 on top of the Mont Boeuf at the very heart of the Champagne region, provides a truly magnificent view over the vineyards. In 1901 the third, and last, miller blocked the entire mechanism after a dispute and finally sold the mill in 1904. The sale meant that his nine children each received one thousand gold francs. Yet another child was born as the deeds were being signed and the family asked for and were granted an additional one thousand gold francs. During both WWI and WWII the mill served as an observation post. The (Champagne-) house Mumm purchased the mill in 1972 and it became a reception venue for privileged guests interested in getting to know the region and, of course, savouring the unique view of the cherished vineyards.

We all know the names of the big Champagne-houses with a global reputation, like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Pommery, Taittinger, Perrier-Jouët and the likes. There are, however, numerous smaller, independent, Champagne-makers. Looking at export from France alone there are 349 ‘Maisons de Champagne’ involved (2012)! In every village in the heart of this area the names of these smaller ‘Maisons’ are visible, whatever direction one chooses to look. Who has ever heard of Decotte Augé? Well, it all looks very well kept and prosperous and for some reason we had the impression that they are doing really, really well.

Maison Forget-Chauvet is the one Champagne-house that the participants of the tour have visited. A ‘small’ house again but one wonders how big a ‘big’ house must be after having visited Forget-Chauvet’s cellars and having seen their vast supply.

Speaking of a vast supply, this picture –sombre as it is, due to the scanty lighting- gives an idea of the way the bottles are piled up, waiting for a future connoisseur. Well, connoisseur, just a straight lover of the heavenly liquid is equally acceptable!

Another position to let the future end-product ripe. Being in this position the bottles are twisted ¼ of a full circle every day. By hand that is! There is really a lot more to tell about the process of making Champagne. Brut nature, extra brut, brut, extra sec, sec, demi sec, doux. It’s all about adding no sugar at all, just a bit, or even a bit more. Then a story might be told about the process of winemaking. Or the corks. Even the way to open a bottle of Champagne completely different –and better, of course- from the Formula One guys after victory. But this is it, apart from the types of bottles – hereunder.

The names of the bottles are to interesting, funny, ingenious if you want, to keep them from you. Le Huitième, 0,094 liters. Le Quart 0,1875 or 0,20. La Demie, 0,375. Le Medium 0,6. La Bouteille 0,75 (best sold). Le Magnum 1,5. Le Jérobam 3. Le Réhoboam 4,5. Le Mathusalem 6. Le Salmanazar 9. Le Balthazar 12. Le Nabuchodonosor 15. Le Salomon 18. Le Souverain 26,25. Le Melchisédec 30 liter. Don’t try to remember them all. Just ‘La Bouteille’ will do in most circumstances.

The ‘tasting-room’ is made ready to seduce the visitors. That’s an easy job, really. Everybody is in the mood now to have a sip (or two) and buy a bottle (or two) of this irresistible liquid.

There is only a big CHEERS! left. It was an excellent day.

The miscellaneous part to end with. Ever since we bought this ship, December 2010, we had a cat flap…

…since a few days replaced by a nice little letterbox. Yes, ‘le capitain’ (of the port) delivers the mail to all his customers. He appreciates everyone to have a letterbox. We did not want the cat flap anyway.

Our expected neigbours arrived this week. So now all spaces are occupied. It’s an Australian couple, triggering our question: ‘Do you really skip ‘your’ summer?’ They simply answered: ‘Too hot’. Apparently hotter than France’s last summer!

This picture was taken last Sunday, the 3rd of November 2013, from the same spot where the next picture was taken. There is not a lot of water in La Loire at the moment. The left part of the weir blocks all, over the two middle parts only a bit of water falls down and the ‘petit’ hydro-electric power station almost loses its ‘raison d’être’.

The ‘traditional’ weekly picture to end with. The water level seems to be a bit lower than last week. Au revoir!