The "Route Touristique" through the small villages of Champagne is one of few fine offers for the tourists that exists here..
Ever since I arrived in Champagne three years ago I have wondered about how undevelopped winetourism seems to be here.
We live in one of the well known areas of the Champagne Viticole, and all through summer there are lots and lots of tourists who drive through our winding little streets - especially English, Belgian and Dutch - and I keep wondering how little is done to keep them a while, and of course attract even more.
Okay, there are a few humble museums of the vines, and quite a few "Accueil" or "Vente directe". The big champagne houses have their own exhibitions and guided tours with a glass or two in the end. It depends how much you want to spend. But the possiblity to try a little bit of hands on yourself, is surely not widespread.
Which is where the wondering starts, since it seems such an obvious idea to combine a week in Paris - or less - with the possibility to visit Champagne, taste some champagnes, learn a bit about how the vines are grown and end with a few meals from the substantial French countrystyle cuisine.
Approximately 19.000 winegrowers directly occupy themselves - fulltime or partly - growing the vines that covers about 32.000 hectares of Champagne. They are in possession of the most fantastic heritage you can imagine. Sometimes I wonder how many of them are actually aware of it.
Now of course they make good money with their champagne. Probably not many of them are looking for alternative ways to make money, like them rest of the winebusiness in France may have to.
But Champagne does possess such treasures that it seems somewhat a crime not to do more about it. You see, these treasures do not excactly pop straight up in your face like in Alsace where you would have to be both blind and deaf and with a leg and a half in the grave if you were not to notice the charm of the place. Champagne is less obviously interesting, you must dig the gold yourself. Though I do not mind handing out a few ideas.
The Champagne gold
The wine routes that lead through the tiny villages - there are several hundred kilometres of them - are easy to find and follow, and they are fine. A lot of the villages, connected by these roads like pearls on a string, and the forestland between, have really good places to eat.
You must visit one or two of the big champagne houses, for the history, the luxury. One of them must be in Reims, where you should opt for one of those with crayères underground. These are ancient chalkmines, originately dug out in the Roman days to build Roman Reims. Since they have been extended and today they offer perfect conditions to mature champagne. The cathedral is a must, one af the famous, gothic cathedrals of France, and the place where the kings were crowned, since Saint-Rémi baptised the king Clovis there.
Famous brands however is not enough if you want to have a more general idea about what champagne is. In this case there is no way you want to miss one or two of the more humble winegrowers with their vente or accuil-signs welcoming you. The problem is only language really. Of course - even in Champagne - you may find people who speak other languages than French - I am one of them - but believe me, they are not many.
The best places will show you around in their presshouse and caves and maybe even take you to their vineyards. But prepare yourself: It is most likely to be in French. Except in our place... and a few others... for instance the girls from my "Selling champagne in English"-course may still be able to come up with one or two phrases in English even the course finished more than six months ago now.
Mont Aimé - today a characteristic hill in the landscape with a few brickbats, an information board about the 200 cathars, that were burnt by queen Blanche in the 12th century, and the humble leftovers from a long-gone hermit.
Champagne is an old county. The counts of Champagne had a castle on top of the Mont Aimé on the other side of Vertus in the Côte des Blancs. You have a great view of it from the courtyard of my mother-in-law. And there is even said to be an ancient hidden tunnel somewhere on the estate leading to the castle to make it possible for the inhabitants to reach security safely in times of unrest.
Since the castle itself was destroyed during the 100 years war, this story has been told in many many hundred years now. The king of the Huns, Attila, met his Waterloo just outside the Chalons-en-Champagne of our days, and World War I - the great war as they call it in France - has dragged its deep and bloody trail in big parts of especially Northern Champagne. After each war the sales of champagne had a boost. After each occupation - and they have been many in Champagne - the enemy apparently brought back with him a desire for the bubbles.
There are many stories around... the Romans are said to have brought the vines here, for instance to the village of Avize in the Côte des Blancs. Archeological findings have dated the existence of the vine in the area back as early as the 4th century.
So when we prune - or do other manual tasks in the vineyard - I feel very much in harmony with both nature and history. Even the varieties are different today, and the tasks performed as well probably. I am not sure they as early as the 4th century knew the advantages of pruning.
Rather unchanged tasks
We grow the vines more or less the same way as Alains grandfather. A few modern remedies have joined forces, it is not that the winegrowers are helplessly nostalgic, they do use all kind of modern technologies when they are able to and allowed to, and research is done in all areas in order to save manhours and improve the product.
We also harvest grapes in more or less the same way as always. Only the horse carriage has been replaced by a white van, and the grape boxes are no longer made of rattan but plastic.
Most of the work during the rest of the year is manual as well, and we are as exposed to the frost of the winter and the sun of the summer as people have always been. But still the big white bonnet for females to protect against the sun are no longer in fashion here, apart from at Genevieve's, the wife of the business partner of our farm company, and then the dressing up for the Saint Vincent of course.
Vinhøst i det franske
As I finished high school in the middle of the 1980'ies it was popular to travel to France to pick grapes. This possibility hardly exists today. Everybody who are allowed to - or almost - will use machines for the harvest. It is cheaper and more flexible, than a group of people that must be fed, lodged and whose backs hurt terribly especially on the third day. But when you make champagne it is decisive that the skin of the fruits is not damaged. Therefore you are simply not allowed to use machines here.
However, it does not mean that there is a lot left of the old harvesting traditions. Many winegrowers now hire teams of gypsies or others. They are paid better but they have to lodge themselves. It is a development that has taken off as the authorites demand better facilities for the grapepickers. A certain number of toilets and showers for a certain number of people for instance. Welfare for everybody.
As less winegrowers do the lodging themselves, this last piece of harvesting old style, mountains of French country-style food, a little bit of guitar in the evenings and a drink or two before bedtime may disappear completely. Unless you can save a bit of it in another way... for instance tourism.
Which I would love to do... others too I am sure... when it does not really exist as far as I know, it is because the harvestdays are already an incredibly busy and important time where you hardly look for more work. But then if it was your work to deal with a group of tourists, who has payed to try to harvest grapes in Champagne, taste a glass of fresh grapejuice straight from the presses and finish with a five course lunch of heavy countrystyle food with the rest of the team, maybe it would be a different story.
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