The Champagne region of France harvest was well underway the second week of September with a flurry of activity in the wineries, villages and vineyards. As each plot reached optimal ripeness the annual parade of pickers descended upon the vineyards to handpick each grape varietal, which is a strict part of the Champagne appellation’s regulations. Handpicked grapes is one of the steps key to producing high-quality and unique Champagnes that come only from this region in France.
In France a grape picker is called Vendangeur or Vendangeuse. The regions of Champagne and Beaujolais are the only two wine regions left in France where picking grapes by hand is the law, all of the other AOC’s and regions allow for mechanized picking. Many of the grape pickers in the Champagne region, come from Eastern Europe traveling each year for the 2-3 week harvest. The great majority of these workers hail from Poland. Time is of the essence when it comes to grape picking in this region as there really are only a few days when the grapes are optimal for picking. This fast paced work can be challenging for the grapes pickers as well as hard on their backs as the grapes grow so low to the ground. Each grape picker that I saw during my time in the region seemed to be enjoying the work the best that they could. For this reason, if you enjoy drinking Champagne, than you should consider these individuals the true champions of the harvest.
It will be interesting to see if hand picking continues to be the law in the Champagne region as the labor pool is shrinking. Finding the needed 100,000 plus people to pick grapes in Champagne, for up to three weeks a year is getting more and more difficult.
The major share of grapes produced in Champagne are Pinot Noir, they make up about 38% of all grapes grown in Champagne. Pinot Noir grapes are the earliest to ripen and are best suited to the south or south-west facing aspects. Pinot Noir grapes have thick skins and are high in sugar and many experts describe the Pinot Noir in champagne as giving it vitality, complexity and fullness.
It is true, the beautiful Champagnes are the main reason for visiting this area of France, but another important feature of this amazing region is the breathtaking landscape.
Less than 6 km from Épernay is the small and quaint village of Hautvillers, it is there that you will find Abbaye Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers, the church that holds the grave of Champagne pioneer Dom Pérignon. A visit to this peaceful location even after numerous restorations gives a wonderful glimpse into the past.
Dom Pérignon, a name which is now synonymous with the popular Vintage Champagne bottled by Champagne house Moët & Chandon, is named for a monk and cellar master at the whose contribution to wine from the Benedictine abbey in Hautvillers. Famous for his elaboration and contributions of wine, Dom Pérignon was a pioneer in the blending of grapes to improve the quality of the wines and with fixing the imperfections of both bottle and cork. Some people say that Dom Pérignon was blind and that when he tasted a grape, he could tell exactly what vineyard it originated from.
The abbey, active between 665 and the French Revolution of 1789, was founded in 650 by Saint Nivard, Bishop of Reims. Full of history, Saint-Pierre d’Hautvillers also housed the relics of Saint Helena, Empress and mother of Constantine, between 841 and 1819. Since 1983 the abbey has been classified as a monument of historical value.
As a sign of honor and respect, Dom Pierre Pérignon was buried in the abbey which was traditionally reserved only for Abbots. For this reason and if you are a lover of bubbly, it only seems appropriate to pay homage to this Champagne pioneer while visiting this historic wine region.
In the small village of Chaumuzy in the Marne department in north-eastern France you will find Champagne Salmon.
My visit to Champagne Salmon was the day before their first grapes were set to be harvested and everything was set, ready for the busy days ahead. Prior to the Champagne tasting at Champagne Salmon a tour was given of the pressing room and production facilities.
When you pop open a bottle of champagne, you’re uncorking the complete story of that bottle including the importance of storage in the champagne house’s cave. A naturally cool underground setting where the Champagnes character can develop.
In 1958 Salmon produced the first vintage of Champagne with a total of 500 bottles. Today, Champagne Salmon is one of the 5000 growers in the region that also makes their own wine, and in 2008 the house became one of the elite 28 members of the exclusive “Club Trésors de Champagne” otherwise known as the Special Club.
The Special Club started in 1971 with one purpose: to promote the terroir of Champagne. Unlike the big producers, who combine fruit from many different places to create a uniform style, Special Club members must be designated RM (Recoltant Maker, or a grower-producer) and use only fruit from their estate vineyards to create the most memorable vintage bottling possible. Members then submit the wine to two blind tasting panels, and if judged good enough, the wine goes into a uniquely shaped bottle. Three years later, the carefully prepared bubbly is released to the world.
A lot has changed since the grandfather Michel, who was born and raised in Chaumuzy, sold each bottle produced door to door. Now son Oliver and grandson Alexandre maintain the day to day operations and the total annual production of more than 100,000 bottles.
A beautiful symphony of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, this vigorous sparkling adds words to the symphony with bubbles that you can hear. Soft, pure and fruity, each sip distributes new flavors of citrus, brioche and oak to deliver a delightfully long finish. This sparkling would be a perfect aperitif or a delicious “the weekend is here” celebration wine.
Pinot Meunier contributes fruitiness, richness and body to Champagne and Meunier’s can add a little extra roundness in cuvée. The 100% Meunier Brut is a champagne which, thanks to the Meunier grapes, brings an array of confected fruit aromas and flavors to this sparkling. Silvery gold colors twinkle in the glass as soft and vibrant bubbles rise expressively to the surface bringing with them nuances of apple, tropical, and minty citrus fruit. The accession on the palate is fresh and graceful with a creamy smooth froth that develops unfolding a refreshing fruitiness. A lightly saline dry finish completes the collective flavor harmonies. This is a swank Champagne that speaks strongly and eloquently of this region of France.
Developing a strong expertise in Pinot Meunier, the Salmon family has chosen to create cuvées of pure Pinot Meunier instead of masking it in blends with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This 100% Pinot Brut Rosé (which includes 20% Pinot Meunier sautéing rosé and 5% Pinot Meunier red wine) is a shining example of Champagne Salmon’s complete collection of Pinot Menunier champagnes. The nose of on this fine lively glass of bubbles evokes smells of honey roasted apples and with sliced almonds and hints of smoky pineapple. The visually appealing raspberry pink appearance divulges a fresh and ripe summer red fruit flavored wine. Combined with lemon, floral and light spicy notes the finish on this sparkling is rich, textured and sincerely refreshing.
A Ratafia de Champagne is a grape based spirit they make in the Champagne region. Typically the grape juice that goes into making Ratafia comes from the third or fourth press and Ratafia de Champagne often tastes more like a light port, sweeter and with a slight syrup texture. Ratafia is best enjoyed chilled as an aperitif or with a dessert at the end of a meal, and it’s often used in cocktails.
Champagne Salmon Ratafia is a blend of fresh Meunier juice and fine de champagne. Copper salmon in color this Ratafia in both aroma and flavor releases sensations of Autumn with orange spice and caramel apples. This was my first experience tasting a Ratafia and I was drawn in by its syrupy and balanced sweetness.
A tour and tasting with the Salmon winemaking family allows one to understand the meaning of putting your heart and soul into your craft. Their generational contributions combine to guarantee a stellar line up, no matter the vintage.
“Flying over Champagne in a hot-air balloon, as we like to do, anchors us down to this terroir. We take it to heart to express tradition and exception through the quality and finesse of our productions. Our family passion for traveling in hot-air balloons is akin to that which makes us gather in the vineyards, around the great grape press and in the cellars where we elaborate the cuvées of the house Salmon.”
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