Monday, 7 April 2008

Life in the vines

Back in early January, on our third or fourth day of walking, we were in the Denbies’ wine estate near Dorking speculating that the next time we would see vines would be in the Champagne region, beyond Reims. And so it has finally proved.

The gently rising slopes of brown look lifeless: not a promising time of year to be visiting. But as we walk through them over several days, we see the chalk and clay tracks are speckled with dozens of vehicles, and that the tiny dark blobs are the hunched backs of workers. These brown days are a time of promise and fierce activity. The countryside is alive.

In the agricultural swathes of Normandy or Picardy farms were mastered by machinery and just one or two workers. Here, a single glance shows twenty or more intent people; the degree of labour needed for wine production explains its price as a luxury good. The labourers look up and nod a hello, but rarely stop their hands to talk. They hint at an old-style countryside, where hundreds lived and worked together through their annual tasks and festivals - although it is no doubt much emptier even here than in the past. Nowadays five full time workers can service a three-hectare estate, rising to twenty-five people for the week-long harvest. There’s a medieval echo to life. At noon, all the church bells sound long and loud to call the vineworkers in to lunch, and again at five to end the day. In two bars, the workers nodded and smiled, but still didn’t attempt a conversation; and when two o’clock sounded they drained their coffee cups and headed back out into the clay and chalk lanes.

Living with the vines means living utterly at the rhythm of the seasons and the weather. When winter turns you must prune, and you must prune before the sap rises again. But not too soon, or the vine will channel its strength too quickly and risk frostbite on the new shoots. If a frost threatens, you must offer protection – spraying water to encase the buds in an icy nest of 0º; or burning resinous wood to build a warm smoky blanket; or fleece ‘socks’ over the vines. When the shoots and leaves start to grow it is time to pinch out all but the main branches. And when the grapes are ripe, you must harvest them. Then and there. No matter that the changes in climate mean your grapes are ready a fortnight before normal and your grape pickers have not yet arrived for the season – you must rally them as quickly as you can. "Si juin fait le vin, août fait le goût".

After several days of hiking between the vineyards and the forests of the Montagne de Reims, we are full of questions. This is the season for pruning, a job that lasts a good couple of months and follows rigid rules for the number of shoots left on which year’s growth, and for the height at which the shoots may begin and finish. There are four pruning patterns, authorised or forbidden according to the type of grape and whether the village is grand cru, premier cru or a simple champagne. With familiarity it should be possible to tell, from the pruned stalks, what kind of vineyard you are standing in.

There are as many women as men working, we notice, all swaddled in woollen hats and padded jackets with hoods, hunched against the fog and frost, the wind or rain and sleet. They work peacefully and rhythmically. Homemade or sophisticated, the winegrowers use tools uniquely evolved for the vines. They sit to their tasks on low plastic benches like skateboards on six-inch high wheels. The width of the gap between vines. The wheels point lengthwise so the worker can roll themselves down the slope as they go. After pruning, the chosen stalks must be attached to the horizontal wires, and for this a tagging gun was invented, like a shop assistant’s ticketing gun, except this one shoots out, twists and cuts the tag in one whirring motion.

Sometimes the cut stalks are taken to the woods and left to rot down, but mostly people burn them. Oil drums are slit lengthwise and eased apart, then mounted on a one-wheel frame like a wheelbarrow, to carry fire and smoke up and down the rows and consume the waste. Looking across the valleys with the ugly, modern rectangles of Reims a constant backdrop, smoke pillars are everywhere in the morning mist. Now rising tall, now billowing thick and sideways with the vagaries of the wind.

Why are some vineyards full of snails on the plants, and others not? Why are all the snails a translucent yellow-green? What is in the brown capsules hanging on the fences and at the end of some rows? What is being sprayed from the absurdly tall tractors that straddle the rows like a praying mantis? Is there such a thing as organic champagne?
Not even our visits to the Musée de la Vigne or the cellars of our hosts, Patrick Soutiran, have yet satisfied the questions that come to us as we walk.

The region of the Montagne de Reims was born out of the huge sea that once covered the land. Blame millennia of sea creatures for the claggy soil that weighs our boots with extra kilos in these still damp weeks. The landscape is less monotonous than expected. The vines only love the poor soil on the slopes of the hills, where they are oriented plot by plot to be sure of full exposure to the sun. Below them, the soil of the plain is too rich and has been cultivated for wheat, rye, and oats and for rapeseed and beets. On the ‘mountaintop’, really a hill plateau, the forest takes over, a tangle of undergrowth and mossy fallen wood, boar and deer tracks and, very rarely, neat piles of harvested logs. We roam constantly between these landscapes, partnered by the exuberance of skylarks on the plain and echoing woodpeckers and nesting bluetits and blackbirds in the forest. The vines themselves are knobbled like arthritic witches’ hands in a flamenco dance. Birds do not love the vines, or not yet; but when the sun breaks through a mist of bees and insects takes us by surprise. Spring is another step nearer.

The scene looks unchanged for centuries; but in fact up until the 1920s, when re-planting after the phylloxera disaster early in the century was finally completed, the familiar rows did not exist. Vines then were plated to grow up on posts rather than along on wires, and the plants were higgledy-piggledy across the slopes, defying mechanisation. Then, too, roles were strictly divided. Wine growers grew the grapes and passed them to presses from where the extracted juice was sold to the champagne houses in Reims or Epernay for the complicated and slow process of turning it into wine. With the economic collapse in the late 1920s, growers taught themselves to make and sell the champagne themselves. Now there are no less than 320 crus or classified villages, and many more individual champagne producers.

The villages which camp at intervals between the vineyards and the forest are larger than we are familiar with: dense pockets of construction, every second gateway leads to a small Maison de Champagne with vast warehouses and small offices. Not a scrap of ground is wasted for gardens, pavements or squares. Despite the vaunted tourist routes, despite even the number of people supported by the work in the vines, these villages are as under-serviced as ever. The streets taunt with their painted and wrought signs, but each is for a champagne house to visit. There are no shops and rare bars. The shops have been replaced by vans that tour the villages and toot to scurry out the housewives: one for the bread, one for the butcher, one for the fishmonger.

Back in our flat in Ambonnay, we pass the evenings with books and big meals we prepare together, a fusion of British (kippers, roast beef and potatoes) and French (Normandy pork in cider, ratatouille) and, of course, compare the wines of the Montagne.

4th April 2008

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