“Let them drink champagne!''

Article published on Sept. 4, 2014
Article published on Sept. 4, 2014

No other drink represents prestige and exclusivity as well as the tradition-backed champagne. A visit to France’s Champagne-Ardenne region reveals the sophisticated drink’s many facets, as well as reasons for the region’s strong candidacy as a 2015 UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“Pour up plenty of champagne!” When we think of champagne, we think of celebrations and famous names like Moët & Chandon or Roederer Cristal. A glance into the daily life and work in the Champagne-Ardenne, though, reveals much more: small family enterprises that are run by the new generation, which must respect longstanding traditions yet longs for innovation. Is this refined drink also bought during times of economic crisis? We shared a toast with producers.

The region’s production of champagne, which has been going on since the 19th century, may be raised to UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

“Nuns awakened my love of wine, and this love led me to champagne”

Peter Bourne, a former winner of the Champagne Awards Australia, supports this change: for him, the Champagne-Ardenne serves as a mecca. It’s an extraordinary story, as the region, which borders Belgium, wasn’t originally known for good wine. The bubbly, lively champagne of today was, in fact, created by accident, born out of a late harvest and cold winter that halted the wine’s fermentation. When disgruntled winegrowers opened the wine in spring, it made a “plop!” sound, thus marking champagne’s birth. For Peter, the Australian champagne champion, champagne is the most prestigious symbol of quality in the world of spirits. “Unique is too banal a word to describe this fascinating, complex and celebrated wine. We can’t live without (it)!” philosophized Peter. “For me, it’s no problem to cross the globe in order to drink a good drop and enjoy the region. I will already be back in October, for the third time this year.”

Matthew Stutsel, the most recent winner of Down Under’s sparkling competition, is even thinking about leaving the other end of the world to move to the refined drink’s French region. Nuns took him to his first wine tasting before he was even of drinking age. Today, he’s a judge and licensed champagne expert with accolades.

“­Leave the Lobster alive, but kill the champagne!''

Since 2001, the Champagne region has pursued sustainable viticulture. It aims to cut pesticide use in half and reuse water. Ninety percent of byproducts will be recycled, as well as 100 percent of waste. In all, the CO2 footprint accompanying the production of champagne bottles should be reduced by 15 percent. Squished grapes, for example, will be used in the production of cosmetics and in the electronics industry. With this sustainability strategy, producers hope to defend their position as world’s best.

''We are not only colleagues. We are more like friends with a common passion-Champagne !''

Alexandre Chartogne is a young Champagne-producer who took his family's business. For a short period of time he has studied and worked away, but in the end he decided to follow the family tradition and love for the exclusive booze. ''I worked for Anselme Selosse in Avize, a great wine grower who tought me most of what i know now and who made me what i am.'' Alexandre is a pretty chilled guy, far away from the image of any big business producer. ''Personally i prefer wooden barrels. They allow the wine to develope by itself, this way it seems the most natural to me.'' Alexandre is bond to the region and its best product, at the same time he seems world-orientated and forbearing. ''Everything goes very well without herbicides. We just need to follow the wine like a father follows his child. We need to be careful, always listen and stay confident.'' The production is supposed to be harmonious, going hand in hand with the rhythm of nature. Harmony is also important for the work atmosphere here. ''I'm working with 6 employees, all passionate and engaged in the wine world. I'm always trying to have a kind of family atmosphere, or more, something that makes our work life enjoyable.''

“In a small enterprise, one feels the crisis. Clients from southern Europe have disappeared.”

The family business A.R. Lenoble Champagne claims to be the best of its kind. Its products include Grand Cru champagne, one of the most sought-after drops in the whole region. Here, the focus is on quality over quantity. When General Director Antoine Malassagne speaks about Lenoble, it sounds like this: “It’s important to me to inform customers about soil quality, ripening process, selection of grapes and regulations. That serves to explain why we’re the best.” Along with his sister, Antoine is the third generation to lead the business.

The European crisis is easily felt in a business with less than 20 fixed workers. Many clients from southern Europe have disappeared, and new clients must be found. In such times things can get tight, even if the product demand stays the same.

In any case, champagne is also celebrated during times of crisis, for example at the 40-year-old Champagne Awards Australia. International contacts are important and must be cared for. All in all, there are 16 champagne bureaus in the world; Australia is currently the sixth highest consumer after Great Britain, the U.S.A., Germany, Belgium and Japan. The Comité interprofessionel du vin de Champagne (CIVC)’s main office is in Épernay. Public Relations Representative Philippe Wibrotte sums up a love for sparkling wine perfectly: “During baptisms in France, it’s often tradition to dribble a bit of champagne instead of holy water on the baby’s forehead. This is how a love for spirits is founded.” Whether or not this is only a legend, it worked with Monsieur Wibrotte: he has lived and worked in the region for 14 years, and savors every day. Ties to Europe are also part of the tradition in Down Under. Jack Monti, the first winner of the Australian Awards back in 1974, has lived in Australia for a long time but was born in Genova and celebrated his first place award with the Grimaldis. He’s in his mid-80s now, proof that champagne can grant a long life. In this spirit: Santé!