In July, when I was in Petaluma I had the opportunity to meet Clémence Lelarge. At the time of our first meeting I was unaware that she was an 8th generation Champagne maker from France. At first, I knew her only as Cecilia Enriquez’ guest. We chatted about wine and the beautiful area of Petaluma. We started talking about dinner (of which I haven’t posted about yet) and she mentioned that she would be serving her family Champage to us. Of course my ears perked up at the word Champagne and then I mentioned that I would be in Paris in September and it was too bad that she is in California. Much to my delight she was returning home to France, just a few days before my own visit. September in Champagne region is very much like September in California, it is Harvest time. All the work that has been happening throughout the year leads to this short period of time when you get to harvest your grapes.
Clémence insisted that I contact her about visiting her in Vrigny when I made my way to Paris. Of course, my first words were, is it easy to get there, I haven’t been to Paris in many, many years. She insisted that it was an easy train ride and would be well worth it. Worth it for sure, easy, well not so much for me. Hubby and I spent an evening finding the Metro station close to us, which was pretty difficult as we were at a main station so there were buses, trains and metro all in one station. The morning after I arrived in Paris, I packed my bag and headed for the Metro. As I sat there I realized that although I used to travel on the Metro in Montrèal, I hadn’t done so in about 20 years. It brought back many memories for me. I got to the train station, got my ticket and waited. Once my train showed up on the board I headed out to find it, got turned around and managed to board with about 5 minutes to spare. As the train rolled out of Paris and into the country side, I was in complete awe. Although the trees and rolling hills looked familiar, the villages did not. Compared to North America, their towns are small and quaint and their buildings are just that much different that you know you are not at home.
Upon my arrival, I was given a truly amazing tour and experience. Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot is not your average (as if there is average) vineyard. They are certified Organic! Yes, you read that right, Organic. They use all natural teas and good old fashioned grass to improve their grapes and when you are standing side by side of Organic vs not you can truly see the difference. Their leaves are greener and their grapes are bluer and when you taste one it is like a sweet explosion on your tongue. I had never tasted a grape used for wine before and it was truly a treat.
Harvest takes about 10 days and they have a group of workers, some of which have been there for 50 years, that come out to pick. I got to see everything from the picking, transport, loading of the press, to the pressing to the fermentation tanks, to the storage in the bottles. I can’t wrap my mind around all that I saw in just a few short hours.
Vrigny is a beautiful village just outside of Reims (pronounces Rance, yes I learned that the hard way). The village itself seems very tiny, but it is surrounded by the most beautiful vineyards I have ever seen. And unlike their North American cousins, the vines grow sideways along the rows instead of straight up.
One of my first (of many, many, many questions) was how is the champagne so clear when the grapes are so dark. This is because they press the grapes to remove the juice so there is no skin contact, in other words the juice gets squished right out and doesn’t sit and ferment in the skin (you can see that process in the collage above). I got a wee taste of the juice and it is sweet like grape juice, but not as strong and very refreshing. Did I mention it was really warm? France was having an extra warm September so it was +28C (82F) which makes the grapes sweeter, but also means you have to pick quickly and get them off the vine. They were keeping a close eye on the forecast as rain was coming and once it rains you really have to move quick so you don’t get mold on the grapes. It is all an amazing science.
I was treated to lunch with the crew from the field, I put my camera down because I wanted to absorb it all. It was incredibly sweet as I was seated in the middle with Clémence and some of the American and English speaking French then further down the table the ones who didn’t speak as much English. I tried my best to use my French, but I managed to mangle a few words (I blame jet lag and being overwhelmed) and they were very good sports about it. We were treated to a fresh tomato salad from their garden, pasta, lamb, bread (one does not have a meal in France without bread and I was thrilled!!) apple sauce and biscuits. We also had a toast with Champagne, a little red wine from a friend’s vineyard and some coffee. If I had a lunch like that every day I would one happy, happy girl.
I cannot express my thanks enough to Clémence and her family for inviting me to their home and workplace, allowing me to see all that goes in to a beautiful bottle of Champagne. It is a day that I won’t soon forget and have high hopes of once again visiting them and perhaps they will make it over here one day I can treat them to a visit in Ottawa, not sure how it would compare, but I feel like I have time to prepare for it.