Harvest in Reims with Veuve Clicquot

by Matt on September 23, 2010

I was back home for only 3 days when I had to repack and head back to France. While the thought of jumping back and forth between Los Angeles and Paris might normally make me frown just a tiny bit, legs cramped and eyes bloodshot, I willingly jumped at this chance. Why? Because I wasn’t just heading back to Paris to see the sights or eat more butter (though I did plenty of both) but to join Veuve Clicquot for the harvest in Reims, the Champagne capital of the world.

While I’ve raised my glass many times for a toast, my knowledge of Clicquot was only half-full. Like many others it only takes a glimpse of that tell-tale swatch of yellow and anchor logo to recognize the brand, but how much did I really know about Clicquot itself? Not much. I was destined to change all that.

I’m not a wine writer so I’ll give you the very special Mattbites summary of Veuve Clicquot. Founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot-Muiron, the business was passed on to his son François Clicquot who married a woman named Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin. François died in 1805, leaving the company to his wife. It was Madame Clicquot who made great strides with the business, in fact standardizing many processes when making champagne. It’s a fascinating bit of history and quite impressive setting foot where all this happened.

Every year in September, weather permitting, the grapes are picked, crushed, and stored, beginning a process that changes depending on whether the house is creating their Brut Regular Label or some of their other varieties like Rosé, the Vintages, or La Grande Dame.

Since the champagne grapes are harvested only once a year in a very short window of time I was warned I’d need every bit of energy for Reims. I figured an excellent way to fortify myself was by joining the marketing team of Veuve Clicquot for dinner at Hotel Le Meurice in Paris the night before. The ample slab of foie gras and a glass of the 1995 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve was just the thing I needed, although after a long flight from Los Angeles I did find myself wanting to lay on the couch and fall asleep for a bit. Sorry! Clearly the presence of Jacques Chirac and his wife across the room wasn’t enough to keep the jet lag at bay.

The next morning we hopped on the highspeed TGV train to Reims. I wasn’t thrilled about the 7:15am roundup in the lobby but the promise of hearing the TGV train announcement jingle all but made up for it. Look, don’t laugh but I’m rather addicted to it, much to the disappointment of my travel companions of last week. But don’t take my word for it, you can listen to it here.

And to think there’s even a dance remix of it.

We arrived to the chateau, joining a group of journalists, photographers and food bloggers for coffee and pastry before receiving an introduction from the winemakers themselves. We also got a crash course on picking grapes, what to look for, what to reject and what not to do. I felt a little bit nervous at this point. Are they really going to make us pick grapes? Won’t I just be donning a hat, clippers in hand, posing for a photo opp before being whisked away to a 4-hour lunch? Nope. We were there to work.

How to pick champagne grapes for Veuve Clicquot: Grab a basket and snips. Lift grape leaves to reveal beautiful clusters of perfectly round green grapes, cut at the top and gently remove the rejects if they are present in the cluster. Sneak a taste. Heaven. Repeat, making sure to stagger your position with the person across from you as to not snip their fingers. Those vines can be dense.

Repeat, moving down the row until your basket has been filled. Empty your basket into a wheelbarrow and return to the row. Sneak more grapes when needed and soak up the bright French sun while admiring the view. Acknowledge the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of picking champagne grapes for an esteemed champagne house and that those grapes will eventually make their way into a bottle. Heck, they might even make their way into a Reserve, only to be aged and enjoyed years after you’ve gone back to the real world.

Done!

Of course I’m simplifying the entire process and there’s a whole world beyond just plucking grapes off a vine. The magic happens after the pressing and the real science and art happens during blending. More on that in a bit.

We all worked up quite an appetite so we headed into the garden for aperitifs and champagne, of course. This was quite possibly the best post-work break I think I’ve ever experienced. Scratch that, this was the best post-work break I think I’ve ever experienced. After the sips we went inside for lunch where we were joined by winemaker Cyril Brun and given an opportunity to ask anything and everything we’ve ever wanted to know about champagne and Veuve Clicquot.  This is France so lunch was followed by cheese, naturally, something that excites me to the point of tears. I would move to a country that eats wedges of cheese with nothing. Ok, maybe a few pieces of bread but that’s it. I no longer feel so alone in my naked cheese consumption.

Ok, so all those grapes we worked so hard to pick? They were loaded onto trucks and taken to the presses located very close to the vineyards. This is important because the fragile grapes must be pressed as quickly as possible, with minimal transportation as to not bruise or jostle the grapes. And because the champagne is made from both black and white grapes, getting the harvest to press quickly is imperative for color reasons as well.

The grapes are dumped into a giant vat and the press is lowered, a very efficient and non-technical process that squeezes the juice into reservoirs down below. It takes a few minutes and tons of pressure to press, with random grape escapees lost during the process. Samples are taken, readings are made, the overwhelming heady aroma of grapes and juice fills the air.

From here the grape juice is taken and allowed to do its thing. I’ll fast forward over the entire champagne process but just know there is a level of control and quality at every stage. You can’t get anything past these guys.

Because champagne is a wine there is an art of blending involved. This was a fascinating step to see when we headed to the Veuve Clicquot tasting lab and met with Francois Hautekeur, one of Veuve Clicquot’s winemakers. After a crash course in geography and blending, we tasted the various single components that go into a bottle of Veuve Clicquot Brut, noticing the individual characteristics of each grape along the way. I loved this part. Fleshy flavors meet fruit meet chalky notes, all which will age together and become a beautifully nuanced champagne.

Once blended the champagne must go through its second fermentation process. This happens in Clicquot’s caves, located deep underneath the earth in Reims. Hundreds of thousands of bottles are stored here, a cool constant temperature maintained throughout the vast expanses of tunnels and small rooms. It was a beautiful space and not like any cave I’ve ever seen.

As I was flying back home to Los Angeles I kept thinking about the biggest revelation I had during my time in Reims: champagne is wine. It’s not just some special, esoteric drink (although it certainly can be) meant only for weddings and toasts, but something that can be enjoyed in the same manner as wine. Granted, it can sometimes be a bit expensive and certainly nothing I could afford to drink every day of the week but I might just be celebrating a bit more often with champagne from now on.

Thanks to the entire team at Veuve Clicquot and a special thanks to Nima Abbasi. As per the FTC Blogging Regulations this trip was hosted by Veuve Clicquot and no payment was received.