Note: I first wrote this post in October 2007, when I visited family in Burgundy. France, particularly this region, is special for me, so I hope to share more of the French culture I’ve come to know and love.
When wine is served in beautiful crystal glasses by Swiss-trained waiters in three-Michelin-star restaurants, it’s difficult to let the imagination travel back to this fermented beverage’s humble beginnings. Long before it became a bubbly that can push a cork out with a hearty pop, and long before it acquired the grace to flow smoothly out of an expensive bottle, it hung loosely and peacefully on a grapevine, constantly handled by rough suntanned hands in a family vineyard halfway across the world.
SPARKLES OF NATURE
I arrived in one of France’s best-known wine regions, Burgundy (Bourgogne), in late September, hoping to witness the yearly grape harvest. I was a week too early for most families’ grape-picking schedules, I was just in time for the harvest of grapes that will be used to make crémant de Bourgogne. In the Burgundian village of Mercurey, one of the first vineyards to begin harvest is the family-owned Domaine Duvecnoy.
“We are starting a few days earlier than everyone else because we need to pick the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes for the crémant at exactly this moment,” says M. Duvecnoy. “Crémant grapes are always hand-picked. The normal red and white wine grapes can be picked by a machine.”
In essence, crémant is champagne, a type of sparkling wine. However, the term champagne is reserved exclusively for effervescent wines produced in the Champagne region of France by the méthode champenoise. Since 1994, sparkling wines other than champagne produced by this method have not been allowed to use the term méthode champenoise, and have instead used the term méthode traditionelle.
And since 1975, the term crémant has been reserved for sparkling wines from an appellation d’origine contrôlée, or AOC, and this French law was adopted by the EU in 1992. In France, the following AOCs are defined by decree: crémant d’Alsace, de Bourgogne, de Limoux, de Die, de Loire, du Jura and de Bordeaux.
After the grapes have been hand-picked and placed in containers, they are taken to the Château de Vittéaut where the fermentation takes place. In Mercurey and the surrounding villages, the Vittéauts are the only ones capable of processing the winemakers’ grapes.
“We get grapes from over 100 winemakers in Burgundy, process the grapes, pack them in bottles, put the cork and labels and send them back to the respective winemakers,” explains Agnès Vittéaut. Although slowly adapting the effects of the global economy, France is still generally new to the concept of market competition especially in traditional industries.
“It’s true that it would help to have competition by allowing winemakers to use their own processes in fermenting the grape juice. It can create new tastes and encourage better procedures, but at the moment, the government does not allow this,” says Vittéaut.
The process itself is tedious and, unknown to most end consumers, rather dangerous. “The fermentation of sugar into alcohol releases some sulfuric fumes and this is very dangerous. Every year, there are people who die in the big tanks because of the fumes,” she continues.
So we go through the entire process, curiously watching the grapes of M. Duvecnoy transform from succulent chardonnay and pinot noir grapes into the region’s bubbly staple crémant de Bourgogne. To simply state a matter of fact, what goes on behind each bottle of expensive French wine or champagne may be a lot less glamorous than those fancy highbrow restaurants make it seem to be.
But that’s basing it on the wrong standards. The truth is, the glamour lies in the transformation that occurs from fruits on a vine to delectable wine.