Two different documentaries on two different wine-making regions of France by the writer, director, producer David Kennard, who produced one of my favourite documentaries, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.
The films are contrasts. Burgundy is a relatively warm and sunny winemaking region. Champagne is relatively cold and cloudy. Burgundy winemakers range from the highly technical entrepreneurs to the standard family operations to the Queen of Burgundy, a winemaker in her eighties who talks to her grapevines and uses nothing but wild yeast on the grape skin to fermented world class wine in her large wooden fermenters. Champagne has strict standards for growing, processing and producing the bubbly, lest the producers lose the right to call their product Champagne.
Burgundy is a charming, provincial French region. Champagne lives in the shadow of the slaughters of countless battles, especially those of the First World War when the region lost a generation of young men to mechanized slaughter and where the trenches are still visible. Burgundy has the profound history of Roman occupation and medieval monks developing the terroirs – a French word that means all of the natural environment that goes into the grapes such as the soil, regional climates and the microclimate of the fields. Champagne’s popularization of the cold-hardy varietals that produce the infamous sparkling wine is a mere 250 years old by comparison. Burgundy’s winemakers are more family-based whereas much of the Champagne comes from large corporate entities.
Both documentaries go through the seasons from winter to fall. Spring is a time for laying the groundwork of a good harvest and building the expectations of whether or not Mother Nature will cooperate and produce a good bounty over the summer months. The grape growers are plagued by problems during filming. Pests can open holes in the fruit where fungus can spread. If there is a freeze or excessive rain, grapes can rot on the vine.
Fall is a time of harvest, where out-of-towners flood in to harvest the entire grape crop in a matter of days. We see youth from Paris coming to Burgundy. We see temporary foreign workers from sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and Turkey coming to harvest the grapes of Champagne. It is hard and delicate work because the grapes must be quickly and thoroughly picked but cannot be damaged. Rot must be sorted on the fly by these temporary farm hands. As a reward, the winemakers prepare hearty end of harvest provincial meals for the workers, along with bottles of the product they are helping to produce in their own small way.
We get to see all manner of winemaker. Multi-generational families of winemakers, from the knowledgeable patriarchs down to the toddlers who will hopefully take up the family tradition. We get entrepreneurs who are interested in the minutia of winemaking, using the latest scientific technology to analyze the molecules of a batch of wine. We get Champagne makers who sample and mix the juice from a collection of farms to make their own blend.
Both documentaries take place during intense weather conditions. One wonders how the extremes of climate change will affect these century old industries. Will Champagne become too cold to grow grapes if the gulf stream moves south? Will Burgundy continue to be plagued by hail storms, droughts and the ensuing rots? Bad weather can have its benefits though; the Champagne season saw a cold that made the grapes smaller and less plentiful but with a strike of good fortune an excellent balance between sugar and acidity in the remaining grapes. Mother Nature is full of surprises.
The documentaries can be a little schmaltzy and nostalgic at times. They can over explain one minute and under explain the next. The films are far from perfect, but they are excellent glimpses at the winemaking reality of two storied regions. I look forward to his next movie on Port, in no small part because of the history of clashing empires and the maritime trade.
Ultimately, both movies deal with tradition, family and connection to the land, which is a marked contrast from two other recent wine documentaries Somm and Red Obsession about the examinations of sommeliers and the insatiable demand for wine from China respectively.
A Year in Burgundy and A Year in Champagne deal with some of the hardships and setbacks of wine-making, but ultimately show a positive and rewarding lifestyle. If you want a casual exploration of French wine-making, these documentaries are for you.