I was nervous ahead of my first visit to Champagne for 2 reasons, I was meeting my boyfriend’s (very large) family for the first time and secondly when I thought of Champagne luxury, at times unaffordability and a certain way of life came to mind, would the people I was about to meet represent those things and if so how would I fit in.
The first thing I realised was that Champagne wasn’t just made up of the bottles you see on supermarket and off license shelves. Breaking it down, it is a wine making region located in the Northeast of France, split into 5 wine producing districts, with the towns of Reims and Epernay the commercial centres of the area.
I was headed for Witry-Les-Reims situated in the Champagne-Ardenne region and home to my boyfriend’s family seemingly since time began! The first thing I noticed as we drove up to their house (on Rue Boucton) was that the only thing that made it different from the other houses on the street was a sign simply saying ‘Boucton Vettori Champagne.’ Once inside I was greeted with warm smiles and curiosity and almost immediately a glass of champagne, but far from the usual fanfare that I associated with drinking it, they simply opened the fridge and next to the orange juice pulled out a plain green bottle with no labels on, eased out the cork, no flying across the room, a quick ‘sante’ and that was that!
So far so very normal, a lot of people have the odd bottle in their fridge for a special occasion, they just happened to have 4 or 5 chilled and ready to drink with family and friends who stopped by. Fast forward to my first full day in Champagne and I woke to an empty house because Champagne production is a full time job, fields to be tended, grapes to be blended and orders to fulfil. The plan for the ‘new’ girlfriend was a tour of the relatives, covering Witry-Les-Reims and the neighbouring Berru which involved a lot of smiling, grappling with basic level French and drinking copious amounts of Champagne. It’s as normal as offering a cup of tea in England, it’s a sign of hospitality as they welcome you into their home.
Now the Brits have a tendency to be over polite and I lived up to that with a lot of smiling and never refusing a top up which meant after meeting upwards of 20 relatives and never refusing a refill for fear of being seen as rude, I ended the day grinning from ear to ear, speaking what I thought was fluent French and importantly having passed the ‘meet the family’ test.
On a serious note and when upon emerging from my Champagne haze what stood out was how welcoming and normal everyone was, despite producing a product that many people believe is out of reach and only for a certain type of person or occasion. Here we had a family made up of different generations, working on different independent champagnes, incredibly dedicated and all working together for the love of what they do. I was taken into the vineyards, shown the different grapes and taken for a tour of the factory.
But perhaps my greatest insight into the values of this family and their champagne came a few months later when I was invited for the harvest. From the first grape picked to the last it is full-steam ahead, every minute of every day with everyone playing their part. Each morning the women of the family came together to prepare the breakfast with the men, children and others involved in the harvest already hard at work out in the fields. This pattern was repeated throughout the day with the food being prepared, everyone involved arriving at mealtimes, laughing and being together very important and of course the mandatory glass of champagne! This pattern continued until the harvest was done and celebrated with a meal involving a lot of tired people.
This is just the start of the journey of the grapes from vine to bottle, involves a lot more work that you would ever imagine but wouldn’t be possible without the family working together, not to get it ready to sell as quickly as possible but because they love what they do and have been doing it for generations.
9 years later when I visit Champagne, I am still if I’m honest slightly in awe of what they do and what’s produced but now I’m the one lifting the label less green bottle out of the fridge and raising a toast!
Gigi Salmon - Sport Journalist (Freelance sport broadcaster, BBC, ChelseaTV)