The Champagne region can seem feudal. Behind the handsome architectural facades of Reims and Epernay is a subterranean world of hard labour: kilometre-after-kilometre of cellars lined floor to ceiling with millions of bottles, all stacked by-hand, and laid one on top of another, like logs in a woodpile.
Within the cellars the climate is brilliantly poised for producing fine wine: temperatures rarely budge from 11 Celsius; there is no natural light; and the humidity means the enclosed populations of jellified moulds and fungi want for nothing. This is the world caveman left behind to stand tall and blonde beneath the warming rays of the strengthening Holocene sun, yet the primitive instinct for dark enclosure is still enacted by Champagne’s Morlock-gangs of bottle stackers, disgorgers and riddlers.
Through the Marne winter, you can trace the tapering trails of smoke back to solitary vineyard workers. The relentless round of pre-pruning, pruning and tying-down reminds you of the Marxist maxim that work can become alienating by its repetition alone. One good man can prune 7,000 vines a day, but the spitefully low cordons rapidly take their toll on adult joints. Like Cossack dancing, someone in Champagne (perhaps a German) just seems to have taken an absurdly wrong step in deciding that grown men should go about their daily business sunk down on their haunches.
Champagne’s separation between production and consumption is stark, though one needs to be careful about crass interpretations of class. The one-man-band viticulteur with 3 hectares of land is worth millions, whilst the assets of the sharp-suited brand ambassador may ultimately lodge with the bank. Moreover, there is a genuine sense of fraternity in France, an underlying loyalty to the larger national project of “Team France”. I point all this out because as drinkers rather than makers of wine, we (in the UK) inevitably view its production through the agreeable obfuscation of consumption. Grape growing is mistakenly seen by many as bucolic, transcendental and quaint.
We (Farmer David Whattoff; John Atkinson MW) began planting Tixover vineyard in May 2005, with the help of a small team of local villagers. Today’s “villagers” aren’t the strong-limbed young men of yore; they’re middleclass and middle-aged, with muscles pulped by long stretches at keyboards and steering wheels. Together we planted 750 vines in a day, and the rain never stopped. Thus began my more visceral and intense relationship with the English weather and its ugly grey churnings. With a full-time job, vineyard work is necessarily squeezed into weekends. At the outset, I had pictured the full magnitude of space brightly drawn into the blue-domed sky above me; but the reality has been more Glastonbury than Woodstock. My imagined idyll has been hijacked by the weather. Just as Freddy Krueger crept into the innocent sleep of children, so frost, deluge and wind have terrorized my winter visits to the vines.
This Blog, then, is about my struggle to grow grapes on a limestone sub-soil at an unlikely 52 degrees north. I have had to learn about chemistry and botany, and I now realise what the historical difference between production and consumption really is. The sense that I listened to all the wrong teachers at school, and concentrated on all the wrong subjects has grown along with the vines. Too many men of my age find they want to re-connect with their youth, yet the incarnation that often emerges from our past is not the energetic, uninhibited self we’d prepared for, but a kind of body of ill-fitting parts, a list of congenital ailments – spondylitis in my case - revealed by a slackening of muscle and sinew. Yet, back problems aside, viticulture keeps me healthy, if not fit. I know what I’m capable of, and I’ve developed a synergy of sorts with the vines: Pinot Noir, I have discovered, can take most of what Nature throws at it without chucking in the towel, and, just like me, it can be kidded by a warm summer’s day into believing that all things are possible.