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A Year in Champagne

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Champagne is magically joyful. Yet few understand the struggle involved in creating it.

Documentary filmmaker David Kennard is making a trilogy of films about three distinctive wines (burgundy, champagne and port), and the second of these, A Year in Champagne, will premier at this year's Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Like his earlier and much noted A Year in Burgundy, this film is a vibrant, openhearted look at some of the people who make a very special wine. It takes us on a tour of the Champagne landscape and introduces us to the extremely complex undertaking of producing the most famous libation ever.

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Used courtesy of InCA Productions.

Champagne is north and east of Paris, the most northerly wine-growing region in France. Unlike in Burgundy, where the weather in wine season is generally sunny and warm, in Champagne it is almost always more inclement than not, year round. So a good portion of this film seems to have been made under an umbrella. It features a lot of mud, cold and foul-weather gear. That the wine so noted for sprightly bubbles and light-hearted festivity comes from this often difficult setting is the first of many surprises in the film.

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Used courtesy of InCA Productions.

Champagne, of course, is also the site of some of the most terrifying events in the history of war. There were two battles fought along the Marne River during World War I. The first, in September 1914, resulted in half a million casualties. The second, four years later, resulted in 300,000 more. It was butchery on an astounding scale. But such war has been fought in this part of France for millennia, between Gauls, Ostrogoths, Romans and many others. As one of the champenois interviewed for this film says, "History haunts the champagne region."

In an interview, Kennard himself recounted how he has often heard such utterances as "We are a people scarred by war" and "We have been involved time and time again."

Given these two deleterious elements, it is almost an astonishment that the wine called champagne exists at all. But when they talk about the wine they make, the vintners in the film constantly use language filled with expressions of joy. One advises us, "The important thing is to make sure that your glass is never empty." Another suggests, "Drinking champagne is all about pleasure." A third even offers the thought that "Champagne makes women more lovely and men more witty."

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Used courtesy of InCA Productions.

A Year in Champagne gives the viewer an inside look at how this place besieged by conflict and cold rain produces the wine that is synonymous with celebration. From the buds on the vines in spring, through the summer growing season and the harvest itself, we learn from the vintners about the almost numbing complexity of the process. In a long and quite amusing sequence, the film spells out the forest of rules that each champagne vintner must follow every year in the preparation of the fields and vines. There seem to be hundreds of specific ways in which the vines must be secured, treated and harvested, and in which the wine -- to be called champagne -- must be made.

Despite all this -- or perhaps because of it -- the final product is the most famous wine in the world. One of the great virtues of this film is that it shows in detail the wine-making process, rules and all, and gives the answer to the question that everyone who enjoys champagne has: how do they make the bubbles? It is a much more difficult undertaking than you might have imagined.

The film explains a few other phenomena of which the viewer may not have been aware. At first champagne was an exclusively sweet wine. The English (most particularly the English royal family) wanted a drier version of it. Of course, when someone like Edward VII asks a vendor to do something, that vendor springs to action. Also, the bubbles in part require fermentation of the wine in the bottle rather than in the barrel and, early on, English glass was always the one most able to withstand the pressure that the bubbles produced. So England had a lot to do with making champagne as we know it now.

Early in the 19th century, champagne was a village industry, its product enjoyed by just a few connoisseurs. But with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871, Germans too learned about champagne. Over time, large German corporations stepped in and began buying up small vineyards, and it was the Germans who first industrialized the champagne-making process. Thus was champagne made available to the world. A look at some of the big names in champagne -- Bollinger, Krug, Roederer and so on -- reflects the German influence.

To be successful, a growing industry requires good marketing, and champagne was one of the first wine products to take advantage of the new branding ideas of the early 20th century. Several of the vintners in A Year in Champagne tell that, while other French wines emphasize the importance of terroir (the very makeup of the soil in which certain grapes are grown), the excellence of a champagne brand rests upon the abilities of the maker. So the marketing of those makers' names is central to the product's fame.

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Used courtesy of InCA Productions.

Champagne lifts the soul in a glorious way that one would not expect from the location, weather and history of the place where it is made. But as one of the vintners in this lovely film declares, "Once you open the bottle, the magic is there."

Terence Clarke's new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this year.