Change The Way You Consider Champagne

 


How big is your wine library? This time we aren’t talking about bottles. Here, we are speaking about actual books. While web articles and top ten lists provide a quick and easy way to digest wine knowledge, there exists a panoply of skilled authors who have dedicated their time and talents to unearthing wine magic in long-form, highly researched tomes. And there is no wine more magical than champagne: “In victory, one deserves champagne; in defeat, one needs it!” In making this sparkling declaration, Napoleon became one of the first individuals to put champagne on the map. He would not be the last. Throughout history, larger-than-life characters - such as La Belle Époque’s La Goulue, a showgirl who guzzled champagne on the dance floor of  the Moulin Rouge, or “Champagne Charlie,” who is credited with introducing champagne to America - have come to embrace champagne as the epitome of effervescence, the centerpiece of celebration, and the elixir of the luxurious. Join us as we sample a scintillating tract from James Beard Award-winning author Alan Tardi’s latest book, Champagne, Uncorked.
Related Imagery
Alan Tardi is an award-winning author and wine expert.
It’s a typical late-autumn day in Champagne. Dampness hangs heavy in the sky, as if it can’t decide whether to rain or snow or just sit there, while the pallid sun makes a halfhearted attempt to break through the haze but quickly gives up and crawls back under cover.
 
The vineyards that were green and vibrant and crawling with people just a few weeks ago are now mostly deserted, punctuated by the occasional vigneron (winegrower) on a low portable stool getting a jump-start on pruning, while the gnarly bare vines complacently slip into lethargy.
 
There’s an odd quiet, a pervasive feeling of suspension. A pall has fallen over Champagne like a thick down blanket—well, most of it.
 
Walk up boulevard Lundy, away from the center of Reims, and turn right onto a narrow side street called rue Coquebert. Several meters in on the left you come to a maroon gate, opening onto a large rectangular courtyard bordered by a three-sided conglomeration of two-story neoclassical buildings. 
 
A chain across the entryway keeps trespassers out, and inside, blue-jumpsuited workers roll old barrels from one side of the courtyard into an opening on the other, moving slowly and methodically, as if thinking of lunch or the holidays ahead.
 
Built into the center of the concrete façade under an eave at the far end of the courtyard is a large clock—the time is 10:54—and on the second floor, directly under the clock, is a room that looks out onto the courtyard.
 
The space inside the room is simple and functional, even a bit bare. The walls and ceiling are a neutral creamy white, and in the center is a large smooth-topped kidney-shaped table with five round sinks built into it, each with its own faucet, waterspout, and drain. A cluster of tall, tapered, clear glass bottles sits in the center of the table. The liquid inside them varies from transparent beige to pale yellow, and each bottle sports a small handwritten label displaying a few letters and numbers.
 
The table is surrounded by five tall swivel chairs, three of which are occupied.    
 
This day began like any other: as each arrived at rue Coquebert and traversed the courtyard to their workplaces, there was the usual flurry of air kisses, handshakes, and “Salut, ça va?” with jump-suited workers and colleagues. At around nine o’clock they congregated in the coffee closet, as they do most every day, to chat and gossip over an espresso, then went about their business. But it wouldn’t be business as usual for long because, despite outward appearances, today is not just any day.
 
Today is the first tasting of the wines from the most recent harvest of 2013, the beginning of an exhaustive process that will last for months and result in critical decisions that will resonate for many years to come. And, while they might try to feign otherwise, the three young enologists are well aware of it.
 
There’s a pervasive, barely contained sense of tension and anticipation in the air, as if they’ve been dealt a hand of cards in a high-stakes game of poker and can’t wait to see what they’ve got.
 
But they can’t look yet. So they sit in silence, swiveling back and forth or staring off into space, each in their own world. 
 
The recent harvest was not easy, but it got done; the grapes were picked and crushed, the juice fermented, the wines made. And now samples of fifteen of them are sitting in the clear glass bottles on the table.
 
The clock ticks steadily on. These quiet minutes are a fulcrum, a luxurious moment of reflection and anticipation, a brief pause at a bend in the long road that lies ahead. In a way, their work is done. In another way, it is just beginning.
 
As the big hand inches up to twelve and the smaller hand settles squarely in front of eleven, the door opens and the chef de cave bounces briskly into the room clutching a big black notebook. He says bonjour to no one in particular, slips into his seat, and pauses a moment to look up and around at the three individuals who have suddenly sat up to attention. As he opens the notebook, the corners of his mouth crinkle into the slightest hint of a smile, pen poised in readiness before the blank page. “So, shall we begin?”
 
Want to read more? Pre-order Champagne, Uncorked on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indie Bound.
 
Alan Tardi is a former New York City chef, restaurateur and sommelier. As a freelance journalist, he has written numerous stories about wine and food for publications including The New York Times, Wine & Spirits, Wine Spectator, Food Arts and Decanter. For much of the past decade, Tardi has lived in the village of Castiglione Falletto in the Barolo region of Piedmont, Italy. His previous book, Romancing the Vine: Life, Love and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo, won the James Beard Award for Best Wine and Spirits Book of 2006.

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