September in Essoyes…
“Catastrophique,” she said. And despite the vaunted gloominess of the French, she was smiling as she said it. But this was a c’est la vie, whatcha gonna do? smile, a smile in the mouth only, not the eyes: and I knew there was nothing really to smile about this year when discussing the vendange, the annual grape harvest.
It has not been an easy year for the vignerons in this area, whose year-round, painstaking, exacting work brings the world one of life’s greatest pleasures…champagne!
The difficulty this year began in the spring, when a late frost (in early May) destroyed from 75%-90% of the grapes in l’Aube, where Essoyes is located. That was followed by a month of cold, steady rain, resulting in problems with mildew.
Then, as if to add insult to injury, at the end of the summer, after weeks of unseasonably warm, dry weather, the vendange began, at least here in Essoyes, on September 15 with a heavy rainfall. This was harder on the vendengeurs than on the vignerons, of course, since they are the ones to do the back-straining, knee-bending work of cutting the grapes off of the vines by hand. I felt for those gens de voyage camped on the edge of our village when I heard that heavy rain coming down from inside my safe, warm home as I awoke. The lucky ones are staying in motorized caravans, the less fortunate had slept in tents the night before. It must have been a pretty discouraging start to the day, and the week ahead, for them.
All of this is why my friend, our friend Jacques‘s daughter, used the word catastrophique in reference to this year’s champagne crop. “Oh, it’s not so bad, they’ve got plenty of money,” someone in the village said when I expressed dismay at the tough luck this year. It’s true, the vignerons have certainly prospered generally speaking. But they also have huge expenses to meet, large, heavy equipment to maintain, staffs to pay. It can’t be easy, especially when there is a string of bad years.
When I first started learning about the making of champagne I stopped wondering about why it costs what it does, and began to wonder how it could be sold at the price it is sold. Champagne, unlike other wines, is first of all, one of only two wines in that must still be picked by hand. Secondly, it almost always made of a blend of years (the exception is millésime champagnes, bottled during particularly good years). Therefore there is a need for more storage space than with other wines: unlike wines that can be bottled, shipped, and sold, leaving the warehouse empty until the next harvest, champagne must be kept for several years as it goes through the complicated process of being bottled; “turned” numerous times; disgorged, recapped, etc. In the old days it was said that champagne had to be “touched” so many times. Now much of the “touching” is done by machine. But it still takes a lot of time, it requires special machinery and special handling, and that all takes up both space and time.
And so it has been a difficult year for the people who work so hard to bring us the pleasure of drinking champagne. I say this not to lessen your pleasure the next time you are lucky enough to raise a flute of perfectly chilled bubbly to your lips: but to increase your appreciation of the many people who have worked so hard to bring it to the state of perfection that you are about to experience.
This weekend was a national celebration of patrimoine, generally translated as “heritage,” which is a somewhat unsatisfactory translation, not because it is not accurate but because Americans in particular generally have much less regard for and interest in their cultural heritage than the French do. So patrimoine is a stronger, more meaningful word in French than “heritage” is in American English. In any case, there were special events all over France, including the opening of the Elysée Palace to the public. In Essoyes our local historian, Bernard Pharisien, who has written numerous books on the history of the Renoir family, and also on the Heriot family, founders of Les Grands Magazines du Louvre, gave several talks today. And–as a very special treat–we were invited to peek inside the first house that the Renoirs rented in Essoyes, when Aline had convinced her husband to tear himself away from Paris, and spend some time here, in her birthplace. The house, which is privately owned and not open to the public, has been left more or less untouched since that time, and it was quite a moving experience to be there.
Meanwhile, work is picking up at the Maison Renoir, the family home across the street from that first rental home, which the Renoirs purchased in the 1890s, and where they spent many happy summers, and later even longer stretches until le maitre’s arthritis forced a move to the South of France. This is a major effort for a small village, but they have the support of the département, and of the Patrimoine de France, which is allowing donations to be earmarked to support this project.
The house belonged to, and was used by Sophie Renoir, great-granddaughter of the painter, and her family until a few years ago, when she and her brother decided to sell it to the village of Essoyes. When the work is finished and the house is open to the public, it will be a wonderful addition to the already fine small local historical museum, which is maintained by the village, and which includes an interpretive center telling the story of the life of the Renoir family in Essoyes and the painter’s studio, not far from the village cemetery where the painter, his wife, and all three of their sons are buried. And although there will still be no paintings as part of the permanent collection in Essoyes, one of the things budgeted for in the restoration of the home is provision for the climactic control conditions that will allow original works to be borrowed from time to time.
It’s very exciting to see this work go forward, and very impressive as well, for a village of only 750 citizens. I’ll be watching their progress and reporting on it through the next few months. It is scheduled to open at the end of May 2017, in connection with the department-wide “Year of Renoir.”
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher of writing and of literature. She divides her time between the U.S. and France, where she offers writing workshops in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in the Champagne region.