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November 30, 2011

Why Champagne’s not the girl you think she is …

30 November 2011 | by Andrea Frost

For many years I was of the belief that putting on a façade was as great a sin as telling a lie but in the fullness of time, and with the richness of experience, I have come to learn that sometimes, putting on a brighter face is simply showing the world that you have a greater capacity for life than it does for dishing out hardship.

I think everyone has a mask. Freud certainly thought so, most people I know have something they smile in spite of and as I was driving away from Champagne, I wondered if it was possible for a place to have one too.

Synonymous with celebration, luxury, glamour and wealth, Champagne is the wine as comfortable lounging across double-page spreads in fashion magazines as at premier events the world over, enabling those who aspire to such glamour – sip by sip, glass by luxury glass.

So, naturally, when I arrived in the region I was expecting a buzz of red carpets and gowns, heels and gloss, song and dance. But Champagne the image and Champagne the place seemed so vastly different that I wondered how one was borne from the other.

The first thing I noticed was that Champagne seemed bleak: a landscape of flat rolling hills and wide yawning valleys with little that was natural and recognisably Champagne. Her natural icons are intangible. They are her stories. They are her myths. They are as much about the exotic places she has travelled to, the parties she has been to and the people she knows than anything she has to show at home.

History doesn’t properly explain her international reputation for luxury and celebration either. There were the French kings, nearly all of who were crowned at the local Reims Cathedral thereby making Champagne a centre of celebration. But those festivities stopped two centuries ago and what came after that was not so joyous.

As the crossroads of important trade routes, Champagne was contested for centuries as far back as Attila the Hun and as recently as the last world wars. The only other feature as ordered as the rows of vines in Champagne are the rows of crosses erected in honour of those who fell across her land.

Beyond the luxury houses, architecture also belies the ‘It Girl’ image. Instead of domes that strobe with gold like those in nearby Paris, some buildings in Epernay still bear the scars of bullets. In many villages, the closed architecture defined by inward-facing buildings and high walls was initially designed to protect a community tired of being invaded so often, over so many years. Flower boxes of happy geraniums attached to the walls are an attempt, I was told, to appear more welcoming to the modern and curious world.

These layers of hardship and sadness that lie beneath the image she presents to the world seem even more adverse because of Champagne’s propensity to offer a joyous face for other people’s celebrations. Her bright disposition has been borrowed, time and again, to lift a melancholy mood in others.

Beautiful, glamorous, perfect Champagne – with such history? And yet still it is poured.

I’m reminded of family dynasties that continue to perform in the spotlight, despite being laden with their own tragedies.

I thought about other regions and what they put as their best foot forward and I wondered why Champagne, whose history is bleak and scarred and fought over, cultivated an image which is globally synonymous with celebration. But then I figured it was precisely because Champagne has a history that is bleak and scarred and fought over that it chose this image.

“Birds sing after a storm,” said Rose F Kennedy, “why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever remains to them?”

And delight they do. The large and magnificent houses continue to lift the red rope for visitors wishing to spend some time between the sheets of luxury; an emerging band of growers make their own wine that speaks of their place and of its land; biodynamic producers are turning back the clock on viticultural progress, ridding their blocks of chemical advances and showing a new and greater sensitivity for the land. Even the vines show resilience to adversity being the only thing able to grow in such difficult conditions.

All of them in their own way continuing to make a wine that is as beautiful to drink as it is to taste, as pleasing to bestow as it is to receive, and as credible a drink as any to lead a celebration.

Champagne was a place I thought I knew, but after seeing beyond the facade I realised I had misjudged her. She is, after all, just like any of us. As I drove away, I thought that, despite our scars, we could all learn something from Champagne and show a great capacity for life and revel in the delights that remain ours.