• In the Champagne for the vintage

    visiting the champagne producer Fleury
    from Gregor Sieböck

    Simone and I travelled to France by train. At first we took the night train to Zurich and when we got on the train shortly before midnight, we immediately received a heartfelt welcome from Mr. Lama, our couchette coach conductor. I must have travelled on night trains over a hundred times so far, but I have never before met such a nice couchette coach conductor! After a comfortable night's rest, he woke us all with a hearty "Good mooooorning!" and served us a delicious breakfast in bed, while the train rolled along the picturesque Lake Zurich. Wispy wafts of mist drifted across the lake and, every now and again, the sun illuminated the landscape on the shore.

    After several transfers and a quite relaxing train journey, we finally arrived Paris's eastern train station. It was a special feeling to walk out into the train station's forecourt. There was a bustle of activity, people and cars were moving in all directions and yet it was surprisingly quiet, almost silent. Thus we stopped for a few minutes, taking in the city, its people and the stillness and then we stepped into the Parisian life. Without following a map, we walked along wide splendorous streets, narrow alleyways with neat shops, colourful fruit stands and nice cafés. The people sat basket chairs with a Café au Lait, gesticulating wildly, and seemed to enjoy life. It was as if the entire world had gathered in the city. A melting pot of countless nations, all skin colours making the city truly colourful.

    When a sudden rain shower made us seek protection under a porch roof, we looked in on a large television set in the opposite restaurant and as soon as we'd stopped, the news was on, reporting about the marathon world record in Berlin, only 2 hours and 3 minutes. The boy downright flew across the finish line... yes and it seemed as if it had only rained so that we would see these images on TV, because the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started and we walked on, along the Seine, all the way to the Eiffel Tower. It had grown dark in the meantime and lots of colourful lights illuminated Paris. An accordion player in a street café, boats drifting past on the Seine, a laugh from a side street and, again and again, the melodic sound of the French language accompanied us back to the train station.

    In the morning, we took the first train to the Champagne and then had to walk for another 30 kilometres to the champagne factory of Monsieur Fleury. Endless fields stretched before us and we set off at a brisk pace. Which was a good thing, because the dead straight street seemed endless. After two hours of walking, an elderly, stout man in a rattletrap car stopped beside us. Before stopping, he'd already caught our attention with a quick but thorough chorus of hooting. He wanted to know where we were headed and offered to give us a lift for a few kilometres. So he put our rucksacks in his boot, closed it with quick release skewers, then stowed away a lot of bits and pieces from the back seats to clear a bit of space for me and offered Simone, who had taken a seat beside him on the passenger seat, a cigar. He apologised for the dismal state of his car and explained that he only used it for hunting. And off he went, losing himself in stories about wild hogs and roebucks, asking us again and again about various things and really testing our French skills with his wild dialect. More than once, Simone and I looked at each other helplessly and replied with a furtive "Qui, qui!" Well, he still had fun with us.

    A while and several stories later, we got out of the car and flew through the vineyard, spurred on by the unexpected "hunter's taxi", to a small village called Courteron, picturesquely situated on the shore of the Seine's headwaters. There, the Fleury family cultivates a biodynamic vineyard on 15 hectares. They have been producing exquisite champagne since 1895, which is exported to places as far as Japan, Brazil, Australia, Martinique and to the US, and likewise to the Zotter chocolate factory.

    When we walked along the main street of the village, we immediately met Jean-Pierre Fleury, the senior manager. He welcomed us heartily and instantly wanted to know how we got to Courteron. A smile flitted across his face when we told him about our stroll through the vineyard and he invited us to walk up to the wine press house to refresh ourselves with a delicious glass of grape juice. He would allow himself a little siesta and would come round later. The vintage was already underway and there was a lot to see and discover!

    Monsieur Jean-Pierre Fleury, the senior partner
    Monsieur Jean-Pierre Fleury, the senior partner
    Harvesting the grapes by hand without a great mechanical effort
    Harvesting the grapes by hand without a great mechanical effort

    In the wine press house, we met Jean-Sébastien and Benoît, who are the fourth generation that continues to run the champagne factory Fleury. Jean-Sébastien established that the vineyards are farmed with horses instead of tractors, for several years he has also had the very special vintage champagnes stored in giant 6,000 litre oak barrels and produces, for the first time, champagne without the addition of sulphur. Benoît takes care of the healthy ground of the vineyard and was busy operating the two gigantic, wooden wine presses that afternoon. Dozens of boxes full of fresh grapes were tipped into the press by hand and once it had been filled to the brim, it could be brought into action. Delicious, fresh grape juice flowed into large stainless-steel tanks in the wine cellar and Monsieur Jean-Pierre Fleury explained, when he returned from his afternoon nap, that it would be an excellent vintage this year. The grapes had a wonderful sourness to them and that's how one could make a glorious vintage champagne - les Millésimes. Each year, 200,000 bottles of champagne are produced and almost as many are sold, while more than a million bottles of champagne are already stored in the cellar.

    Jean-Pierre Fleury took over his parents' company in 1962 - the same year as Rachel Carson's world-famous non-fiction book "Silent spring" first pointed out the problems of using pesticides in agriculture and the risks resulting from it. She explained that chemical sprays not only killed alleged pests but also life itself and she warned that if this uncontrolled use of toxins were to continue, it would be quiet silent in spring in the future because all birds would be dead. As a consequence to the global success of the book, many very toxic chemicals were banned, which contributed to songbirds still heralding spring these days.

    Jean-Pierre had already walked through these vineyards in his childhood and he'd noticed the stench after his father had used pesticides, he'd even gotten dizzy from the fumes. When he was finally able to take on the responsibility of the wine-growing, he quickly converted to organic farming. All his peers in the village laughed at him and thought he was crazy for opposing "progress", but Jean-Pierre simply couldn't farm differently. I asked him if he had learned about organic farming at school, but Jean-Pierre only laughed: "At school? Never, the teachers were firm believers of spraying poison. No, that's not where I learned it. It was mostly my "organic gene" that made me do it - the knowledge must have lived inside myself." He worked with the insights of Rudolf Steiner about biodynamic farming as early as the 1970s and in 1989, he had the entire winery certified as biodynamic - Jean-Pierre Fleury was thus the first champagne producer in the world to operate biodynamically. (Detailed background information about biodynamic cultivation can be found in the "Umathum" report of the Zotter world trip.)

    The vintage was a feast! In the vineyard, each grape is plucked by hand and then transported to the wine press house in large crates. Jean-Pierre Fleury only presses the grapes in a traditional, mechanical and non-automatic wine press because he says it makes a difference that the champagne is made by hand. Similarly, he trusts that the best vintage champagnes in his cellar should be turned several times a day by hand, because it's simply different than letting a machine do the same task. "Why?" I asked him and Jean-Pierre just smiled. He shrugged and said he couldn't explain it to me but he was just positively sure about it: "Everything is vibration."

    The grapes are tipped into the mechanical press
    The grapes are tipped into the mechanical press
    The leftover press cake is scooped into large containers. These press cakes are made into Marc de Champagne in the distillery in the neighbouring village.
    The leftover press cake is scooped into large containers. These press cakes are made into Marc de Champagne in the distillery in the neighbouring village.

    "Everything is vibration". I liked this sentence and also let the work at the wine press house come to life. Yes, it became more and more alive, the more time went by. When the workers returned from the field to the wine press house, several bottles of the delicious Rosé champagne were opened, all workers drank champagne and there seemed to be an endless supply of constantly new bottles. After a communal drink, during which stories were exchanged and glasses were raised to each other, small groups formed once again and the work continued: Fill the press, press, scoop the press cake into a large box - what exhausting work, I helped to scoop for only five minutes and felt it myself - clean the press and fill again; or, for the very special rosé champagne, sort out all grapes and only use the best ones, remove the stems and then press. There was always something to do and each worker seemed to be able to perform all tasks. Everyone worked slowly, without stress, but efficiently because each movement was perfect. There was also no hierarchy. Jean-Pierre and Jean-Sébastien Fleury worked just like all the others, they took part in driving the fork-lifts, cleaning the presses and sorting the grapes as well as drinking the champagne with the workers. Cleanliness and aesthetics marked the work process and it was important to everyone to do the work well and consciously. This all probably contributes to Fleury champagne tasting so great and the grape juice was also heavenly - especially that for the rosé champagne. I believe I have never before in my life drunk such delicious, sweet grape juice!

    The grape juice for the rosé champagne is being produced: for this, all grapes are sorted by hand and the stems removed in a machine, only then is the delicious juice pressed.
    The grape juice for the rosé champagne is being produced: for this, all grapes are sorted by hand and the stems removed in a machine, only then is the delicious juice pressed.
    Tasting the grape juice for the rosé champagne... the juice tasted heavenly
    Tasting the grape juice for the rosé champagne... the juice tasted heavenly

    And Zotter? The Marc de Champagne chocolate does not use champagne, but Marc de Champagne. This is a distillate that is made from the press cake, which is turned into high-percentage alcohol (61%). A friend of Jean-Pierre Fleury distills the Marc de Champagne in the neighbouring village. Every year, Zotter processes 1,000 litres of Marc de Champagne in his chocolates.

    This is where the Marc de Champagne is stored.
    This is where the Marc de Champagne is stored.
    For each delivery to Zotter, a sample of the delivered Marc de Champagne is kept.
    For each delivery to Zotter, a sample of the delivered Marc de Champagne is kept.

    When it was already ten o'clock at night, Jean-Pierre Fleury invited us to dinner in the nearby Gîte d'Étappe. It is run by a Polish family. Many years ago, the family came to work at Fleury as harvest hands and stayed. The daughter fell in love with Jean-Sébastien and the two have a daughter together: the little Rosalia. She will probably continue to run the family business Fleury one day, from then on simply a French-Polish business with a long-standing tradition! With wine and cheese we sat together until late at night. What I remember of this evening are the sparkling eyes and the gentle voice of Monsieur Fleury... and so we all fell peacefully asleep after this very special vintage feast!

    Monsieur Fleury in the champagne cellar.
    Monsieur Fleury in the champagne cellar.