A Year in Champagne: SBIFF Review

Revelations about France’s most famous beverage only enhance its allure. 

Following up "A Year in Burgundy," writer-director David Kennard uncorks the second in a series of fine-wine documentaries.

Seizing on a worldwide fascination with all of the pleasure and luxury that producing and imbibing this signature sparkling wine implies, A Year in Champagne entertainingly guides viewers through the winemaking process and takes them behind the scenes to hear from the vintners who put the magic in the bottle. Quality production values, engaging scripting and fascinating characters make the film a fine fit for broadcast or cable, with obvious potential to benefit from niche theatrical in strategically targeted markets.

Adopting the same seasonal progression as A Year in Burgundy, the film starts off with springtime in France’s principal Champagne districts, located in the northeast of the country along the Marne River — one of the world’s most northerly wine-producing regions. The 2012 vintage begins with warm weather in April, but quickly turns to nearly incessant chilly, rainy conditions. The vineyards’ chalky soils get inundated by the deluge and the grapevines struggle to start the year’s crop as the spring flowering period approaches.

For the Gonet-Medeville family of Champagne makers, the bad weather holds the potential to significantly depress the harvest, which can be financially ruinous for small producers. Even for the most prestigious Champagne houses like Gosset, which relies on buying grapes from hundreds of small growers, a poor crop can adversely affect the quality of the entire vintage.

The inclement weather continues into midsummer, however, necessitating repeated crop sprayings to suppress mildew and harmful insects. By the time the harvest begins in August, a significant portion of the crop has been lost, but the remaining grapes are of fairly good quality, although only time will tell as the wines age in bottle whether the vintage has been saved. “All of our struggles disappear when we see people enjoying our wine,” remarks winemaker Jacques Diebolt, hopeful that 2012 will be another notable vintage. 

Throughout the nail-biting growing season, French-born California wine importer Martine Saunier visits Champagne producers both large and small, from the family-operated Diebolt-Vallois label up to Bollinger, one of the largest and most influential companies in the market. It becomes abundantly apparent that the non-marketing approach adopted by many of these winemakers is a smart move, since the most influential marketing plan allows Champagne’s reputation to speak for itself. “We transformed [wine] appellations into brands,” remarks one producer. With more than 200 years of history and a track record that includes serving the royal courts of Europe, the wine hardly needs much promotion.

What Champagne production does demand, however, is a great deal of expertise. From the winery managers who supervise the intake of the precious grape harvest, to the cellar workers who move the pressed juice into fermentation vats, to the winemakers who craft the blends of wines that undergo a second fermentation in Champagne bottles to produce that inimitable sparkle — everyone displays a high level of technical expertise, all regulated by labyrinthine layers of rules that dictate grape production and winemaking techniques. By the time winter comes around, most of the activities center on getting the finished wines into barrel or bottle for further maturation and determining the optimum blends of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier-based wines for the next vintage.

While Kennard’s film touches on many of these considerations, primarily it’s a celebration of the sparkling wine most often associated with … celebrations. Undeterred by the unseasonable weather through most of the spring and summer, Kennard and his crew slog out into the downpours and saturated vineyards with handheld cameras, doggedly tracking the winemakers as they assess the condition of their crops and prospects for harvest. Then they plunge into the vast, dimly lit underground cellars beneath the Champagne merchants’ properties to catch a glimpse of some of the hundreds of thousands of bottles that have been stored in their private collections.

Saunier, who also served as a producer on A Year in Burgundy, knows this market and many of the producers intimately, so the winemakers are fairly forthcoming overall in their interviews, as she graciously inquires into their production practices. However, they remain somewhat cagey about the exact methods required to create their sparkling wines, wary of disclosing any trade secrets that could give competitors an edge. Lively scripting by Kennard helps keep the focus on the mystique of the Champagne trade, the talents of the producers and the allure for consumers, although a bit more detail on the winemaking process might have been informative for newcomers.

Ultimately, however, it’s A Year in Champagne’s dedication to sharing the winemakers’ own experiences, along with their anecdotes about this most quintessential of wines, that makes the film so enticing.

Production: InCA Productions

Director: David Kennard

Screenwriter: David Kennard

Producers: David Kennard, Martine Saunier, Jamie LeJeune

Executive producer: Todd Ruppert

Directors of photography: Jamie LeJeune, James Kennard

Editors: Jamie LeJeune, James Kennard

No rating, 84 minutes