Splashes of colour intersperse the vineyards. It is harvest time in Champagne and thousands of people are picking the grapes by hand which offers a great opportunity to take some superb, candid, sometimes funny and very varied photographs. I offer tours and workshops in champagne so am always in the area during this time of the year.
There are thousands of makes of champagne, most of them unknown but to regular visitors. I particularly like going to those small to medium sized ones that make their own champagne with their own grapes and over the years I have discovered and got to know a number of them. These are family owned, some for several generations, and it is to those I like to take my students and visitors because I think it sums up the passion for this delicious, uplifting and celebratory drink and many are better than the famous brands that we all know.
When I received a request from someone in the States interested in taking a photography tour that would turn out to be during the vendanges, I arranged for us to spend an afternoon at Eric Mallet’s in Trélou sur Marne.
Eric Mallet and his brother Philippe both have their own champagne labels and both offer an excellent selection of different delicious champagnes at unbeatable prices for the quality. The family has quite a considerable number of vineyards and as well as making their own labels sell their grapes to such big names as Moet Chandon.
Following a tour in the ‘not to be missed’ Hautvillers, we arrived at the Mallet’s just in time for lunch and joined the 40 or so pickers sitting at tables in the refectory at the Mallet pressoir (wine press in English). A large modern building with 2 wine presses at the back, they press grapes for their own use as well as several smaller producers in the village who do not own their own machines. Working hard in the the kitchen with the chef were Eric and Philippe’s wives and their mother. At grape picking time the whole family pitches in.
The vendangeurs, as the grape pickers are called are well treated by the family with a proper sit down breakfast, 4 course lunch and dinner and are paid by the hour not by the amount of grapes picked, which in my opinion is a fairer way of doing it. This resulted in a happy, elated bunch of French people from all over the country.
We had a marvellous sunny afternoon in the vineyards overlooking the Marne Valley, there were so many photo opportunities it was hard to know which alley to take.and which way to look. They all seemed to move forward at a great pace but there was a lot of laughter and joking and later a few grimaces as the afternoon wore on and it become increasingly hotter and the odd back ache set in. They were picking the Pinot Meunier grapes that go into a classical champagne as they were the first to be picked this season. I recommend a telephoto lens as well as a wide angle. There are lots ofportraits to take as well as the buckets and crates ofgrapes. It is a good opportunity to practice the depth of field. There are some stunning shots to be had using a shallow one and isolating a particular person or object etc.
For some other photography work that I have including a documentary I am putting together, I returned to Eric Mallet’s as well as to two other family producers that I rate highly. Alain Mercier just down the road in Passy sur-Marne has a smaller family run business with his son Romain, that also produces very high quality champagne. Their blanc de blanc is recommended by the guide Hachette and has won a gold medal amongst independent winegrowers in champagne three years running.
They are a delightful family who all take part in the vendanges as well as hiring a team of happy, relaxed, and hardworking people, many of whom had returned from the previous year. Alain Mercier is one of the places I take people to on the photography champagne workshop and most photography tours as their cellar although quite small is very photogenic, the people charming and welcoming and the champagne very good indeed.
My third recommendation is in the picturesque Hautvillers, famous as the home of Dom Perignon , the very beginning of champagne and the not to be missed abbey, where he is buried. When I was setting up my photography tours and workshops in champagne I decided I had to find a good producer here. It might not have been an easy task as there are so many but sometime ago I was given a bottle of champagne which I thought delicious and saw that it came from Hautvillers so I decided to start there.
G. Tribault is housed at the far end of Hautvillers and offers a wonderful view of the vineyards and valley below. I was warmly received by Valerie CouTribault who at once offered me a tasting of their other champagnes and told me the interesting history of her family and how her grandfather started off as a worker for Moet Chandon. Often written up in the French press and referenced by Gault et Millau, their establishment is worth a visit and their champagne starting at at €15.90 for the brut tradition is really good. I was delighted as photography wise, the view is stunning and they have an attractive warehouse that houses an old pressoir that theyuse on rare occasions when making red wine and below are their cellars which Valerie agreed I could take my visitors to.
I spent yesterday afternoon with the family, photographing Ghislain, her father in the vineyards, her brother in the warehouse and Valerie receiving visitors. I saw a British shooting break being loaded up with cases of their champagne and other foreign visitors enthusiastically tasting the different blends.
Tailor made Photography tours to champagne can be arranged all year long. The vineyards are superb in the autumn and can even be attractive in winter. The champagne houses and cellars open for visits offering a diversity of photos, and a glass of champagne is alays welcome at any time of the year and good for your health too!