The French village of Trépail is even quieter than I thought. The houses seem deserted, and the shutters are closed. Here and there, a worn-out van passes by, with drivers looking at us curiously. Even though we are in Champagne, the villagers are clearly not used to tourists. Our car turns a corner, and we arrive at Rue de La Mairie. The time has come! This is the home of David Léclapart: champagne maker, promoter of biodynamic viticulture and above all: living legend. I can’t believe my luck. After years of silent worship, I am going to meet David and better yet: I’ll be staying for a week to help with the champagne harvest of 2021.
Champagne harvest 2021 marks a year full of tears
For me, “champagne harvest 2021” may be a celebration; there is little to celebrate for champagne farmers this year. After a severe winter frost, twelve days of unexpected spring frosts followed in April and May. As a result, 20% to 80% of the harvest was already lost. As if this wasn’t enough, the Champagne region had to deal with heavy hail and rain showers in the summer. The dampness made the vines vulnerable to farmers’ worst fear: mildew. This fungus attacks the leaves of the vines and turns the juicy grapes into dry, shrivelled clumps of misery. Many champagne farmers were able to limit the damage with chemical treatments. The organic and biodynamic farmers, however, could do nothing but watch helplessly. With some of them, more than 90% of the harvest went up in smoke.
“This is the worst harvest year of my life,” David says as he pours a glass of water. He puts it as fact and seems in a good mood. I’ve just shaken his hand nervously and we’re sitting at a long dining table in a garage that this week serves as a hotel for his grape pickers. In the corner is a large cardboard sign with a drawn world map. Everyone who comes over to help is on it, in the country where he or she comes from. The name “Inge” points to a small yet accurate drawing of the Netherlands. David’s wife Carole comes in and follows my gaze. “That’s David’s work,” she explains. “He loves to bring in people from abroad. This year, there’ll be pickers from Spain, the Netherlands, France, Japan, Sweden and Argentina.”
Indeed, in the late hours of Saturday afternoon, the nationalities trickle in one by one. Some pickers help every year and greet David and Carole like long lost friends. Others, like me, are here for the first time and timidly shake hands. I get it: David Léclapart is not your everyday wine maker. His champagnes are among the best in the world.
Like other biodynamic farmers, David focuses on vineyard health, while working with the positions of the moon and planets, as well as the water and energy flows in the vineyard. After the juice has been put in tanks and casks, he hands over the process to nature and stops any kind of interference. The Léclapart wines are made from one vintage exclusively (yet they’re no official millésimes) and come from only four hectares of land where no chemicals and pesticides are used. The complexity is high and the volume is low, which makes the Léclapart champagnes not only fantastically brilliant, but also quite rare. The bottles are sporadically available online, even his “entry-level champagne” l’Amateur.
This rarity does not exist in the Léclapart house, as during dinner, l’Amateur appears on the dining table in sixfold. David fills more than twenty glasses and chants the names of the pickers one by one, and he’s met with cheers and applause. Everyone is served a plate of crispy, warm pâté en croute while bread baskets with baguettes are passed on. The party has started and will last until 3 am.
Breakfast in the vineyard
The next morning, I find myself at the same dining table at 7 am. Picker after picker enters, welcomed by a hungover “bonjour” from the others. We drink a cup of coffee and eat a cookie; we’ll get the real breakfast later. David and his son Martin direct us to a couple of vans and fifteen minutes later we arrive at the first plot. I get a bucket and a pair of scissors, and David shows us how to pick grapes. My concerns about my inexperience turn out to be unfounded: you find the stem of the bunch of grapes and cut it off there. That’s really all there’s to it. Grapes that are affected by mildew and oidium must be cut too but can be left on the ground. I do my first couple of rows with Rui, a Japanese girl I met the day before. She loves organic champagne as much as I do, and we start our working day happily chattering.
Bending and squatting
When I told people at home that I was going to help with the champagne harvest, most of them frowned. “Better you than me,” they told me. After fifteen minutes of picking grapes, I understand why. Harvesting is not hard, but it ruins your back. The vines are about three feet high, which means you have to move around the vineyard half bending and half squatting. That’s fine for ten minutes, but then your muscles start to protest. Just when I’m about to collapse, I hear shouting: “tout le monde, le petit déjeuner est prêt!”. Breakfast, thank goodness.
At the sight of breakfast, the pain pulls out of my back. At the edge of the vineyard is a long table, filled with cheese, sausage, baguette, butter and chocolate. David’s son Martin opens a bottle of red Côteaux Champenois: a light, cherry-tasting wine from the Léclapart house. It’s barely a quarter past nine in the morning, but drinking feels like the right thing to do. The sun rises from behind the hills and warms our hands. I eat a piece of baguette with country pâté and happily sip my côteaux champenois.
The combination of hard work, alcohol and food turns out to be the theme of the week. Every day around noon we gather in the dining room for lunch, which is getting more spectacular by the day. David has culinary friends all over the Champagne region, and the chefs of starred restaurants L’Assiette Champenoise and Racine alternate in the kitchen. We get beef bourguignon, lemon chicken, tarte tatin and the crunchiest porcetta I’ve ever tasted.
On the third day, chef Kazu of restaurant Racine puts kilos of homemade duck pâté with foie gras on the table, to great applause from those present. I learn that it was David who encouraged Kazu to start his own restaurant, an effect he seems to have on more people. Among the pickers is also Alejandro Muchada, a winemaker from Marco de Jerez, a historic wine region in Andalusia, Spain. Alejandro was so impressed with David’s way of making champagne that he quit his job as an architect and started producing Spanish wines with David under the name Muchada-Léclapart. The collaboration turned out great and I’m happy to see some of their bottles on the dinner table. Never before have I added so many different wines to my Vivino account in one evening.
First, let’s dance
On the fourth day, the harvest week comes to an abrupt end. So far, we’ve only picked Chardonnay, and the Pinot Noir fields that are left are almost completely destroyed by hail and mildew. In the morning we manage to fill a few buckets per person, and then it’s done. As we hand in our buckets and clippers for the last time, I see David looking thoughtfully at the vineyard. Clearly, champagne harvest 2021 won’t make a great year. “Are you worried?” I ask him. “Nope,” David replies. “It’s a pity, but it’s nature. Sometimes you get a lot, sometimes you get nothing. And now we’re going to have lunch!”
When we return to Trépail, we’re welcomed by party music. The dinner table is set and to my surprise several bottles of l’Apôtre appear on the table: my favourite champagne. David may have lost a large part of his harvest; it doesn’t keep him from handing out champagne. I decide to immediately convert this week’s salary into a few Léclapart bottles. I’m just about to ask him when I look out the window and see him dancing in the middle of the street. “Thank you Japan, thank you Sweden, thank you Spain!” he calls to the slightly tipsy people around him. “On to next year, but first we dance.”