Reviews

'A Year in Champagne' Is All Fruit and No Acidity

There's plenty of dazzle but little depth in this champagne documentary.


A Year in Champagne

Director: David Kennard
Cast: Martine, Saunier, Xavier Gonet, Julie Médeville, Jérôme Philipon, Stephane Coquillette, Christian Coquillette, Jacques Diebolt, Isabel Diebolt, Arnaud Diebolt, Jean-Pierre Mareigner
Distributor: First Run Features
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2014
US DVD release date: 2015-05-12

A Year in Champagne is a fruit-forward film. Captivating and entertaining as it is in the moment, once you get past the initial rush of flavor, there isn’t much complexity to entertain the palate. Part documentary, part tourism puff piece, part industry PR film, A Year in Champagne follows several champagne makers over the course of 2012, in a narrative structured by the seasons that explains each step in the champagne-making process, the current state of the champagne business, and the history of the region. David Kennard co-produced, wrote, directed, and also narrated the film.

A Year in Champagne is packed with information and trivia geared to a general audience; much of it is likely old news to oenophiles. Champagne is the northernmost wine-producing region in France, where the soil is chalky. There are a billion bottles of champagne cellared there, all accounted for by the data-crazy community of winemakers. A négociant makes wine from grapes or juice produced by others. Britain is responsible for the current preference for dry champagne -- it used to be sweeter. There are strict rules for how grape vines can be pruned, for when and how long winemakers many harvest their grapes, and for the amount of juice that may be squeezed from a mass of grapes of a given weight.

The film is beautiful to behold. Long shots of the gorgeous vineyard-filled countryside and picturesque towns of the region complement interior sequences of winemakers cleaning vats, crushing grapes, and inspecting their cellars. The result is a rich, evocative picture of the wine world. One stand-out scene follows octogenarian winemaker Christian Coquiette as he takes importer Martine Saunier on a tour of his cellar.

All the subjects interviewed for the film are informative, articulate, and charming. So what’s not to like?

Covering a year of winemaking from the perspective of multiple makers and explicating all facets of the business is an ambitious itinerary for an 82-minute film. The opening scene of A Year in Champagne reveals the problem with such an exhaustively inclusive approach. As part of the celebration of his 40th birthday, winemaker Xavier Gonet takes an early-morning hot-air balloon ride, from which vantage point he views the vineyards of the region. It’s a striking and commanding perspective, but also a superficial one. Despite all the shots of mud puddles and close-ups of glistening grape clusters, A Year in Champagne never leaves that surveyed-from-above view of the industry.

One lesson we learn from the winemakers interviewed for the film is that well-made wine requires a component of acidity that balances out the rounder flavors.

A Year in Champagne lacks that acid component. You can imagine that every frame was approved by the winemakers and by the Union of Champagne Houses spokesman Ghislain de Montgolfier, who makes several appearances in the film. Surely there are rivalries and jealousies among the wine houses of Champagne. The notorious regulations of the region: do these not chafe at the winemakers? You won’t learn of it in this film.

The makers are presented as a chummy, unified group of like-minded artisans whose only struggles are with nature, climate, and the business of wine, here represented rather abstractly, perhaps to draw attention away from the fact that the appearance on screen of importer Saunier, who co-produced the film, skews the documentary toward the promotional. Saunier and Kennard also produced A Year in Burgundy (2013).

To his credit, Kennard includes a section about the toll taken on the region by centuries of invasions, but he does his best not to let this sober intrusion bring the audience down. Why else compare the remembrance of suffering as a “ghost at a party”? Worse still, especially for a film released during the centennial of the Great War, he observes late in the film that the “the incessant rain is turning the fields into a mudbath, reminiscent of the trenches in World War I.”

Another quibble: the soundtrack, made up mostly of popular classical pieces, is predictable and uninspired. Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz” plays during the balloon scene, for example. It’s one of the many ways the film concedes that its only surprises are carefully calculated ones, played out within the safe confines of History Channel-friendly fare.

Extras include scenes that expand upon topics covered in the film, which is none the worse for their exclusion.

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