An autumn in Champagne
What do you think of when you hear Champagne? A flute filled with luscious bubbles of gold, the gentle fizz of the bubbles floating to the surface and perhaps spilling over the rim?
Row upon green row of vineyards? Rain and grey skies that incite envy for the climes further south, a little closer to the Mediterranean? To be sure, if you think any one of these, you’re not far from the truth.
However, there is so much more to Champagne. The north east is blessed with an autumn beauty that defies description, or rather, a description that can do it justice. A beauty that transcends mere notions of sights to see, a beauty that compels us to engage all sensory functions and, often, a beauty that threatens to leave us longing for four seasons of autumn, happy to discard the flowers of spring, the hot sun of summer, the snow of winter, and leave, in its place twelve months of the almost ephemeral air of that season that North Americans call fall.
Les Faux de Verzy, in the mountains of Reims, is a deciduous forest. No ordinary forest, though, as its denizens include the enigmatic beech trees called ‘tortuosa’ – trees that are almost exceptional in Europe (they can be found in particular forests in Germany and Sweden but are otherwise restricted to this forest in France) and which resemble larger scale bonsais, with their deformed looking trunks and branches.
These trees themselves lend a mystical air to the forest all year round but, come autumn, can easily be upstaged by the spectacle of rust and maroon, violet and gold, ochre and peach, coral and plum, as the leaves change and tumble to the forest floor, and, in doing so, change the entire dynamic of the forest.
The whistle of the wind in the tree tops, as it caresses and tickles the leaves and branches of the tallest trees, seems more audible at this time of year. The crunch and crackle of the leaves underfoot can also be heard, as the brittleness – seemingly a kind of vocal stubbornness on the part of the leaves not to yield to the weight exerted upon them by those taking an afternoon stroll – replaces the suppleness of the summer leaves strengthened by warmth, sunshine and an abundance of chlorophyll.
The air is fresh and cool in autumn and tinged with a subtle scent, a scent that conjures much more than mere adjectives can characterise. ‘Earthy’ says everything and yet nothing. In any case, it is inconsistent – walk five steps in any direction and it changes, from a box of mushrooms opened after five days in the dark to a box of newly chopped firewood, from the fine, black compost in an advanced stage of decomposition to that pile of leaves that one adds to a compost bin in the earliest possible stage of decomposition.
A forest in autumn is rather like stopping for lunch at a decrepit café at an Autoroute exit, only to find Joël Robuchon in the kitchen and a view of Lake Lucerne from the terrace – on the face of it, the promise of little, yet, the offer of a reality infinitely more pleasurable than one could have imagined.
A midday meander can easily become a six hour stroll, with only the impending darkness and the ravage of an appetite enough to pull one from the magic of the forest. An appetite which is, at this time of year, most suitably satiated by a raclette in front of the crackle of an open fireplace and a bottle of warming ratafia, the other alcoholic speciality of the Champagne region.