“You and this car are so English.”
Text from Mark Adams: “Mate, do you fancy bringing in the Champagne harvest at my friend’s vineyard? We’ll stay with the family–full room and board. It’ll be great; we’ll get to be proper ‘Frenchies’ for a week.”
The foolish, romantic adman in me fell in love with this idea; so I packed up 249 and headed to France. My Land Rover Defender is number 249 of 385 UK 50th Anniversary Special Editions, and since buying it, I’d been seeking an adventure. As one of the mums at Beatrice’s school said, “You’re having a proper midlife crisis.” I’ve always done things at an early age..
I collected Mark and we trundled off. The Defender has a V8 engine, an automatic gearbox with ratios for off-roading and she’s wearing knobbly tyres: we made slow but happy progress across France. Nearly four hours after le grand départ, we arrived at La Cave aux Coquillages, Fleury-la-Rivière, Champagne-Ardenne: the home of the Legrand family. Patrice, the father, is a keen archaeologist and has been excavating the hill behind the house for years. It’s really impressive stuff; he’s created a 200m tunnel revealing an abundance of fossilised shells and creatures that once inhabited the warm sea that covered the region. It’s this rich, chalky soil that gives Champagne its distinctive taste.
We were greeted by Thibault (pronounced ‘Teebo’) with an unbranded, naked bottle of Champagne; it tasted wonderful. As we sat in the courtyard with the afternoon sun on our faces, drinking their cold, fresh-tasting Champagne, I was immensely pleased that I’d come along for the adventure. That evening, we sat with the family: Patrice, Anne and Thibault, at their kitchen table. It was all so French, I felt as if I was in a film or an ‘O’ level text book.
As a youth I’d found myself in the top set of French at school; something that was profoundly uncool to me. I deliberately flunked it, resulting in the only school report I can remember: “It has remained a mystery to both Jonathan and myself as to how he came to be in this set.”
With Mark’s and my poor French and the family’s lack of English, we relied on the help of Google Translate to get by. We agreed to come down for breakfast at 6am and to leave at 06:30 to drive 249 to meet the other pickers.
After a short night’s sleep we set off, following Patrice down through small villages and along narrow roads across vineyards. The roads hugged the side of the valley, and in the pre-dawn light we could see the mist sitting below us. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We arrived at the Legrand family compound in Vendrières to meet the other pickers. We were a motley crew of French, Spanish and two Englishman. The most obvious difference was that all the pickers except one (François) were literally half our age, if not younger. Thibault divided the pickers into groups and allocated vehicles for transportation to the various vineyards. So, four young French women climbed into the back of the Defender. Over the next eight days, they would become residents of 249.
We arrived at the first vineyard at 07:30. Thibault issued cutters and buckets and assigned us in pairs to a row of vines. Vines are harvested with a picker on each side. To gather the grapes you have to either crouch, bend over or crawl. It’s back-breaking work. Once you’ve filled your bucket (which happens surprisingly quickly), you transfer it to a large box, which holds 45kg of grapes. When the boxes were full, Thibault and Mathias would collect them up on porter-like trolleys, sometimes with four boxes (180 kg) stacked on top of each other. Then all the boxes were piled onto the ageing Nissan pick-up and taken off to the co-operative press. All the grapes are pressed within hours of being harvested. The grapes go through the extraction process three times, with the first press (the cuvée) being the best. Most Champagnes are a blend of first and second press.
Around 10:00 we would all stop picking and head back to the cars for coffee, fresh baguette and pâté or cheese. This was a wonderful part of the day; the scene couldn’t have been more French. I even used my Opinal No8 penknife to hack off lumps of bread and Brie.
The first couple of days were hot and sunny and we enjoyed glorious views. At the end of each day, we’d head home in 249 and stop at the bar next to the bridge at the entrance to Fleury-la-Rivière for a well-earned, cold beer. One day as we were sitting there, we heard a motorbike screaming along the tree-lined road running adjacently. The bike soon came into sight: the young rider standing on the rear pegs, pulling a wheelie. He waved at us as he passed. No one cared, the gendarmes weren’t chasing him to give him an ASBO; it was just one of those surreal French moments.
Every evening we’d go home exhausted, with back-ache and legs that hurt so much we could barely walk. We all ate dinner together and discussed the yield from the day’s harvest: the different types of grapes; the volume and quality of the press.
Then, on day four, it started to rain and rain and rain. The usually jovial spirit of the Spanish vanished and all we could hear from them was their deep voices grumbling. The French went quiet. Mark and I, being English and quite used to rain, just carried on chatting as we picked. We didn’t pick any faster, mind you.
The rain just kept coming in waves; you could see the clouds approaching us from miles away down the valley. The ground became muddy and sticky. The vans were slipping and sliding around the fields, struggling for grip. 249 however, handled all this with aplomb; 249 was in her element: these conditions were exactly what she’d been designed for. Everyone began to sit in, on, or lean against 249; she became shelter from the rain and somewhere to rest your coffee or hang your waterproofs on during the much-needed coffee breaks. The rain continued for days and the vineyards seemed to be endless, but we pressed on; we were all in it together and a real camaraderie had developed.
All the grapes in the region need to be picked within the same ten day period so there were teams of pickers in all the vineyards. When a team has finished all its vineyards, the pickers go a little crazy, hooting their horns through the villages and generally making a lot of noise. Everyone comes to the roadside or opens their windows to cheer the pickers and to thank them for their hard work and dedication.
On our last day, the rain was torrential, turning the roads into streams. The wind picked up, making it chilly too. We huddled by 249, drinking our coffee and eating our bread and pâté as the rain streamed off the peaks of our caps. We had one last field to complete. All of a sudden the rain stopped, the sun came out; the valley looked gorgeous. Out of nowhere, a Eurofighter made a pass over our heads and down the valley. We all discarded our waterproofs and set to work. The Spanish were back to their happy selves, the French were chatting and joking. We had finally finished.
We all headed back to the vans and to 249. We made a hell of a racket on our way back to Vendrières, and as our joyous caravan drove through the village hooting our horns, the villagers all came out to wave and shout congratulations to us. It was amazing. Mark and I even felt a little French as we did the English thing of shaking each other’s hand and saying, “Well done, mate.”
That night we all partied hard; some a little harder than others.
The next day Mark and I became tourists and drove 249 around the Route de Champagne that runs all over the region. We headed over to the Distillerie Guillon in Louvois, where they produce a Champagne Whiskey which they call L’Esprit du Malt. The place is quite hard to find and looks like an abandoned estate when you arrive. But, ring the bell and the old gates swing open. We were greeted warmly, but with some surprise by a young woman. She showed us around the rather Heath Robinson-esque distillery, which uses an old cement mixer to mash, and shipping containers as storage for the old Champagne barrels full of the ageing spirit. The water comes from the estate’s own natural spring, which means the water comes through that special Champagne soil. After some tasting, we naturally bought a few bottles to take home.
We had our last dinner with the Legrand family; which was wonderful as usual. By now we were no longer strangers to their table and we realised how settled into their life we had become. Thibault explained that they had to pay us: we told him we did it for the experience and that we were by far the slowest pickers. However, the family would not be dissuaded, so we agreed to be paid in cases of their exquisite Champagne Legrand Latour. Their Champagne has a light freshness to it that I’ve never experienced before and is now obviously my favourite Champagne.
The next day we loaded 249 full-to-bursting with cheese, pâté, Parfait Jars, Duralex glasses and, of course, Champagne, and headed home: 249 didn’t miss a beat.
I don’t think you ever really understand a brand or a product until you’ve experienced it in its natural environment or used it for the purpose for which it was designed. I now have a deep understanding and love of the Land Rover brand and the Defender, especially 249.