Ah Britain, that mighty sceptred isle: the home of myriad, luminary cultural gifts to the world, from Shakespeare to Damien Hirst. When it comes to lighting up the world of food and drink however it’s probably safe to say we’re traditionally a little - qu'est ce que? - lacking … So when Étienne Cadestin, third-generation guardian of esteemed Champagne business Esterlin, provocatively drops the following into our conversation, it’s a surprise to say the least: ‘Do you know,’ he says, ‘that actually the English started all champagne?’
Etienne delights in colourful statements such as these about Champagne in its wider context (exhibit B: the first champagne coupes were supposedly modelled from the breasts of Marie Antoinette. an assertion that could not unfortunately be independently verified). He weaves them into what are evidently deeply personal reflections on Esterlin itself, and how their distinctive brand of Champagnes have come into being. His grandfather founded Esterlin along with three friends in 1948, amidst the lean post-war years of Mancy, a commune on the southern slopes of Epernay. ‘He was tired of being dependent on the big houses,’ says Étienne. A true cooperative, the business adheres to the same values today, even if it has grown substantially since those first brave steps. ‘You can call it champagne socialism to an extent,’ Étienne laughs.
Anyway, to return to that cross-Channel fermentation for a moment. The story goes that, historically, wine from the Champagne region of France was initially considered rather, well, rubbish. Whether that is the reason so many crates were shipped off to England in the first place is never elaborated on… By the time the bottles had made the less-than-smooth journey from the north-east of France and across the Channel (we’re talking circa 1600s here), they were understandably a little shaken up. ‘It got fizzy,’ says Étienne, ‘and then suddenly the English said, “bring me more of that fizzy stuff! Bring me more of that fizzy stuff!”’ Just as your Semaine writer begins to feel a slight swell of national pride at the thought of uber-sophisticated, ancestral champagne-sippers in the 17th century, Étienne adds, with a rakish glint in his eye: ‘Well, I’m sure the fizzy that reached across the channel… it wouldn’t have been very good!’ Oh. Not exactly a vintage then?
No, continues Étienne, but that is around the time that Dom Pérignon got involved (you might have heard of him). As Étienne explains it, the wily monk took a look at the revelling English drinkers and thought, ‘“er, there might be something we can do with that.” And then he started playing with first fermentation, second fermentation, he added a little bit of flavour, a little bit of sugar…’
To hear Étienne wax lyrically, and in great detail, about the processes that go into making Champagne, you begin to realise what an odd position it occupies in society. Undeniably a luxury product, one that can command vast prices when it comes to fine vintages, there is a surprising lack of knowledge about what constitutes a good bottle of champagne. Especially when you consider the wealth of experts (and self-proclaimed experts) surrounding other types of fine wine. The vast majority of drinkers seem blissfully ignorant, which Étienne sums up succinctly: ‘people drink a lot of Prosecco at the moment because obviously it’s much, much more affordable and in all honestly they think they’re drinking Champagne.’
So what does go into a bottle of Enderlin’s fine Champagne? Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, it requires good grapes. A lot of them.
‘It takes 1.2 kilos of grapes to make just one bottle,’ says Étienne. Once the grape juice is pressed, the first fermentation takes place and the results of that are then bottled. At this point a crucial second fermentation occurs, and Étienne adds what he refers to as “the magic potion” - ‘that’s what makes it Esterlin Champagne.’
‘It’s a very long process,’ he states with conviction. Étienne is also keen to stress just how important and labour intensive the gathering of the actual grapes is, before any juice is even pressed or fermentation process considered. It is in describing this stage of proceedings that Étienne appears to grow most passionate, launching into greatly detailed descriptions of the work undertaken: ‘In some parts of France, all of the grapes are cut with tractors, [but] we pay a fortune for guys that actually cut the grapes - we’ve got teams and teams. You’ve got three main seasons in the Champagne production cycle, and the proportion of the vine is extremely important. In the summer, the vine grows very big and then in the winter it dies and that’s when you have to cut all the vines at the right level. It’s very technical and Champagne is very cold as a region. So you’re out there - it’s quite windy, probably minus 2, minus 3 degrees in the winter - and you have to work your vine and cut things by hand, one by one…’ If it seems unconventional to present such an unfiltered monologue, it is only because it feels so unconventional to hear someone sitting in the upper reaches of a plush Marylebone office talking with such gusto about the poetry of manual labour. Especially moments after delivering a knowing wink as he hints at the 120-150 high-society clients who order privately from him.
‘So you get out there, you put on your big coats and you start cutting. That’s what you do. That’s the winter job.’
Étienne goes on to explain the even more intricate work that goes into preparing and dividing the vines in summer - ‘branch by branch.’ This passion is the result, one suspects, of his childhood and formative years spent living and working his way up the business in the heart of his family’s vineyards, building on the legacy of his grandfather’s personal toil. It also might go some way to explaining why Esterlin have crafted a Champagne that is not ‘a flash Champagne that you spray in night clubs.’ Instead, they appear to be at the vanguard of a new appreciation of Champagne: where the provenance of the product matters beyond a tokenistic nod to the region in which it is produced.
Of course beyond all that, there’s the sheer joyous qualities of the drink itself. In Etienne’s own words: ‘I mean it’s outstanding how beautiful it is… and it goes down really, really fast!’