It’s a sun-drenched day in Burgundy, the French wine region sacred to connoisseurs of great pinot noir and chardonnay. A young woman and her two brothers are sampling grapes in the field, debating when to start the harvest.
“Monday,” suggests Juliette, hoping another full week will coax more sweetness off the vines. Jean the elder argues instead for this Thursday, keen to preserve acidity and freshness. “But the skin’s tough,” Juliette says, munching away. “Shouldn’t it be thinner? And juicier? The seeds are barely brown. I’d wait till they’re fleshy.”
“So, you wanna make an easy wine?” says Jean, dismissively.
The scene is from Back to Burgundy, a gorgeously shot, heartwarming French drama by director Cédric Klapisch about three siblings who grudgingly inherit a property after returning home to care for their dying father. Titled Ce qui nous lie in French, it was released in Europe last year and is having a couple of short runs in Ontario cinemas starting this week in Ottawa.
Coincidentally, it’s not the only new film to shine the klieg lights on Burgundy. The other is Grand Cru, an enchanting, if slightly too fawning, Canadian documentary about Burgundian biodynamic winemaker and Montreal native Pascal Marchand.
As if that were not enough, grape geeks might be happy to learn there are more drink-u-mentaries as well as a big-deal wine comedy on the way. Beginning to make festival rounds late last year was André: The Voice of Wine, about Russian émigré André Tchelistcheff, the so-called dean of California wine, narrated by Ralph Fiennes. Currently in post-production is the third instalment of Somm, a documentary series that began in 2012 with a tale of four candidates preparing for the rigorous master sommelier exam. And most anticipated of all, no doubt, is Wine Country, Amy Poehler’s directorial debut now filming in California. The former Saturday Night Live comic’s Netflix production, a tale of girlfriends heading to Napa to celebrate a 50th birthday, will feature a cast including Rachel Dratch, Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey. Think of it as Sisters do Sideways.
Which might raise a question: Is the movie world approaching Peak Wine?
Probably not, I’d say, given the general public’s growing drool for the beverage as well as the subject. Besides, with the obvious exception of Wine Country, these flicks mainly seem designed for the wine-nerd insider.
That’s certainly the case with Grand Cru, where you pretty much need a sommelier’s diploma to follow the geography lesson.
Director David Eng, who also wrote the script, tracks Marchand over the course of a year, capturing the landscape with splendid camera work. And what a dramatic year 2016 turned out to be for Burgundy, plagued by frost, hail and rains worthy of Old Testament scripture. In 2012, “we had every possible kind of disease,” Marchand tells a British importer. “This year, multiply that experience by 10,” he says of 2016. On some properties, damage reduced crops by as much as 80 per cent.
The winemaker, who became an overnight sensation in his early 20s after lucking into a key job with Pommard producer Comte Armand, today works mainly under his own Marchand-Tawse brand, a joint venture with Toronto businessman Moray Tawse, who also owns Niagara’s Tawse and Redstone wineries. Deep pockets aside, the team soldiered on in 2016 with its low-tech approach, hand-sorting healthy berries from the mouldy bits and so on. All the while, Marchand – as dignified and likeable a figure on camera as in person, I might add – held fast to his organic philosophy. By contrast, some neighbouring producers reportedly caved in and resorted to synthetic pesticides to fight the relentless mildew.
We’re meant to sympathize, of course. But, one might ask, to what degree? Call me a cynic, but this is not the Dust Bowl. We’re talking literally the most expensive agricultural real estate on the planet, where hardship is relative. In one scene, Tawse notes that the 10th of an acre that he owns on the fabled Musigny vineyard, barely enough to yield a single barrel of wine, cost him the equivalent of 65 acres of land in Niagara. Grapes of Wrath? I don’t think so.
Besides, what you won’t learn from the film is that, even in bumper vintages, most Burgundy producers, whose products tend to sell for $40 to $150 a bottle (and often much more), generally raise prices regardless – because, as they might be the first to tell you, they can. Top Burgundy is, ultimately, potable jewellery, not wine as most of the world experiences the beverage.
There’s something of a Hollywood ending for Marchand et al., in any case. Despite the greatly reduced crop, the film reports that 2016 is destined to be a top vintage for quality. “We have a magnificent terroir,” declares one of Marchand’s winemakers, Thomas Dinel, as he drops a delectable-looking, mildew-free purple cluster into a bucket. “Ripe and healthy grapes – everything to make great wine.”
Maybe so. But if there’s a vintner on Earth who does not believe he or she is bottling magnificent terroir, I’d like to make their acquaintance. That sort of winespeak is as common as vin ordinaire.
If Grand Cru at times can seem like a celluloid press release, Back to Burgundy is a postcard and heartfelt love letter. Siblings Jean, Juliette and Jérémie learn they must pay an inheritance tax of half a million euros to keep their father’s vineyards. Temptation to sell materializes in the form of Jérémie’s father-in-law, the bad guy with visions of tourist spas and hotels dancing in his head. The kids don’t fall for it and vow to go it alone, borrowing a page, unwittingly as it turns out, from real-life biodynamic pioneer Pascal Marchand by embracing organic farming and focusing on quality in the hopes of turning a healthy profit and preserving the land.
Director Klapisch, who co-wrote the script with Santiago Amigorena, clearly took his time with this baby. We see the beauty of Burgundy’s rolling hills as we can’t in person, via drone shots and time-lapse photography. At his insistence, the movie was filmed over a year, not an easy task when you’re employing established actors and a large crew. And the camera work in the vineyards as well as the cellars at times had me thinking this could be a documentary – except for the fact that almost everybody is movie-star beautiful.
I’d say Back to Burgundy is more of a “wine movie” than Sideways or Mondovino, the back-to-back hits of 2004, the last golden year of wine on film. One was a raucous, and hilarious, buddy flick, the other a scattershot documentary about the purported globalization of the industry. There’s more actual wine in Klapisch’s bottle – with a grape or a glass in what seems like virtually every scene – not to mention a sweet and well-told story about filial love and family values.
Back to Burgundy is screening through May 3 at the ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa and at the Hyland Cinema in London, Ont., from May 11 to 17 (after that it will be available on iTunes). Grand Cru screens May 11 at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs Theatre in Toronto and May 13 on CBC’s Documentary Channel at 9 p.m. ET.