A Year in Champagne unironically presents a world where a rotten grape could be “a catastrophe,” as one harvester says of his crop late into this flat documentary set within the Champagne province of France. With the formal acumen of an instructional video, director David Kennard tracks the progression of various houses and growers within the region over the course of a year, as each seeks to perfect their grapes in order to make the ultimate champagne. The premise amounts to numerous raised glasses and classical music cues, but little of this schmoozing strikes a notable chord beyond the démodé back-patting engaged throughout, with various talking heads and a soporific voiceover (narrated by Kennard) dutifully offering hard facts and weak puns about the joys of toiling for one’s crop. When one grower says, “Small harvests make great vintages,” it’s merely meant as a fun fact within the film’s tourism-level insights.
Kennard attempts to tone down an overemphasis on sophisticate types reveling in their privilege with a few asides throughout, including one detailing the region’s significance during WWI, but these are momentary deviations from the film’s unflinching dedication to mythologizing wineries as family heirlooms, passed down through generations, and enshrined as sacred spaces to be thoroughly revered. In an early scene, the narration brags about how the Bollinger house has been the champagne of choice for the British royal family for the last 125 years and smugly concludes: “You can’t buy that kind of publicity.” Later on, as harvesting season begins, Kennard shows several immigrants from Turkey and Algeria prepping the lines and rows to pick the grapes, but any interrogation of these workers’ relationship to the process is superseded by a procedure-oriented narrative that makes no consideration of class or race, despite the fact that every pair of lips sipping the titular beverage of choice throughout the film, are white.
In another questionable moment, a muddy terrain where grapes are being picked is likened to the wartime trenches that occupied the land decades prior, but these are seemingly non-issues for Kennard, whose dedication to spinning a ripping good yarn apparently comes at flagrantly offensive costs. These racial and historical missteps are made more glaring by the film’s squalid aesthetic sensibilities, which provide cinematic explication with all the ambiguity of a grocery checklist, even indulging an obligatory “it’s party time” assertion by Kennard’s narration, shortly followed by one attendee’s frightfully serious remark that a particular champagne is “strong and rounded at first, but in the end more acidic.” Part advertisement, part snobbish soiree, A Year in Champagne is ultimately the type of self-absorbed, enclosed scenario that one could imagine Christopher Guest turning into a worthwhile mockumentary.