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Alumna learns craft of Champagne-making during French apprenticeship

Harriet Kiers sitting on farm equipment
Courtesy photo

In north-central France, Harriet Kiers (Col ’19) lives in a one-bedroom cottage with little pink shutters, surrounded by everything the area is renowned for—stone buildings with terra-cotta shingles, farm fields and vineyards—to learn how to make the specialty of the region, Champagne. 

Through mid-April, Kiers is completing a 10-month apprenticeship for the family behind Champagne Lacroix-Triaulaire, based in the village of Merrey-sur-Arce. “I’m doing a little bit of everything here,” Kiers says.

Inspired by her childhood in her family’s Staunton, Virginia, vineyard, a winemaking career has long been part of Kiers’ plans. She majored in chemistry at UVA to get hands-on knowledge to apply to the craft. “The fermentation is one of the most important parts of winemaking, and there’s a lot of chemistry involved there,” she says. “Some of the tests you’ll carry out in a wine lab are similar to something you would do in a general chemistry lab.”

Kiers, who is Champagne Lacroix-Triaulaire’s first American apprentice, connected with the French business through a Virginia winemaker. When Kiers arrived, she helped with tirage, when still wine is bottled with a liquor and yeast to trigger a second fermentation and create carbon dioxide. The gas, which can’t escape the bottle, makes the bubbles.

Later, she assisted with disgorging, the point when sediment in the bottles that’s left over from the yeast is released. Capped bottles are placed upside-down so the sediment settles, and then the bottles’ necks are frozen, the caps are popped off, and pressure from the carbon dioxide shoots the frozen sediment out. Then the bottle is corked.

Trips to U.S. winemaking regions might be next for Kiers. “It’s good to see how other places do things,” she says. Eventually she hopes to return to her family’s wine business and use the lessons learned in France to produce sparkling wine in Virginia.