Editor’s Note: Just in time for the holidays, RFT’s Senior Wine & Spirits Editor and expert on all things bubbly, brings us the second part of her story about champagne in Aube, a Champagne region in France you may not have heard about. Grab a glass, sit back, and take a journey with Julie through France’s little-known Aube Champagne region. –BH
The French Aube Champagne district lies closer to the border of Burgundy than to Reims and Epernay, home to the Grandes Marques Champagnes. Far more tranquil than its bustling brethren about an hour north, the Aube’s route meanders through quaint and quiet villages peppered with modest stone houses and woods and vineyards. The area’s principal wine growing area is the Côte des Bar. Its clay/limestone/fossilized seashell soil replicates that of neighboring Chablis, famous for its superb steely Chardonnay. But rather than producing still white wine from Chardonnay, the Cote des Bar focuses on bubblies fashioned mainly from Pinot Noir.
A Bit of History
The 2011 Champagne riots (and troublesome spin-off politics) resulted in the shutting out this region as a designated champagne appellation (a legally defined and protected geographical area that identifies where grapes for a wine were grown). The Aubois were not happy. To placate them, the French government approved the Aube as a “secondary” Champagne zone.
It was not until 1927 that the Aube came fully into the Champagne fold. But for years the region was still considered Champagne’s poor relation. Not any more. Aube grape growers supply the famous houses with grapes (and, in fact, have done so, quietly, for years). And todays’ bubble nuts are firm disciples of Aube grower champagnes—wines that stake their reputation more on land than on luxury.
Here there is no glossy Avenue de Champagne, no luxury branding, no bragging about the art of blending. Instead, they fashion champagnes that reflect the estate’s terroir.
Troyes (pronounced trwa) is the region’s main center. It draws the visitor in with its canals, half-timbered houses, and medieval churches. On our Sunday morning tour, the eateries are shut tight, save a few coffee bars. I pop into one that’s brimming with patrons and strong espresso.
As I leave, I follow the strains of choral music wafting through the crisp late morning air. They lead to nearby St. Peter and Paul cathedral. I push open the heavy doors. There, the ethereal voices of nuns fill every nook of its stunning Gothic interior.
Another of our merry band has whipped into a patisserie and emerges with a praline cream-stuffed Paris-Brest. It’s large enough to share. We like that. Yet another wanders the winding cobbled alleys clicking photo after photo.
Michel Drappier, owner of Champagne Drappier, greets us warmly on our arrival. He is fit, handsome, and possesses a keen sense of humor. But his easy manner belies a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to the family’s champagne. Founded in 1808, Champagne Drappier is the oldest, and best-known champagne in the Aube. Because of vineyard holdings away from the estate, Drappier may not be defined as grower Champagne. Still, the house remains wedded to Aube’s terroir-driven philosophy.
One third of Drappier vineyards are organic. The other two-thirds are sustainably farmed. Pinot Noir underpins most Drappier wines but Chardonnay makes a frequent guest appearance.
On our visit, we are treated to a line-up of wines: Drappier Brut Nature, 100% Pinot Noir, guarantees no added sulphur or dosage (the addition of reserve wine and cane sugar) and, Michel chuckles, “no headache”.
Grande Sendreé (a misspelling of cendreé meaning cinder) is a gorgeous mélange of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while Quattuor, a white blend, is an equal measure of Chardonnay, and three very rare Aube grapes grown on site–Arbane, Vrai Blanc and Petit Meslier.
Most accessible in North America is Carte d’Or, a firm and fruity Pinot Noir based Brut—and, as I taste, do I detect a hint of flint? Just as I am pondering this Michel’s father, Andre appears briefly to bid us a gracious “bonjour” with an ear-to-ear grin. It’s easy to see where Michel gets his charm. We are reluctant to bid adieu to these charming gents (and such great bubbly), but we must be off.
Essoyes and Renoir
The good folks of the pretty hamlet of Essoyes (population 745) are tickled that the impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir, and wife Aline (whose birthplace was Essoyes), maintained a residence in town. The town’s Du Côté des Renoir cultural center celebrates Renoir’s life and art by teaming up with ten local Champagne producers to honor 10 of the artist’s masterpieces.
These champagne producers, including M. Drappier, do an exemplary job of setting up their bubbly for us in Renoir’s home, which is rarely open for such events. Each Champagne style and label reflects the mood of a Renoir painting. Charles Collin La Belle Gabrielle Brut coupled with Renoir’s “Gabrielle et Jean” (Oil on Canvas 1896) is a supreme pairing. Collin bubbly at the wine maker’s dinner at the Hotel Magny, (also my digs for the evening) is also spot on with the food. For anyone inclined toward mixing art with champagne—and a need to escape “the madding crowd,” Essoyes is the perfect getaway.
Rose de Riceys
Before Champagne there was Rose de Riceys. This deep rosy hued still wine, hard to find even in Paris, Reims, and Epernay, hearkens back centuries, well before Dom Perignon “discovered” fizz. The standards for making this rare wine are stricter than those for making Champagne. For one thing, the grapes must ripen naturally—tough to do in a marginal climate. Few wine growers make it, and fewer than 60,000 bottles are produced each year, and then only if the weather cooperates.
Morize Père et Fils, our final winery visit, is about a bottle’s toss from the Burgundy border in the quaint commune of Les Riceys. The affable M. Morize treats us to his Rose de Riceys. The dry rose, quite possibly the best rose I’ve had, brims with berry fruit, and spice and subtle tannins. Madame passes around cheese-and-herb savories—so simple yet a dead match. (Morize et Fils also produces very good Pinot Noir Champagne).
En route to Paris, I know I’ll return to the Aube. What better excuse to try (and buy) more Rose des Riceys and, next time, knock on the doors of some my favorite Champagne growers?—Story and photos by Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor