If you drive south through France from the UK to the Alps or the Mediterranean, chances are you’ve sped past the vineyards of Champagne. Many people decide to stay overnight in Reims, but once you’ve driven past the exits to Reims, Epernay and Chalons-en-Champagne, chances are you thought that’s it – we’re done with Champagne, it’s onwards to Burgundy. Next time, stay alert and a good hour later you might notice one of those French brown tourist signs on the motorway stating ‘Vignobles en Champagne’ – it’s almost as if the sign is in the wrong place. Look to your left and you will see a slope of vineyards in the distance, in fact it looks quite pretty seen from the rest place or ‘Aire’ just there on the motorway. Better still, arrange time to break your journey.
A couple of years ago in spring, we did just that, driving north on the way to some wine visits in Reims and Epernay, we stopped to explore this southernmost region of Champagne which is called the Aube, named after a tributary of the Seine. The region seems in the middle of nowhere, and really it is. The only town of note – and it is well worth a visit in its own right – is Troyes, about half an hour to the west of the vineyard areas. The other terribly famous landmark for the French (which also merits its own brown motorway sign) is the village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, the burial place of General Charles de Gaulle. The whole area is sleepy but with attractive rolling countryside, interspersed with vineyards that are currently gaining attention.
Not only are these vineyards the source of excellent grapes especially Pinot Noir for several big Houses based in Epernay and Reims to the north, but in the Aube itself you can find a growing number of interesting Champagne producers to visit, who offer an excellent product at a comparatively reasonable price. We visited the well-established house of Drappier, still family owned and exporting Champagne around the world – it’s open to casual visitors for tastings and sales, but you must make an appointment for a cellar tour. You taste in a rather grandly furnished room and the whole visiting experience is much more like a visit to a mid-sized wine producer in another regions of France than to one of the famous big Houses up to the north, that’s the family angle for you.
Afterwards we headed off back to the motorway near Troyes via a walk near the vast Lac d’Orient, one of several large lakes in the Champagne region, which are havens for wildlife – this one is in the vast region park, the Fôret d’Orient.
Wine writer and Champagne specialist Michael Edwards has just completed a thorough update of our three travel guides to Champagne originally written by that other great Champagne specialist writer Tom Stevenson. In particular he’s added details on several family-owned producers making so-called grower Champagnes. In editing the three updates I was struck by the Aube guide in particular. Although still quiet, there are increasing numbers of hotels and restaurants in the region, which range from the sumptuous Hostellerie La Montagne (a recently refurbished starred restaurant and hotel near Colombey) to the modest en-suite cabins of Domaine des Foolz up the road from Bar-sur-Seine, where you can eat reliably at the Hotel Restaurant u Commerce. At last there’s an alternative to staying in Troyes for a visit to the Aube, although we also detail some fine-sounding recommendations in Troyes.