Champagne – Off the Beaten Track

May 6, 2009
Rolling landscape of the Aube

The rolling landscape of the Aube

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.

The Drappier Champagne House in Urville, near Bar-sur-Aube

Drappier in Urville, near Bar-sur-Aube

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.

Three generations of the Drappier family

Three generations of the Drappier family

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.

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The Weekly Twitter Quiz #7 – Cerdon in Bugey

February 18, 2009
Cerdon Tradition made in the Méthode Ancestrale

Cerdon Tradition made in the Méthode Ancestrale

We visited the Cerdon area on the Monday after the Percée du Vin Jaune festival weekend following a night’s stay in Bourg-en-Bresse. In the French department of Ain, Cerdon is a wine appellation that is part of the Bugey VDQS region. Bugey is often linked with Savoie, but Cerdon is much closer to the wine region of Jura. All very confusing, as so often in the world of French wine. We only had time for two visits but they were could not have been more instructive and more different.

First up, what is the wine Cerdon? It’s the only rosé sparkling wine made in the Méthode Ancestrale that is an official appellation. (The VDQS designation is part of the official appellation system in France – one that is due to be phased out and the Bugey region hopes desperately, after 10 years of trying, to be elevated to AC). Cerdon Tradition is made usually from  90-100% Gamay, but the Jura grape Poulsard may also be blended in. The colour comes from either direct pressing or more often a short maceration, and the juice is then fermented very cold and very slowly, with fermentation stopped at about 6% alcohol. It’s then bottled and stored in a cold room at around 10°C (50°F) and fermentation continues for around two months. When it’s time to release the wine it is transferred, filtered and re-bottled traditionally in one operation, though larger producers store for a day in-between.

The big tip about Cerdon is that the ideal time to buy it is in the spring or in summer at the latest, because it’s best enjoyed when freshest – as it ages, the pretty and vibrant pink colour fades and it loses some of the lovely strawberry fruit. This lightly bubbly pink wine is a delicious, semi-sweet sparkler with only around 8% alcohol; you could also try it with strawberries. As for the region, it’s a sleepy place but with some dramatic mountain scenery – the vineyards (less than 200 hectares or 500 acres) are some of the highest in France, going up to more than 500 metres (or 1600 feet) altitude.

Vineyards around Mérignat

Vineyards around Mérignat

We visited the largest winery Lingot-Martin who have a very decent standard of quality and whose wines are widely available in French supermarkets in the Rhône Alpes region and they export a little too. They make several styles as well as a Traditional Method Brut and have a good, practical tasting room on the main road. We also went to a tiny producer, Raphaël Bartucci up in the hills of Mérignat. He farms his vineyards organically and makes just one delicious cuvée with sales highly restricted (Just 420 bottles go to the USA each year).

Congratulations to world traveller and blogger @globtrav who has swfitly chosen the ‘Around Epernay’ micro-region guide from the Champagne Region as their prize.

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