When people think of the Champagne region in France, often it’s the big names and wineries that pop into one’s mind. It conjures up images of glamour and elegance. However, in the region known as Côte des Bar in Aube, a county marking the most southern part of the Champagne region, the world of Champagne takes a more modest turn. Unlike the grand household names up towards Reims and Epernay, like Veuve Clicquot whose labyrinthine caves require street names to guide you through the 24km long chalk cellars where some 40 million bottles are aged, this humble region in the Aube produce smaller quantities of Champagne.
A Champagne Story
The Romans cultivated wine in Champagne since the 1st century AD, after importing the Pinot Noir grape, finding both the climate and the terroir provided the perfect growing conditions for this thin-skinned red grape.
But Champagne’s wine production really has the Clairvaux Abbey to thank. This group of Cistercian monks cultivated the grape on surrounding lands belonging to the Abbey, whose 12th-century cellars are still in use.
The transformation of Champagne from being just another wine to compete with Bordeaux and Burgundy has the magical second fermentation to thank. One local myth traces the origin of the Champagne we know today back to the 14th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that winegrowers tried to understand the process and how to perfect the wine’s iconic effervescence.
Even though the Aube region marked Champagne’s ancestral vineyard, the winemakers in this region had to fight for its inclusion in the Champagne Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, only acquiring the AOC label in 1927.
You won’t find grand names like Mumm, Dom Perignon, Möet or Veuve Clicquot in the Côte des Bar, but rather it’s the smaller, family owned wine makers with a unique sparkle to their bubbly.
In the sleepy valley surrounding the village of Colombe le Sec and the Champagne Monial winery, rolling hills set the scene with vineyards in the distance. The medieval farmhouse stands out as a triangular stone building against a backdrop of its pond and rolling fields. Beneath the house, you’ll find 12th-century cellars built by the Cistercian Monks still in use for Champagne production.
A small outhouse lies next to the gate as you enter the farm, which is the heart of this small Champagne producer. Agnès Chalon led us to a large cylindrical wooden press bolted on the seams.
“This is our press,” Agnés pointed to the huge tub, “we’re only ever allowed to press 4000kg at a time, and it must be slow, to avoid the colour from the grape skins to affect the juice. It takes 2-3 hours. If we’re making rosé’s then we need to macerate the grapes in the tank for 24 hours to leave the skins in contact for longer.”
The fermentation room contains various contraptions are part of the Champagne process, used to let the juice settle before transferring to tanks for the first fermentation, where it’s drawn until clear and ready for the malolactic fermentation and the blending of the different varieties before the wines are bottled for the second fermentation.
It’s a short walk to the original 12th-century cellars under the farmhouse. The name Monial refers back to the cellars’ monastic roots. The vaulted archways curve above the stacks of Champagne bottles slotted in angles, already undergoing secondary fermentation in the bottle. After the long rest, where the bottles stay in the cellars for a minimum of 15 months, it’s time to remove the unwanted sediment left behind from the fermentation.
“We put a tiny bit of sugar and yeast in the bottles. We turn the bottles gradually so this sediment left behind by the yeast moves towards the neck of the bottle. This is turned every day for 3-5 weeks, and we turn the bottle by hand by a quarter turn,” Agnés said, standing under the medieval arches of the 8ºC cellar, pointing to the bottles angled in the numerous stacks, “when they’re ready, we put the necks in glycol at a temperature of -20ºC to freeze the water and sediment for the disgorgement.”
Among the bottles in various stages of fermentation, a small tabby cat ran in, weaving in and out of the ageing wines, making herself at home, as she scratched the wooden crates filled with Champagne, climbing the racks without caring. She followed us up to the historic medieval chapel upstairs, begging for attention.
“Is she your cat?” I asked, watching the precocious feline groom herself beside the altar in the chapel surrounded by artefacts belonging to the family.
“Yes, that’s Stacie, she’s our family cat, she thinks she owns the place.”
So it seemed, Stacie even tried to follow us into the tasting room, where we tried the Champagne Lux Aeterna Blanc de Blanc, made from Chardonnay grapes with elegant small bubbles that just tickle the tongue on a buttery background. Tours and tastings to Monial are free for visitors, and buying the bottle direct from the winery are affordable and give a unique taste of a smaller Champagne maker.
Further along in Urville, family owned Champagne Drappier is another winemaker to look out for. Once a favourite of Charles de Gaulle, Drappier offers some of the best Champagne wines in the region. Michel Drappier’s passion is clear from the first moment as he guided us down into the medieval cellars, while not as spectacular as the vaults in Monial, are still none-the-less curious. What’s interesting is not only the winemakers’ dedication to producing Champagne wines as organic as possible, but also the passion for forgotten varietals.
“We use most of the traditional grapes, like the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay Grapes, but we also cultivate Arbanne, which you can only find in this region. It nearly disappeared. We also use Petit Meslier and Blanc Vrai grapes in some of our cuvées.”
One of the most unique wines in their range is their Quattor, made from Champagne’s forgotten white grapes in equal proportion, such as Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Blanc Vrai, rounded out with Chardonnay, it’s a delicate dry Champagne, that carries a delicate aroma of fresh fruit and flowers.
As we leave the 12th-century cellars, the rest of the winery opens up. By the exit, large green bottles filled with a dense liquid line the wall.
“Once we do the disgorgement, we dose the Champagne with a liquor d’extraction made from organic sugar cane. This sugar cane is melted in a still Chardonnay wine and then matured in oak barrels,” explains Michel Drappier, “It becomes like a syrup and we only add one drop to the wines, unless it’s a Brut Nature which is free from all sugar.”
We continue down into the cellar, passing giant barrels and ageing bottles of magnums until we reach a huge egg-shaped oak barrel.
“This is a little experiment,” Michel says with a grin, “these are made from the oak from around the Clairvaux Abbey. I wanted to see how the wine would evolve in these barrels. We’re currently using our Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend for our Grande Sendrée Champagne.”
But the Grande Sendrée is anything but an experimental and new wine at the Drappier institution, since
it takes its name from the land that was once burned down in a fire in 1838, meaning “Vineyard of Ashes,” whose plot must remain within the family. The family favourite Champagne is a reproduction of an 18th-century bottle found in the Urville cellars, where its remuage is done entirely by hand and made with the first pressing of the juices – certainly a beautiful Champagne with accents of summer fruit and a delicate mineral twang.
The cellar feels large and easy to lose oneself in, bottles are being labelled and prepared to ship out to Paris and the rest of the world. But it’s only in the comfort of the elegant drawing room, with a glass of Champagne in hand with Michel and his father André, now 91 and with a big grin and hardly a wrinkle, sit by the fireplace that the winery’s soul feels alive. The secret to Drappier may be in its organic harvesting and quality, but it’s the family tradition that keeps the place alive, where André’s passion passed down to his son and will go on for generations. But at the touch of santé, what makes the Côte des Bar special is its small and hidden vineyards, which while no household name like those in the northern part of Champagne, certainly make up in their passion and magic, where each cork popping is music to the ears.