The news that a fully-fledged winery has been given the go-ahead to build a production line in Amber Valley was music to my ears. And as Amber Valley Wines promises to start producing their first sparkling wine, they are following in the footsteps of centuries of heritage in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France.
But Champagne is also following in our footsteps. The region has recently been given UNESCO World Heritage status for its ancient ruins, medieval cellars and rich culture of winemaking that goes back centuries.
In that respect they join the likes of the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal and… the Derwent Valley Mills.
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And as the region opens up to a very different kind of tourism to what its accustomed (the area is mostly frequented by rich Belgians and Japanese clients shopping to stock up their cellars) the locals are keen to show off what else makes Champagne special.
South of the main centre of the region, Reims, we find an absolute gem of a medieval city in Troyes on Rue Général de Gaulle, is fantastic.
Troyes’s premier wine merchant, Cellier Saint Pierre, in the shadow the grand Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul, is the place to go if you want an antique bottle. We were taken down into the cellar to snoop around and discovered this is also a last bastion for one of Troyes’s unique pleasures. The merchant’s apprentice, Alban, is the last of a once thriving industry producing a plum liquor called Prunelle, which is now something of a rarity as he makes a small batch of the spicy concoction each year in a back room, using 150-year-old alembics. Now that’s history you can taste.
They say that Troyes is shaped like a champagne cork – and to put it aptly, there is a great deal compressed into such a small city.
But there’s no denying that we come to Champagne for the booze, so our next stop is one of the great champagne houses in the area, Drappier, who for some reason takes issue with the myth of Dom Pérignon’s accidental discovery of sparkling wine.
Of course, as we know in Blighty, Champagne (or sparkling wine, technically) was actually invented by an Englishman.
Scientist Christopher Merret discovered the process of adding sugar to wine for a second fermentation and delivered it to the Royal Society in 1662, documenting the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation, 40 years before the famed monk claimed to invent it.
Michel, son of the current caretaker of the estate, says his family have been making champagne for over 200 years, but actually his legacy started long before. His vineyards are roman, and his cellars in Urville were built by the Franciscan monk, St Bernard de Clairvaux in 1152. The jury is still out on when Champagne was first made here, though.
“We don’t know who put the bubbles in first,” says Michel after he greets us for lunch and a cellar tour. “There is a good story about Dom Pérignon – but we don’t know.”
In fact it’s the 900th anniversary of when St Bernard moved to champagne, in 1115.
He started making red wine here because the King of France, Louis VI, famously refused to drink Bordeaux because it was held by… you guessed it, the English. So Champagne was originally a red wine making region supplying the church and the aristocrats in Paris. Later when the French conquered Bordeaux, drinking the wine of the new province became a symbol of power so the industry in Champagne dried up almost entirely.
There is also something particular about the vineyards in Champagne. The heavily calcious limestone meant the grapes couldn’t compete with the complexity you find in Bordeaux, says Michel.
After lunch, which included roughly ten bottles of bubbly, he takes us down into the UNESCO-protected cellars, and here we find out about the delicate process of making champagne. Drappier blends different years together and, like most others, uses very high ratio of pinor noir to chardonnay. They part age in oak barrels, “but only a little,” says Michel. “Oak adds a toastiness, but you don’t want too much.”
In fact the main feature of champagne isn’t it’s depth, but balancing the sweetness and acidity, aiming for a lightness with the bubbles and then at the final moment adding a drop of 40-year-aged grape liquor, or dosage. This is where the sweet taste comes form in a brut, but if you want something smoother, Drappier makes a dosage-free wine for purists, the Brut Nature.
In fact Drappier is all about abandoning overdone excellence and focusing on authenticity and nature. His wine is even carbon neutral thanks to the vineyards and some eco-energy, “so when you drink Drappier, you are saving the planet,” says Michel.
Drappier is one of the larger producers in Aube but it’s still considered only ‘boutique’ compared to the likes of Moët and Taittinger.
But the smaller players have an edge that the big boys can’t manage, as viniculturist Olivier Horiot tells us on our next stop to the town of Les Riceys.
“You don’t want to be too big, because you want to control everything yourself. The growing, the terroir, the production, it is all so important, you can’t guarantee the quality if you have to buy grapes from other growers or use other people’s production,” he says.
Also with a long legacy behind him, Olivier is one of the special few producers in Les Riceys who can put their name to a unique kind of wine. It’s a very fine Rose – which you might say is almost an oxymoron. But in Riceys, the Rosé is special. It’s one of only a few that can be aged, because it’s made properly.
The process for Rosé des Riceys is possibly more pernickety than sparkling.
Whereas common rose is simply mixed from white and red, it requires precise care to get the fine pink colour from a short masceration of red grapes, allowing just some of the colour of the skin to affect the juice.
And it has to made from the best grapes, so the association of wineries that make it only do so on certain harvests.
Olivier kindly takes us for a drive through his vineyards – Champagne countryside is like no other. It’s particular sloping hills and soil are unique – once a seabed, the land was once under 300 metres of water and is enriched by crushed oyster shells, so champagne vineyards ‘take its food form the ocean’, say the viniculturists.
This, as well as the climate and exposure, is what feeds into the ‘terroir’ – that particular balance of factors that determine the outcome of your grapes, and which make Champagne real estate worth €1 million per acre
Champagne is soaked in so much cultural and historical beauty, but it is a place you can’t just visit. It is a place you must taste, and savour – and just like good bubbly, its flavours are crisp and delicate.