Peter Liem—Raising the Côte des Bar
Conventional wisdom holds that there are three primary regions in Champagne: the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne and Côte des Blancs. Yet this outlook ignores a vast and increasingly important region: the Aube, which makes up more than 20 percent of the appellation in its 17,000 acres.
In terms of its wines, the Aube has been marginalized throughout the 20th century. Troyes, its capital city, was the seat of the counts of Champagne in the Middle Ages, and remained the capital of the province of Champagne up until the Revolution. Yet Champagne's primary vineyard areas lie to the north in the Marne département, around the cities of Reims and Epernay, while the Aube's vineyards, in the Côte des Bar southeast of Troyes, are closer to Dijon than to Reims. In fact, the primary soil of the Côte des Bar is not the Cretaceous chalk of the Marne, but rather Kimmeridgian marl capped by Portlandian limestone—exactly what one finds in the vineyards of Chablis.
When the Champagne AOC was first drawn up in 1908, the soil difference was among the primary arguments for excluding the region—a decision that incited riots in the Aube, which lead to even more vicious riots in the Marne in 1911. As a result, the Aube was included as a deuxième zone, allowed to produce wine yet accorded less prestige than the Marne. To this day, none of the Aube's vineyards are classified as premier cru, let alone grand cru, and for many years, Champagne houses in the Marne refused to admit that they were purchasing grapes from the Aube, even though the quantity of production in the Côte des Bar suggests that the grapes were going somewhere.
Of course, there have been Aubois producers making quality wines for a long time. Drappier is the best of these, producing full-bodied, generously flavored Champagnes that offer an excellent introduction to the region: The deliciously fruity, 100 percent pinot noir Brut Nature is terrific in both its regular and sans soufre incarnations, and the single-vineyard, vintage-dated Grande Sendrée remains one of the Aube's finest wines. Fleury is another well-established estate making ample, mouthfilling Champagnes that are worth seeking out, and proprietor Jean-Pierre Fleury has been a pioneer of biodynamic viticulture in Champagne.
Today, however, a new generation of quality-minded growers is fueling the Aube's resurgence. One of Champagne's most exciting young winegrowers is Cédric Bouchard, who has created a virtually new style of Champagne with his Roses de Jeanne and Inflorescence wines. Bouchard's first vintage was 2000, and today his single-vineyard, single-varietal Champagnes combine an intensely expressive vinosity with exquisite finesse, relating as much to Burgundy as they do to traditional Champagne.
Another celebrated grower is Bertrand Gautherot, one of Champagne's most outspoken supporters of biodynamics. Since 2001, he has made Champagnes of unusually assertive character at his tiny Vouette et Sorbée estate, quickly gaining a cult following among those interested in natural wine and terroir-driven Champagne. His Saignée de Sorbée is one of Champagne's great rosés, although its wild, gamey character and powerfully vinous depth can push it too far outside the boundaries for some.
In Montgueux, a small, chardonnay-dominated area west of Troyes, Jacques Lassaigne is the top estate, where Lassaigne's son, Emmanuel, has been making the wines since 1999. His wines now serve as a reference point for the wines of Montgueux, reflecting the village's warm, south-facing slopes and chalky soils in their rich body and ripe, exotic fruit flavors. They offer an alternative perspective on chardonnay— one that is worlds apart in personality from the classical versions of the Côte des Blancs.
Some other notable producers in the Aube started even more recently: Dosnon & Lepage, for example, began making plush, voluptuously textured Champagnes in 2004; Dominique Moreau, who makes discreetly elegant Champagne under her Marie-Courtin label, has been making wine only since 2006. Olivier Horiot has made nonsparkling, biodynamically grown Rosé des Riceys since 2000, but first tried his hand at making sparkling wine in the 2004 vintage.
The rapid proliferation of talented young growers in the Aube could be attributed to the accessibility of vineyard land, as it's less expensive and more available in the Aube than in the Marne. But the draw may just as well be the air of the frontier that the region still retains. "Here in the Aube, we don't have the history that they have in the Marne," says winemaker Davy Dosnon, a partner in Dosnon & Lepage. "But maybe that means that we aren't weighed down by it, either. We have the freedom to pursue our own visions, and we work hard because we know that we're starting from scratch." With forward-thinking attitudes like this, it's a guarantee that we'll be seeing even more to come from this dynamic region in the near future.