A new dawn for the tube
The word ‘aube’ in French means ‘dawn’ in English and it’s also the name of the southernmost region of the
Champagne region. So far, so straightforward, but this area of Champagne is also referred to as La Côte des Bar
– you’ll understand why as you read on.
You may not have heard of any of these names and it’s true that the region is much less famous than the more
northerly parts of Champagne around Reims and Epernay, yet slowly but surely people who appreciate great
champagne are sitting up and taking notice of what’s happening in the south and its reputation is growing
fast – a new dawn is certainly breaking.
A long, long time ago…
Forgive me for stating the obvious, but even if you have never heard of the Aube, it has always been there.
Geologically speaking it is the oldest part of Champagne the formation of which dates back to the Jurassic
era over 145 million years ago, whereas the more chalky northern parts of Champagne are mere youngsters
dating from the Late Cretaceous era that came some 40 – 80 million years afterwards.
Geographically too the Aube is separate from the rest of Champagne and lies a good hour and half’s drive south
of Reims. In fact, the Aube is much closer to Chablis than to the rest of Champagne: it’s just 30 kilometres
or so from the heart of the Aube vineyards southwest to Chablis whereas it’s at least three times as far to Reims
in the north.
This explains why the soil too is quite different in the Aube; it’s is a mixture of clay and limestone called
Kimmeridgean clay whereas further north one finds a much more chalky soil.
Unwelcome and unnoticed
Given these differences it is perhaps not surprising that in the early years of the 20th century when the boundaries
of the Champagne region were being defined, the Aube was at first excluded.
The grape growers in and around the town of Aÿ near Epernay felt so strongly in favour of this exclusion
that in 1911 they rioted in the streets, smashing thousands of bottes and setting fires in the streets,
one of their aims being to prevent the big champagne houses buying grapes from the Aube. Their efforts failed
however and it’s just as well that they did because today, with some 8,000 hectares of vineyards, the Aube
represents almost 25% of the entire Champagne region.
Nevertheless, for many years the Aube passed almost entirely under the radar of the outside world, although
not of the large champagne houses that , many years ago, recognised the area as the source of large quantities
of good quality grapes. The prices too were attractive to the major houses because, with very few well-known
brands in the area to champion their cause and raise the flag for the Aube, grape prices remained modest.
A land of rivers
La Côte des Bar has two constituent parts: west and east, situated on the slopes overlooking the two main
rivers of the region, respectively the Seine and the Aube, and their many tributaries. The western part is
La Barséquanais and is centred on the town of Bar-sur-Seine. The eastern part is La Bar-sur-Aubois centred
on the town of Bar-sur-Aube.
Some commentators also include in the Aube the 200 hectares of vines around the village of Montgueux
several tens of kilometres to the north-west near the town of Troyes, but because the soil there dates from
a different geological era and because Montgueux is planted almost entirely with Chardonnay it seems to me
to be more logical to consider Montgueux as separate.
You have to suffer for your art
Rivers are an ever present feature of the landscape in the Aube which is criss-crossed with vales and valleys
at many angles. The slopes are not steep however and this allows excellent exposure to the sunshine which is
slightly more abundant than in the north of Champagne and surely contributes to the quality of the wines.
Yet the climate is not always mild, indeed La Côte des Bar seems to have more than its fair share of extreme
weather conditions, both hot and cold. This, together with the soil, which in some places is extremely stony
and difficult to till, means that it can be a struggle growing vines and making champagne here, but as
some of the local vignerons will tell you with a wry smile “you sometimes have to suffer to make something
In an area so close to, and with the same soil as, Chablis where the focus is very much on Chardonnay you’d
expect the same to be true in La Côte des Bar, but in fact over 80% of the vines are Pinot Noir. This is perhaps
due to the demands of the large brands that sourced their supplies from this area and were attracted by the
combination of full, fruity flavour plus the slightly lighter, fresher and softer taste that they found in the
Pinot Noirs here as compared to those from the more northerly vineyards.
A new dawn
Starting in the 1930s a few pioneering entrepreneurs started to build their business in the Aube. Fleury, one of
the pioneers of organic viticulture, and larger concerns such as Drappier and Devaux began to make their mark,
yet still the Aube remained very much a sleepy backwater. Since the 1970s however, and particularly in the last 10
years or so there’s been a noticeable upsurge in activity such that the number of small, top-quality champagne
makers is growing from a gentle trickle into a significant stream. So, the next time you think of, or visit, Champagne
cast your net a little further afield than just Reims or Epernay. You’ll be well rewarded for your efforts.
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