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 of beauty”.

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.