Discovering Champagne's secret corner

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Indy Lifestyle Online

At Drappier, memories hark back to 1911, when riots rocked this tranquil corner much loved by Renoir. After the merchants of Epernay rejected the Aube's grapes because of declining demand, the growers responded by burning effigies of the Prime Minister. The army was sent in to quell the unrest and growers faced them with lances made from hoes. During the stand-off, Michel's grandfather Georges had the presence of mind to make a peace offering of champagne. Soon soldiers and growers were sitting down together playing cards.

In the aftermath of the riots, a compromise was reached declaring the Aube a "second region" of Champagne. The locals refused to take this snub lying down though and after a lengthy court case, the Aube became an official part of Champagne in 1927. Nearly a century on, a sniffy, de-haut-en-bas attitude from Champagne's heartland of Reims and Epernay prevails. Yet the clay-limestone soils of the Aube are an excellent source of pinot noir and some three-quarters of all the Aube's grapes end up an hour's drive north in brands as renowned as Moët, Lanson, Veuve Clicquot, Laurent Perrier and Billecart-Salmon.

"You still get some older growers saying the Aube is not the real Champagne," says Michel Drappier. "Normally the old have the experience and the young need to learn, but it's the younger growers who reject high yields and are reverting to positive aspects of tradition like organic methods." The excellent, bone-dry André et Michel Drappier Brut Nature, £19.99, Anthony Byrne Fine Wines (01487 814555), is one of my favourite champagnes, with scents of fresh red fruits and an elegantly textured, yeasty character. Equally good is the 2000 Drappier Millésime Exception, £22.99, a biscuity fizz with a hint of oak and a beeswaxy, delicate texture supported by the finest fluffy bubbles.

At Courteron, the gentle, white-haired Jean-Pierre Fleury is the first champagne grower to go biodynamic. "My father used chemicals liberally, but after analysing the soil in 1989 with the soil expert Jean-Claude Bourguignon, I was amazed to discover just how alive the soil was and the more the roots could penetrate into the limestone, the greater the potential for minerality in the essentially fruity character of the Aube." Thanks to his supra-organic approach, the Fleury Brut, £21.99, Waitrose, displays raspberryish flavours with a biscuity touch of minerality, while the fine 1996 Fleury, £24.75, Vintage Roots (0118-976 1999) shows honey and toastiness whose nutty, evolved flavours are balanced by citrusy acidity.

In Avirey-Linge, another of the Aube's little villages, Michel and Isabelle Jacob's meticulous vineyard management and cellar craftsmanship result in a fine range of reasonably priced champagnes, from the zesty apéritif style Serge Mathieu Tradition, Blanc de Noirs, £14.95, to the elegantly styled, vivaciously raspberryish Serge Mathieu Brut Rosé, £18.95, Stone, Vine and Sun (01962 712351). The Jacobs are typical of the Aube, whose off-the-beaten track individuality makes this tranquil corner of Champagne well worth the detour.

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