Most champagne lovers know that while the majority of the grapes for the wine they drink come from the north of the region, around Reims and Epernay, over one-fifth come from the south – a region often called the Côte des Bars, in the Aube département. These vineyards are 30 kilometres or more to the southeast of the city of Troyes and home to some very good producers. The best known, perhaps, is Drappier (a favourite of Charles de Gaulle) and also a very good cooperative which produces the wine known as Veuve Devaux.
Troyes is an interesting town. Its centre is beautiful, redolent with half-timbered renaissance buildings, it has an excellent cathedral, and in the Middle Ages surpassed Reims to be the capital of the county of Champagne. It was a major trading centre with renowned fairs for the trading of cloth and home to Rashi, one of the most celebrated medieval Jewish thinkers. It also has, if you view it from the air, a centre carved out by roads and a stream which mirrors the shape of a champagne cork when it has been expelled from the bottle. Yet for all this, contemporary Troyes is not so much a champagne (wine) centre. The vineyards of the Côte des Bars are a little too far away, so it has rather turned its back on the most prestigious product of the region; what many locals first remark about it is that it is home to a large McArthur Glen outlet retail park!
Yet wine isn’t entirely absent. Just ten kilometres to the west is the commune of Montgueux – a single village which has a bit over 200 hectares of vineyards and the right to make the wine. Although it is administratively in the Aube département, it doesn’t share the same geology as the vineyards to its east; rather it is essentially an extension of the chalky hills of Sézanne, further to its north. These chalk-rich soils (with a noticeable flint content), and the south-eastern facing slopes, make it ideal for the chardonnay grape and overwhelmingly that is what is planted there. I’ve entitled this piece ‘a forgotten corner…’ but that is not entirely true. Champagne lovers have registered some good producers there, led by Champagne Jacques Lassaigne; nevertheless, the small size of the planted area at its distance from the other main parts of the wine region still mean that it is substantially overlooked.
Even more, champagne in Montgueux might not exist today if it wasn’t for the persistence of one man. When I visited the village recently I met Hélène Beaugrand, the fourth generation winemaker of Champagne Beaugrand. She has an interesting background, having worked as a winemaker overseas (including Australia and South Africa) in the 1990s. The domaine was founded by her great-grandfather, Léon Beaugrand and has been selling wine since 1930 (very early for a vigneron in Champagne).
Records suggest that vines were cultivated in Montgueux back in the 12th century. Until the 1890s many villages had some vines, with somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 hectares across the region. Then phylloxera hit and it became too expensive to replant and not profitable enough when more money was made from wheat or sugar beet – and to be a farmer was better than being a vigneron, who were treated as the lowest of the low. When the appellation was finalised in 1927 it was limited to 34 000 hectares, as most places no longer had any desire to make the wine (including all the villages around Montgueux). In practice, by 1950, only 11,000 hectares were planted.
So why are their vines still in Montgueux? Léon Beaugrand was a grower in the village from about 1900 on – so had faith in the place in the post-phylloxera era. He had been a négociant from the south of France, selling to Troyes; he liked the village and planted vines there against the trend. At this time, although the grapes were sold to the large champagne Houses in Reims and Epernay, the wines of the region were considered ‘second class’. From 1911 to 1927 were major arguments over whether or not the Aube could be included in the appellation, and it was only finally accepted that they should be in 1927. Léon Beaugrand fought for the right to have Montgueux in the appellation, and tried to get the growers in surrounding villages to join with him – but they weren’t interested, nor were most of his neighbours. Nevertheless, Léon was persistent, and against the odds, and the reluctance of the institutional powers of champagne, succeeded. Even so, it was not until the 1950s that vines began to be more widely planted (Veuve Clicquot came to the village to buy grapes) and only in the 1970s did other récoltants-manipulants – the growers who would sell wine to the public as well as just grapes to the négociants – begin to emerge. There are now 19 of them there.
Meanwhile, the domaine has to evolve. French succession laws mean that the vineyard land is being split up and Hélène is only retaining part of it. The wines will evolve and change. Yet, based on the wines she has been making for the family over the last 15 years, this won’t be a problem for her – and she has plans for how the domaine will evolve. If you ever get to find the wines they are worth trying, and show the ability of chardonnay, with its elevated level of acidity, to give champagne the backbone to age gracefully and develop real complexity; the cuvée reserve is a good example of this, a blend but based on 2009 and 2010 base wine, very complex and very gastronomic. They are also made from old vines (dating back to the 1960s and earlier) which is unusual with champagne, where replanting to increase yields normally starts at about 40 years.
The point of this blog post? To show that one determined individual with a vision can still shape the direction of a wine region or of a wine brand – whatever the challenges they face. It’s not all just down to impersonal forces or the larger actors to determine events and craft success.