UNLIKE Reims and Épernay, the Marne cities to the north that are rivaled only by caviar in their close association with Champagne, this pleasant medieval city in the Aube, with its cobblestone streets and timbered architecture, is rarely considered the hub of a thriving Champagne region.
Perhaps that’s because for years the Aube has served anonymously as the workaday supplier of grapes to the production areas to the north, a sort of scullery in the elegant house of bubbly, essential to the smooth operation of Champagne, but best ignored.
Yet today, the spotlight is unexpectedly shining on the Aube, and its primary growing area, the Côte des Bar. Now, the region is coming to be known for its independent vignerons, whose distinctive, highly sought wines have caught the attention of Champagne lovers the world over.
The grandes marques of the Marne made Champagne one of the world’s leading luxury brands by marketing it as an urbane beverage for special occasions. They emphasized the art of blending, in which the distinctions of terroir, grape and vintage are absorbed into a house style.
By contrast, many Aube producers are taking their cues instead from Burgundy, with its emphasis on farming and on being able to trace terroir through the wines. Rather than the hushed pop of the cork and the silken rush of bubbles, these Champagnes suggest soil on the boots and dirt under the fingernails.
Even so, Champagnes from producers like Cédric Bouchard and Vouette & Sorbée, Marie-Courtin and Dosnon & Lepage, Jacques Lassaigne and Drappier, the closest thing to a grande marque in the Aube, can be as ethereal as their siblings to the north, if a trifle idiosyncratic.
“The identity of Champagne has been as a beverage for celebrations, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Davy Dosnon, who, with his business partner, Simon-Charles Lepage, issued his first wines in 2007. “But it’s also a wine of terroir, of place, and should be thought of that way as well. And why not in the Côte des Bar?”
The focus on terroir in the Aube reflects a larger discussion throughout the entire region, in which small producers making distinctive, terroir-specific Champagnes from grapes they farm themselves have seized initiative from the big houses. These small grower-producers account for barely an eyedropper’s worth of the Champagne that flows from the region, but they now lay claim to an outsize portion of the fascination among Champagne lovers.
“Before, it was Champagne, singular,” said Michel Drappier of Drappier, the largest and best known producer in the Aube, which was founded in 1808 but didn’t begin to bottle its own wines until the early 20th century. “Now it is Champagnes, plural, as sophisticated and complex as Burgundy, with as many villages, winemakers and styles as any place.”
Mr. Dosnon studied viticulture and enology in Beaune, the heart of Burgundy, and he brings a Burgundian passion for the land to his work. Strolling through a hillside vineyard in the hamlet of Avirey-Lingey, about 25 miles southeast of Troyes, one parcel among 17 acres or so that they farm, I noticed another similarity to Burgundy, tiny fossilized seashells in the earth, like those often seen in the vineyards of Chablis.
Indeed, the Côte des Bar is closer to Chablis than to Épernay, and its limestone and clay soils are more like those of Chablis than the chalky soils to the north. Yet, despite the geological resemblance to Chablis, which makes the most distinctive chardonnay wines in the world, the vast majority of the grapes in the Côte des Bar are pinot noir.
“The soil is also interesting for pinot noir,” Mr. Dosnon said. “There’s a lot of volume and complexity.”
The Dosnon & Lepage Champagnes are superb, especially the 100 percent pinot noir Récolte Noire, powerful yet graceful, wonderfully fresh and aromatic, and a blanc de blancs, Récolte Blanche, a wine of finesse and nuance, with savory, focused floral and mineral flavors.
If the evolution of the Aube seems a bit of a Cinderella story, it’s with good reason. A century ago, in 1911, riots tore through Champagne as, among other issues, the big houses in the Marne tried to exclude the Aube from the Champagne appellation. Eventually, a compromise was reached in which the Aube was granted second-class Champagne status. Even after the Marne finally, if gingerly, embraced the Aube as a full part of Champagne in 1927, none of its vineyards were designated grand cru or even premier cru, marks of quality reserved only for the Marne.
And so the Aube served primarily as a faceless source of grapes. While a small amount of Champagne has always been made here, the grapes mostly traveled 80 miles or so north, through the flat farmland that separates the Côte des Bar from the production areas of the Marne.
In Épernay, I met with an executive at one of the grand marques and told him I was heading to the Côte des Bar the next day. “Oh?” he asked. “They make Champagne there?” Well-worn mockery, perhaps, but an indication that grudging appreciation from the Champagne establishment is not so easy to come by.
Many producers in the south still feel the sting of northern scorn, and it is a driving force.
“Always, we were second class,” said Emmanuel Lassaigne, whose Champagne house, Jacques Lassaigne, is in Montgueux, a small village west of Troyes. “People in the Marne will still say, ‘The Aube is no good.’ ”
The vineyards of Montgueux, largely on an imposing south-facing hillside, are distinct from the Côte des Bar, and are one of the few places in the Aube that emphasize chardonnay. In Montgueux, achieving sufficient ripeness is rarely a problem. Indeed, the exotic, tropical fruit flavors of Montgueux chardonnay are highly unusual for Champagne. Mr. Lassaigne’s aim is to capture the aromas and flavors of this singular terroir.
“My job is to say, ‘Montgueux is good,’ ” he said. “It’s not better, but it’s absolutely not worse.”
His nonvintage blanc de blancs Les Vignes de Montgueux is very much its own Champagne, with light aromas of tropical fruit and flowers. It feels broad yet is dry and refreshing. His vintage blanc de blancs are a step up in elegance, with more mineral flavors yet still with the distinctive Montgueux fruit.
Foremost, perhaps, among the region’s new stars is Cédric Bouchard, whose single-vineyard Champagnes are exquisitely delicate and subtle, gently expressive of their terroir. His dark, tussled hair and piercing olive green eyes give him the brooding look of a young philosopher. Indeed, his uncompromising winemaking might be called highly philosophical.
“I’m only interested in the wine, the grape, the parcel and the terroir,” he said. “It’s got to have emotion to it; otherwise, it’s going to the négociants.”
Mr. Bouchard’s father grew grapes and made a small amount of his own Champagne, but as a young man Mr. Bouchard left for Paris, where he worked in a wine shop. There, he said, he discovered the wines of vignerons he described as working naturally, and decided that he, too, wanted to make wine. He returned to the Aube only because his father offered him land.
Right away, he proved himself independent. “Whatever my father did, I did the opposite,” he said. “Spiritually, I’m the first generation because it’s my own style and philosophy. I think my father is proud of the wines, but he would never admit it directly.”
Mr. Bouchard tries to be as natural in his approach as possible, even rejecting the use of horses in his vineyards, which he now plows by hand. In that sense, he said, he is lucky to have only small parcels.
Another rising star in the Côte des Bar, Bertrand Gautherot, named his label Vouette & Sorbée, after the two vineyards he farms biodynamically. His family grew grains and grapes and raised animals around the town of Buxières-sur-Arce. As a young man he left, to design lipsticks, but the call of agriculture was great, and he soon returned.
“We were not in the business of Champagne,” he said. “We were more farmers than winemakers.”
Mr. Gautherot, too, focused on farming, selling off all his grapes to cooperatives or the big houses. Among his good friends were superb grower-producers from the north, like Anselme Selosse and Jérôme Prévost, who he said urged him to begin making his own wines.
“But I understood I had to learn the terroir of my village,” he said. “A big problem in Champagne is that wines are easy to make by recipe. It’s much harder to learn the taste of your vineyards. That’s why it’s called Vouette & Sorbée rather than Bertrand Gautherot.”
His first vintage was 2001 — only 2,000 bottles, he said, in case he had to drink it all himself. He’s now up to around 30,000 bottles, which all seem as if they are fine wines that just happen to be effervescent rather than simply celebratory bubbly. Perhaps his most unusual Champagne is the Saignée de Sorbée, a rosé that emphasizes the lovely spicy fruit of the pinot noir grape and its exuberant aromas. It’s a beautifully fragrant, exuberant Champagne, with spicy, smoky flavors.
The Côte des Bar seems rife with small producers waiting for discovery. Some, frankly, are rustic, not yet ready for prime time. Others, like Dominique Moreau, whose label, Marie-Courtin, is named for her grandmother, make breathtakingly gorgeous, elegant Champagnes in such minute quantities that they can be frustrating to try to find.
While the bubbling up of talent in the Aube is clear, Mr. Drappier prefers a historical perspective. With an annual production of 1.6 million bottles, Drappier is the size of a small grande marque, like Pol Roger or Billecart-Salmon. Its facility in Urville sits over an original cellar that traces back to 1152.
“The Aube was the wealthiest of the Champagne regions in the Middle Ages, and Troyes was the capital,” said Mr. Drappier, who is the seventh-generation Drappier to lead the house.
“Before phylloxera,” he said, referring to the pest that destroyed European grapevines in the late 19th century, “there were many more vineyards in the Aube than in the Marne.”
Today, Drappier’s Champagnes are discernibly more mainstream than those of the smaller producers, dry and refreshing with full-bodied, sometimes smoky flavors.
Mr. Drappier suggests that the rise of the Aube is due partly to the new prosperity in the entire Champagne region, which allowed growers to start making their own wine; to better education, which contributed to the arrival of dynamic young winemakers in the region; and to the changing tastes of consumers, who now understand that Champagne is more than simply a luxury good.
“Terroir used to be considered rude in Champagne,” he said. “It was all about blending and dosage. Now we say we are from the Côte des Bar, and we are proud of it.”
To the Terroir
Here are eight producers from the Aube region, all worth trying.
CÉDRIC BOUCHARD Extraordinarily delicate, gentle and expressive. Inflorescence ($55) and Roses de Jeanne ($95). (Polaner Selections, Mount Kisco, N.Y.)
DOSNON & LEPAGE Superb, elegant yet intense ($40 to $70). (Jon David Headrick Selections, Asheville, N.C.)
DRAPPIER A complete range of full-bodied, refreshing, well-made wines ($30 to $80). (Hardy U.S.A., Des Plaines, Ill.)
FLEURY Longtime biodynamic producer; rich, round wines ($35 to $100). (Domaine Select, New York)
JACQUES LASSAIGNE Exotic yet elegant wines from the unique terroir of Montgueux ($40 to $70). (Jenny & François Selections, New York)
MARIE-COURTIN Lovely Champagnes, including Résonance ($40) from tanks and Éfflorescence ($60) from barrels. (Polaner Selections)
JEAN VELUT Pleasing, refreshing and surprisingly light, from Montgueux ($40 to $75). (Bonhomie Wine Imports, South Orange, N.J.)
VOUETTE & SORBÉE Energetic, lively, elegant and vinous ($55 to $100). (Domaine Select)