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Champagne: far more than just wine with bubbles


Photos by Annie Palovcik

Tiny bubbles rise and burst as Nathalie Domi pours out glasses of her finest champagne. My wife Annie and I sip and nod approval. It is superb. Flavourful, crisp and refreshing.
Glasses of champagne
We are guests of Champagne Domi-Moreau, Nathalie’s family company, one of the smallest and most traditional producers in the Champagne country of northeastern France.

Many foreign visitors journey out from Paris and just spend a day or so in Champagne’s main cities, Reims or Epernay. They visit the huge and famous champagne houses like Veuve Clicquot and enjoy tastings. But this shortchanges a region of France that is every bit as picturesque and charming as Burgundy or Provence, and far less crowded with tourists.

We decide, instead, to explore Champagne’s rural villages, where the vines grow right down the slopes to every back yard. Our idea is to meet local growers whose families have owned and nurtured their land for generations, watch them at work, and learn about their rich traditions and distinctive viticulture. But we also pamper ourselves with some luxurious accommodations and the fine cuisine that seems so appropriate when enjoying a champagne experience.

We start in Mancy, ten miles south of Epernay, where we go up onto a hillside of vines with Nathalie.
Mancy vineyards, Champagne, France
“This has been a good year, so far,” she says. “We are two to three weeks ahead of usual,” although in early May there is still the slight possibility of a damaging frost. She fingers clusters of tiny green chardonnay grapes that grow in perfectly straight, symmetrical rows. Each vine is tied to a taut wire strung along steel posts. Similar rows blanket the lush, rolling countryside as far as we can see. Her dog wanders off among the grapes.

Domi-Moreau owns 15 acres of vines in five separate parcels. Champagne land is restricted by law and therefore incredibly expensive. Rarely sold, it has been subdivided through generations of inheritance into ever smaller and non-contiguous holdings, or sometimes combined by marriage. In this case, a Domi married a Moreau. Of some 15,000 growers, only 5,000 market finished champagne. Most sell their grapes or pressed juice to larger producers.

Vineyards champagne FranceNathalie explains the arduous annual cycle: eight months of pruning and cultivating the rows of vines, often in winter rains, followed by intense summer months of harvesting, pressing the grapes, fermenting and finally bottling.

We return to the village and the family compound, with its barn, farm machinery, cramped underground cellar, century-old press and small bottling area. There, beneath the chalk soil, the juice ferments initially for two weeks in large tanks. Everything is done by Nathalie, her husband Max, and Max’s parents, whose own parents and grandparents were also growers. They employ help only briefly for harvesting, hand bottling and labelling, 30,000 bottles a year. With more juice than they can handle, they sell the excess.

To each bottle they add yeast and sugar, and a temporary metal bottle cap. Months of secondary fermentation build up pressure. The metal cap is replaced with the distinctively shaped champagne cork in an explosive two-second procedure that expels any sediment. Then the bottles go back into storage for additional months or years.

x090215C2 182 lr (2)At last, it is time for Nathalie to open a bottle and let us relish the fruits of her family’s labours. She untwists the little metal wires and lets the cork fly. Voila! The bubbles fizz while the dog leaps into action. “He never tires of the game,” she laughs. “He always races to fetch the cork.”

We spend a couple of nights at Domi-Moreau’s comfortable gite, or self-service guest house, with a large kitchen where we can prep meals or hot drinks. This gives us full days to hike the slopes and savour the sights, smells and rhythms of country life. Bravely mustering our rusty school French, we chat with locals and explore the village. Not that there is much to explore..

Mancy is a quiet residential hamlet, without even a post office, general store or traffic light. Domi ancestors lie buried at the ancient Catholic church. There is only a small but lively pub-style bar and restaurant, La Madelon, that drips with provincial ambiance. It is decorated with First World War motifs and memorabilia, which is fitting in a locale so close to the Marne battlefields. Trucks and tractors are lined up outside. Entering the bar is like walking onto the set of a slightly noir French film. The bald, mustachioed bartender presides with Gallic bonhomie over men in work clothes who kibbitz around the foosball table or slump over the bar, smoke curling up from their cigarettes.

In the back, the simply appointed restaurant offers excellent prix fixe lunches, plus dinner on weekends. We show up just too late to enjoy the day’s lunch special, roasted rabbit, and have to settle for a choice of succulent chopped beef steak with fries, or creamy scalloped potato and ham casserole au gratin. Included is a sumptuous appetizer buffet and salad bar, as well as dessert and coffee. For drinks, I have a couple of draft beers while Annie orders a carafe of wine. The bill comes to 35 Euros. Once outside of Paris, we find France to be quite affordable.

Many village families own scattered holdings of vines and drive out daily in small vans to work them. Their yards are full of farm equipment. We watch one afternoon from our window as a sudden thunderstorm sweeps in, drenching the slopes in a downpour. All the hillside workers scramble for their vans as the lightning flashes and drive away, probably home for a snack or coffee. An hour later, it clears up and they are back among the vines. As Nathalie says, “sun and rain are what make the grapes grow.”

Neglecting to take the key when we go for a walk one evening, we return to find that Max’s mother has locked up the guest house. We are stuck outside as dusk falls. Nathalie and Max have apparently gone out, and we don’t know where in the village his parents live. We are forced to knock on nearby doors to request help. One neighbour is a retired gentleman who looks at us with suspicion and proves to be less than cooperative. Fortunately, we eventually find a friendly woman who phones Max’s parents to come and let us in. She tells us that, like many in the village, she commutes to work in Epernay.
x090215C3 034 (3)
We spend the following morning in that attractive small city touring one of the larger producers, Champagne de Castellane. Owning no land, it buys grapes and juice from countless small growers and has highly automated equipment. A well-organized museum displays old tools and champagne-making methods from a time when all was done by hand. There is a remarkable archive of all the labels—hundreds of tiny wooden drawers full of them—from special allotments of champagne for gala occasions, such as a nineteenth century event at the Paris Opera.

Deep below, fork lifts zoom through miles of ancient arched cellars holding millions of bottles. One alcove has dusty vintage bottles from as far back as 1915, which are not for sale.

Our English-speaking guide Antoine, a young married man who shows us through and offers a tasting, is one of the many property owners who inherited too little land to support a family. He works his vines on weekends and sells the grapes to supplement his income.

Vinay, our next stop, is a lovely village with narrow streets and quaint houses. We check into a beautifully landscaped, high-end country inn, La Briqueterie. A destination in itself, it features an indoor pool, elegant spa and Michelin star dining room.

Dosy Lecompte (3)Ghislaine and Dosy Lecomte greet us for a visit to their small but modern facility, Champagne Lecomte. Sons Frederic and Jeremy are the family’s 5th generation of vignerons. With three additional employees and a semi-automated bottling line, they work 18 acres and produce 70,000 bottles a year.

Dosy drives us out to watch his young crew at work, planting new grapes. After about 50 years, each vine has grown roots the size of a basketball and begins to lose vigour. The men are busy stringing wires and putting up netting around the small young vines to protect against rabbits. We view fields of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier. Nearby, a fellow grower cuts off useless shoots that grow from rootstock below the graft on each vine and have sprouted during winter.

A famous Romanesque hilltop church, Eglise de Chavot, surrounded by grapes, overlooks the long valley leading past Vinay and into distant Epernay. Dosy points out that vines on the high, north-facing slopes show frost damage, while south-facing grapes were spared and will be of higher quality.

Back at the Lecomte reception and tasting room, we admire their own family “museum” of tools and pre-automation production setups, some of which Dosy himself had to work with in his youth.

Ghislaine serves us several of their vintages and blends. “The blanc de blanc, which is 100% chardonnay, is especially good with fish,” she says. The salmon-coloured rosé, tinged with a little red wine, is a speciality that sells well in summer. They market much of their product through direct sales to repeat customers. One British aristocrat visits every year and ships home hundreds of bottles. Their retail prices, just over 14 Euros, seem modest for such exquisite champagne. Travelling light though, and by air, we buy only two bottles.

xLa Briqueterie #1 (2) (2)Back at La Briqueterie, we tuck into a memorable final dinner created by a surprisingly young but noted Belgian chef, Michael Nizzero. First come the tantalizing tidbits, an amuse bouche of marinated raw fish, or deep-fried scallops with a green wasabi sauce. Next, for my appetizer I choose one of Nizzero’s signature dishes, a tartare of prawns with citrus zest, melba toast and Baeri caviar. Annie has a slice of foie gras with pine nuts, parmesan and a garnish of escarole. Finally, our main dishes. I order the poached lobster in a buttery mousse, with sorrel flavoured cracked wheat risotto, truffles and a bisque emulsion. Annie goes for the roasted monkfish with broad beans, pine nuts and a crayfish sauce. All washed down with an excellent, highly mineralized pouilly fumé white wine. Later, to accompany the plate of cheeses, in addition to cognac, our waiter recommends trying Ratafia, a fortified red wine with herbs and spices. And with our espressos, while the chef circulates to meet his guests, we nibble tiny fruit tarts and squares of nougat.

But then, back at our room, there are still those bottles of Lecomte champagne. One, we plan to pack in our luggage and share with an old friend at our next destination, Italy. The other, well, we simply cannot resist. And why should we? Popping the cork and toasting each other in style, this last indulgence is a worthy celebration of our sojourn in France.

As Napoleon said of champagne, “In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it.”
Mancy vineyards
For information about Domi-Moreau’s tours, tastings and guest house lodgings, click here.

For Lecomte’s tours and tastings, click here.

For Castellane’s tours and tastings, click here.

For information about the lodgings and meals at La Briqueterie, click here.

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