CHAMPAGNE CONFIDENTIAL (Pt. 1) | Champagne-Ardenne
Deep in the valleys of the French frontier, Siddharth Dasgupta begins to suspect that the soul of the country might well lie far away from its celebrated cities
One of the more pertinent joys of travel is its inherent melodicity. The hush of surprise that comes with every unexpected corner, that roar of delight over a perfectly rendered meal, the deep sigh of bliss at that first intoxicating whiff of fine vintage, the flow of sensations as they mark themselves out in your box of memories… they’re all co-conspirators in one giant rock opera of wanderlust. Seated in the plush living room of the Drappier family estate, warmed by the crackling fireplace and a steady diet of rosé-heavy cuvées, I find that very melodicity to be at its sparkling best.
A DOSE OF MEDIEVAL MAGIC
But I digress, and as with most good stories, this one probably deserves to be rendered from the very beginning. I’m in France to savour its sparkling white wines – or champagnes – and their many accompanying pleasures, as played out across the destinations of Aube, Marne and Ardennes in the Champagne-Ardenne region. This is a cluster of prosperous champagne-producing provinces without parallel in the world. I’d arrived in France the previous day and headed immediately for Troyes. Upon reaching the town, I’d known instinctively that Troyes (in typical French eccentricity, pronounced ‘Twa’) and I would get along famously. A curious mélange of medieval and gothic, with impressionism influencing much of its architecture and visual aesthetic, Troyes is one of those dreamy little towns that captures you instantly with its collage of cobblestone streets, its mysterious alleyways, those charming little bars and cafés, an abundance of churches and cathedrals, and an immersive aura that compels you to uncover. In short, the French countryside you’ve always dreamed of and seen in myriad postcards in your head. I duly spend my day consumed by the beauty of travel without agenda.
Crisp with the freshness of early winter, Troyes’ sleepy vibe coexists quite happily with the presence of nearly nine thousand students spread across its three universities. As a result, a few boisterous alleys and a tiny but enthusiastic bunch of bars that stays up well into the night make their presence felt amidst the centuries of history and intrigue on view. The Ruelle de Chat is a case in point. This impossibly tiny alley that is characterised by wooden beams connecting roofs of homes so that cats may leap across (!) is littered with cool dives, hideaways, and ancient mansions. On a slightly more devoted note, from amongst Troyes’ wealth of nine Romanesque and Gothic churches and a cathedral, the Church of Sainte-Madeleine consumes me with its forlorn grandeur and an aesthetic bordering on the epic. The stained glass that Troyes is famed for the world over is on full display here, depicting fables and biblical epics in vivid, near graphic novel fluidity. The night is relished at L’Essentiel, a restaurant brimming with simple elegance. At their specially-curated three-course meal, the deliciously-cooked fish and the lovingly marinated meat dance perfectly with a roving selection of crystal-clear champagnes both vivacious in flavour and rare in texture.
Earlier this morning, I had walked nearly all of Troyes in a bid to bottle some more of its essence. From charming B&Bs hidden away behind nondescript doors, a large town square flanked by a vibrant restaurant culture, and an even more bristling array of high fashion labels to gardens caressed by memories of yesterday, the local delicacy Andouillette (not for the faint-hearted), multicoloured rows of timber-framed houses nestled together, and a multitude of hidden passageways, this is a town that exudes a sense of romance. Just the perfect entrée for a foray into champagne land.
GETTING TO THE HEART OF CHAMPAGNE
I’m in France on the invitation of Atout France, Air France and the Tourism Departments of Champagne-Ardenne, Aube en Champagne and Marne. Together with taking wonderfully good care of me, my hosts Márine and Célia are also seeing to it that I get to experience as many rare addresses as possible. Which brings me to where I’d started my story, at the Drappier Champagne House in the village of Urville. This large family estate regularly produces a million bottles of champagne a year, many of which are exported. I’m getting an exclusive insider’s look at the minute workings of the estate and its operations courtesy Monsieur Michel Drappier, the head of the family. The passion he holds for his family and their champagne empire in turn is evident as he guides me through their endless processing plant where the usage of sulfur is kept to a minimum, resulting in champagnes that glisten with gold and copper whilst being imbued with rare bouquets. “Because my spirits are aged in oat vats for close to twenty years, they’re of noble vintage,” Michel tells me.
We’re now down in his remarkable cellar which owes its origins to the Cistercian Monks of Clairvaux – this is an open window for me to peer into the 12th Century and look right into the heart of a massive champagne empire – one where every new batch of million is treated with as much care and precision as vintages dating back to the 1940s. The Drappier’s is an epic legacy of spirit. “I have enough sugar solutions in these crystal flasks here to lightly flavour our champagnes for atleast two generations to come,” Michel reveals. Back upstairs in the living room, Madame Drappier has cooked up a French feast worth celebrating in rhyme – salmon, potatoes, beef, and duck – each course impossibly delicious, each accompanied by different labels from their private stable. This is champagne of the sort you’re unlikely to have savoured before. Drappier’s array of cuvées – delicate rosés, confident bruts and sparkling blancs – are like drops of manna and their fragrance lingers long after I have bid my charming hosts Au Revoir.
Part 1 of a 2-part series. This story appeared, in full, in Travel + Leisure (January, 2016), and in slighlty abridged form in Travel + Leisure Online http://travelandleisureindia.in/medieval-magic-in-champagne/