The Rise of Champagne’s Rebel South

the aube champagne jon bonne illustration kaye blegvad

The smell overtakes me as I exit the A5 autoroute near Magnant and turn onto the D443, the local departmental road. A dairy smell—fresh like spring but decaying, too, somewhere between cheese and limp flowers.

Dairy makes sense. This is Chaource country, where you’ll find plenty of that oozy, bloomy-rind cheese. But that vegetal sliver of decay tips me off: It’s the canola fields, bursting yellow with their not-unpleasant reek. They follow me everywhere as I drive through the Aube.

This is Champagne’s far south. But in no obvious way does it resemble Champagne we all know: the dramatic plain of Reims, the solid rise of the Montagne de Reims; the majestic slope of the Grande Vallée, dotted with towns like Aÿ and Cumières—all of them swarmed by vines and, still too often, the dull soil of abusive farming.

In the Aube? None of that, with the possible exception of the great hill of Montgueux, that promontory of chardonnay just outside Troyes, the city that happens to have been Champagne’s historic capital prior to the French Revolution. The Aube’s outward geography barely hints at its Champagne-ness—a glimpse of vines here and there, tucked into a valley, in miniscule villages like Buxières-sur-Arce and Avirey-Lingey.

So begins the deception. The Côte des Bar, as the Aube’s winegrowing area is sometimes called, contains nearly 8,000 hectares of vines, nearly one-quarter of all Champagne. And yet, for a century, this southernmost outpost of Champagne has existed in a world apart, as concerned with its cattle and cheeses as the grapes it dutifully ships north to Champagne barons, usually at cut-rate prices. Drive south and the license plates shift from 51 (Marne) to 10 (Aube); the cars downshift, too, from spotless BMWs to rickety Renaults.

If the north is Champagne’s holy land, the south is its back office. And that’s not conjecture—it’s codified in official regulation. In 1911 the Aube was literally granted second-class status, as a “Champagne deuxième zone.” It took nearly two more decades before, in wine terms, it was finally accepted as part of Champagne. Even today, not a single grand cru or premier cru village is located there. Thus was born an uneasy peace, which might explain the slight colonialist vibe I kept encountering during my travels in the south.

I can’t ignore this sense of diffidence as I walk the fields with Bertrand Gautherot—the man behind the coveted Vouette et Sorbée wines. Gautherot is proud of his soils, and has no particular love for the north. As other growers do, Gautherot quickly points out his neighbors’ plots, planted to grapes that will be sold on the cheap to big houses like Taittinger or Krug. For all his diligence to work the soils biodynamically, the signs of empire still surround him. He picks up a shard of plastic from his fertile soil and tosses it back onto his neighbor’s barren dirt.

“They are opportunists, the Champenois.”

Does this mean he doesn’t consider himself one? The Aubois may technically be of Champagne, but they clearly don’t feel like they belong. Yet even more than many of their counterparts in the north, Aube growers’ wines reflect a new mode for Champagne. To that point, its biggest names—Cédric Bouchard, Emmanuel Lassaigne and emerging stars like Aurélien Gerbais or Marie Courtin’s Dominique Moreau—have so much currency right now that the Aube is often accused of being Champagne’s next fad.

But reducing the Aube’s recent rise to a trend is not fair, because, even if the Aubois don’t quite feel like they belong, they’ve actually helped to shape the contours of modern Champagne’s best practices. It was here that the region’s parcellaire movement—single-vineyard Champagnes as a frame for terroir—established its strongest beachhead, where indigenous yeasts and wines made without chaptalization seem relatively routine. And where pioneers of organics and biodynamics like Gautherot are manifest. Since the Aube was mostly ignored when cartographers drew Champagne’s canonical vineyard maps in the 1940s, growers in the south today wave old cadastral charts with a flourish. Thanks to this relative obscurity, the Aube stokes a certain freedom—a sort that’s tricky to achieve for even the north’s best innovators.

That freedom is detectable in the wines, which are raucous and fun and occasionally unpredictable. The north’s progressives are doing exceptional work, too, but they’re doing it in places that are far better known. No one quite knows what the Aube should taste like, which has undoubtedly added to the thrill of drinking the wines.

Admittedly, that thrill is sometimes erratic. Lassaigne’s wines, for instance, show nearly electric highs but can be as unpredictable as an Atlantic City dice roll. But tasting them still evokes a sense of liberation, even among more proper examples from producers like Serge Mathieu or Drappier. (That Drappier, one of the region’s largest producers, makes an unsulfured cuvée, tells you how much liberty the Aube enjoys.)

Yet, despite the neurotic relationship of these winemakers with Champagne, they are still part of Champagne, and that means they still make Champagne—which has prevented the sort of wild-eyed revolt you might find in the Loire. Thus for every Gautherot, there’s a Nathalie Falmet.

Falmet works in Rouvres-les-Vignes, virtually the easternmost town in all Champagne. Given the unfashionable postal code, I expect a rustic turn when I pull up. Instead, she greets me in heels and perfectly trim slacks, looking as though she belongs in Paris’s 2nd. A chemist and enologist by training, Falmet has no quarter with the bearded gruffness of a radical fringe. Given her pristine cellar and the Sephora bag sitting on the oven, I hardly am prepared for the heady, unvarnished nature of her wines—like her ZH302, an extra brut all from pinot meunier named for its parcel on old cadastral maps. (“I didn’t know what to call it,” she says.) Perfumed with sandalwood and umeboshi, the unromantically titled ZH302 is a revelation—and a reminder that nothing in the Aube is quite what it seems.

To that end, it’s clear that something deeper underlies the region’s neuroses. Even as the Aube has belatedly gotten its due as part of Champagne, its desires and ambitions are being propelled by a kinship with its neighbor to the south: Burgundy.

This moment for the Aube really isn’t about this moment. It’s about changing our story of Champagne. It’s true that many in Champagne are attempting rewrite its story, but the Aube has the extra task of undoing the myopia of the past. How many of our notions about terroir truly reflect geography, and how many are warped by politics and power? Why should the chalk of the Côte des Blancs be undisputedly better for chardonnay than the Chablis-like soils of the Aube?

In the case of the Aubois, however, it’s not a matter of grasping at reflected glory. Quite literally, the Aube is closer to Burgundy than to the rest of Champagne—less than 60 km to Chablis, and 150 to Épernay. Its climate is warmer than the Marne’s and the soils have far more in common with the dense clay-limestone of Burgundy than the chalk of Champagne. After decades digging up dirt in the Aube, soil expert Claude Kossura determined that nearly all its vineyards rest on hillsides with the same limestone-rich geomorphology as in Chablis—on two strata of Kimmeridgean clay and limestone about 150 million years old, or more than 50 million years older than most of the Marne’s soil.

The affinity is cultural, too. Champagne’s fame has been built on economies of scale, on blending terroir out of the equation. It has traditionally pushed away the things Burgundy holds dear—its reverence for the small, and obsession with a specific sense of place—and that, incidentally, today’s Aube producers do, too.

There is perhaps no better example than Cédric Bouchard, the most famous of Aubois vintners and certainly the most Burgundian: he trained in Beaune, and has been farming until recently in Gevrey-Chambertin as well as the Aube. He harvests his Champagne grapes at 26 hectoliters/hectare, about the yield for grand cru Burgundy (and barely a third of Champagne’s average).

“What was missing for me in Champagne,” he tells me one afternoon as we sit in his garden, “was a true traceability.”

Hence his now-famous “Burgundian system.” Each Champagne is made from one vintage of one variety grown in one parcel. All are aged in steel (“wood deforms the wine’s face”) and made without filtration or the addition of sugar, either to the juice or to the finished wine.

In this way, Bouchard very much embodies those Aube neuroses—appreciating the benefits of being Champenois, but not without at least a mild sense of self-loathing, telling me, rather candidly, “I don’t like Champagne.”

I do wonder at moments whether there’s something pretentious about all this: Dream of Burgundy but wrap yourself in Champagne? At the same time, so what if the region is preening a bit in the spotlight? I can’t begrudge it—even if some producers’ rough edges exceed their level of grace. For much of its history, the Aube has gotten a raw deal.

As that cool factor tapers, I think we’ll start to see the region in a proper light. Because this moment for the Aube really isn’t about this moment. It’s about changing our story of Champagne. It’s true that many in Champagne are attempting rewrite its story, but the Aube has the extra task of undoing the myopia of the past. How many of our notions about terroir truly reflect geography, and how many are warped by politics and power? Why should the chalk of the Côte des Blancs be undisputedly better for chardonnay than the Chablis-like soils of the Aube?

The region has already answered many of these questions, in places like Les Riceys, for one, at Champagne’s very southern edge. Go any further, and you’re approaching the heart of Burgundy. Riceys is a historical anomaly, in that it makes Champagne, but is most historically famous for making a deep and soulful rosé—perhaps the most serious rosé in France—often macerated for up to a week as though it were a light red.

It’s here, among the cereal fields and gentle hills, that I meet Olivier Horiot, who makes still rosé (as well as a red and white) and Champagne, in all cases from the same diverse set of biodynamically farmed parcels. Even though we’re well into dinner hour, Horiot drives me up and down the hills of Riceys in his old van. The diversity of his soils is obvious, and while his Champagnes are full of character, he finds them “less precise for the terroir” than the flavors he achieves in his single-parcel rosés. What we might consider as the most important wine isn’t necessarily the most meaningful.

Horiot reminds me that when we talk about the Aube today, we’re not simply giving an overlooked protectorate its due. We’re acknowledging that what we knew in the past was a very narrow version of the truth.

SIX WINES TO TRY:

The Aube has historically been a place for pinot noir, which explains the proliferation of that grape in the wines, and in the region it offers a precision and clarity in its flavors that does, indeed, seem Burgundian. But don’t dismiss chardonnay—many Aube growers are starting to replant it on their best plots of Kimmeridgean clay, nearly the same soil as in Chablis.

NV Vouette et Sorbée Blanc d’Argile Champagne | $95

This is Gautherot making a point about soils—replanting chardonnay on a plot where pinot noir once grew. Argile has that Chablis-like austerity, which may be one thing fans love about it. The latest, from 2012, is that for sure, smelling of rocks, celery and sorrel. Full of personality and, like all Gautherot’s wines, always finished without dosage. [BuyImporter: T. Elenteny Imports

NV Nathalie Falmet Tentation Rosée Champagne | $75

An example of Falmet applying her cellar skills to a great, unusual part of Champagne. This is a pinot duo: half noir and half meunier, layered by variety in the press and crushed together, then left to soak for up to up to two days. A near-sweetness and polish to the flavors, but also tons of mineral power. From the 2010 vintage, disgorged August 2013. [BuyImporter: Polaner Selections

NV Serge Mathieu Brut Rosé Champagne | $46

The Mathieu wines are from Avirey-Lingey, in the south of the Aube, where Isabelle Mathieu-Jacob’s family has farmed since the 1700s. The wines from her and her husband, Michel Jacob, are sleeper hits, and worth knowing—especially their rosé, which comprises 85 percent pinot noir (15 percent still red wine) and some chardonnay. A wine for Billecart fans. From the 2009 vintage, disgorged January 2014. [BuyImporter: Charles Neal Selections

NV Cedric Bouchard Roses de Jeanne Côte de Béchalin Blanc de Noirs Champagne |$109

The easy introduction to Bouchard is the Val Vilaine, but Béchalin is from a southwest-facing parcel opposite Vilaine, in Celles-sur-Ource, planted around 1980. This is a 2007, all pinot noir and the oldest of his wines still in release, with a surprising youth and generous fruit. [BuyImporter: Polaner Selections

NV Pierre Gerbais L’Originale Brut Champagne | $75

Like a number of Aube producers, Aurélien Gerbais has turned to a variety once prolific in the area: pinot blanc, which can produce an exotic and nervy Champagne. This is made with vines that, at their oldest, date to 1904, hence the name. Fresh and precise, with the grape’s signature green-almond accent floating in the background. [BuyImporter: Becky Wasserman / Various

2009 Olivier Horiot En Valingrain Rosé de Riceys | $42

Nothing wrong with the 2009 vintage—this is rosé built to last, from a lighter chalk parcel that yields darker fruit flavors and spice. Not to distract from Horiot’s complex, fascinating Champagnes, but his still rosé offers a completely unique side of Champagne. [BuyImporter: Louis / Dressner Selections

OTHER STORIES BY JON BONNÉ:

A Serious Case for Sweet, Fizzy Wine

The Jura Wines Nobody’s Telling You About

Where Have All the Other Summer Wines Gone?

Champagne’s Next Revolution Is Now

So Long, Seahaven: Wine’s New Mainstream 

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