Joie de Vivre in Champagne, France

Ardenne, France, heart of Champagne country. photos by Sony Stark.
Ardenne, France, the heart of Champagne country.

By Max Harshorne

Crack goes the top of the bottle and out pours a bubbly froth from the year I first learned to drive. A sharp double bladed knife is used to traditionally slice open the top of the 1986 vintage champagne.

The tempered tan flavors have aged beautifully and Daniella pours the nostalgic year for all to enjoy. She waxes poetically about its character, origin, and history.

The Epicenter of Champagne

I’m at the home of young married couple Pierre and Canadian-born Daniella Fresne Ducret. Pierre is the seventh generation to govern over the family’s 14-acre Champagne dynasty.

At age 30 and 35 respectively, Daniella and Pierre are only as old as the vintage we’re drinking. Many would argue that they’re too young to manage the huge responsibilities of owning and running a vineyard but in France, it’s the norm. The energy and dedication they bring are paramount for controlling the level of sophisticated operations required to make a bottle of bubbly.

Pierre was born into the business and understands the fickle dynamics of the Champagne industry. The little hillside town, Villedommange, only 5 miles from the historical city of Reims, is almost entirely made up of grape growers. It’s in their blood.

The picturesque Premier Cru region is special not only for the chalky soil (terroir) and temperate climate but the sparkling intensity that winemakers perfect through painstaking means.

The couple strives to not only meet the standards but to exceed them. For example, Champagne requires aging for 15 months before it can be sold; all 6 varieties of Fresne Ducret have aged a minimum of 24 months before they hit store shelves.

Daniella and Pierre
Daniella and Pierre.

Pierre gives us a tour of his wine cellar tunnels stocked with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. While the first two varieties are international grapes, Pinot Meunier is grown exclusively in the Champagne region and adds a wonderful fruity flavor to the mix.

The tunnel entrance is at the back of a nondescript garage on a hilly, narrow road. Anybody walking by wouldn’t give this garage much thought but inside is a cave that predates the French Revolution where decades of labor have produced several award-winning vintages.

Hope Springs Eternal in Wine and Marriage

Following the tour, Daniella, a master cook, serves up specialties she’s been preparing all morning. Hers is a Cinderella story of romance and good fortune.

In 2002, she moved from Toronto to France to pursue her love of travel and teach English to students in Reims. That same year she met her husband Pierre in the wine cellars of Domaine Lucien Jacob. Lucien Jacob makes fabulous burgundies but is well known for his legendary cassis and framboise. Appropriately enough, the two were tasting a harmonious blend of diverse grapes when their own relationship ripened.

No one, especially her, could have predicted that she’d move to France, marry in 2006, start a family in 2007 and invent a cooking class inside an old farmhouse in 2009.

Quail Eggs!

“Try our GoldMedal winner, the Brut Réserve. It helps bring out the flavors of the asparagus and morels in the poached quail eggs,” encourages Daniella.

Quail eggs? Now, there’s an appetizer I’m rarely offered.

I do as I’m told and it melts in my mouth. I hold back from lunging for more.

Daniella has more creativeness up her sleeve. Along with the crispy cod croquettes with lemon ginger mayonnaise, she spoils us with a tray of Frico cannoli with garlic and herb goat cheese mousse and duck rillete toasts with roasted beets.

Appetizers at the winery made by Danielle.
Appetizers at the winery made by Danielle.

With each appetizer she pairs a different champagne cocktail. Each cut through the creamy consistency and cleanses the palate so I can experience a mouthful of more flavors.

The aroma of the unique herbs and the texture of the whipped cremes – it all culminates into the reason why so many enroll in Daniella’s 5-hour cooking class.

Cuvées with Distinction

Last year, Pierre decided to invest in new machinery and sparkling new stainless steel vats. Newer technologies help the champagne process dejuice, ferment and age. But, unlike most, he’s still committed to shaking the bottles (remouage) and removing the dead yeast cells (dégorgement ) by hand.

Pierre is a great sport and does what few vintners would do when prompted – he crawls through the opening of one of the empty vats to explain the importance of cleaning the walls. No wonder the average age of a vintner is 35. You have to be thin and agile to pull off this feat.

It’s springtime and the independent 25 fields of Fresne Ducret are in full blossom. The field yeld up to 65,000 bottles per year resulting in about 4000 bottles per acre. That sounds like a lot of drink but, in fact, there are others in town that are five times bigger.

The garage where the magic happens.
The garage where the magic happens.

“Being small allows me to take part into every step of the champagne making process, from pruning to disgorging, and even though it can be tiring at times, it’s always a fabulous moment to open a bottle of a new cuvee that I made. If we were bigger, I’d spend a lot less time in the fields and the winery and a lot more in the office” says Pierre.

I like that answer. It’s staying competitive with quality food, drink and friendships that provides nourishment for the soul. Visit the Fresne Ducret family and experience the joie de vivre.

In order to allow the family to best prepare for your tour, please call or email them first. For tastings, food and wine pairing seminars, or other special events please make arrangements in advance.

Fresne Ducret Champagne
10 rue St Vincent
51390 Ville Dommange
Telephone: (+33) 03 26 49 24 60

In the barrel.
In the barrel.

Other Sites to Visit

Verzenay Lighthouse and the Museum of Vine

Climb over 75 feet to the top of a lighthouse with spectacular 360-degree views of the Champagne Region including the Mountain of Reims.

Perching Bar

The world’s only Champagne bar in the trees, all lighting provided by solar panels. The seats are hung from the rafters and you walk on catwalks to enter. Very cool.

Dining In Reims

Café du Palais
14 place Myron Herrick – 51100 Reims
Tel : 03 26 47 52 54

An Art Deco restaurant, the Café du Palais is situated under a large glass skylight. It is also listed as a “Historic and Patrimonial Café of Europe.”

Assiette Champenoise
40 avenue Paul Vaillant Couturier – 51430 Tinqueux
Tel : 03 26 84 64 64

A gastronomical restaurant situated a few minutes outside of Reims, the Assiette Champenoise boasts a luxurious and refined atmosphere, which is surrounded by a park.

Le Grand Café
92 place Drouet d’Erlon – 51100 Reims

Fields of champagne grapes near Ardennes, France.
Fields of champagne grapes near Ardennes, France.

Tel: 03 26 47 61 50

Brasserie FLO
9 Place Drouet d’Erlon – 51100 Reims
Tel: 03 26 91 40 50

Overnight Accommodations

Best Western – Hotel de la Paix
9 rue Buirette – 51100 Reims
Tel: 03 26 40 04 08

Recently renovated and expanded, the Best Western Hotel de la Paix is ideally situated in the heart of Reims., France Tourism Development Agency, ATOUT FRANCE
Reims Tourist Office
Air France
Rail Europe

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