Drinking in Wide Open Champagne
By Max Hartshorne
Champagne was named after the hills south of Rome, Compania by the Romans. It’s an ancient stomping ground for Romans and English and Spanish conquerors. Today it’s a wonderfully wide open part of the north of France that lets you breath easy, nothing feels crowded in these parts.
As we headed north on the A-31 autoroute, and the miles added up, we decided stopping for a break was a great idea. So we stopped into a town with a giant gateway, surrounded by ancient walls. It was Langres, and we walked the length of the main street, surrounded on either side by high buildings filled with businesses, and at the end was a statue of Rene Descartes.
He was famous for inventing the encyclopedia, which at one time in history was a vital information tool. No matter how quaint that might sound now. He towers over a bar where we got a beer in the sharp June heat, and my host Didier told me about this town’s long history. Langres is a very pretty town, the buildings are all distinctive on the long narrow main street, which has been made narrower to allow for pedestrians to stroll
After we traveled another 75 kilometers, evening began to set itself over the languid landscape. It was time for a stop at a classic roadside joint, and Hotel des Charmes was perfect. La Grange du Relais is on the main road in the village of Colombey-les-deux-eglises. This is the country hometown and burial place of France’s beloved
former president and WWII hero Charles De Gaulle.
As you drive up to the town, a double cross towers over the fields around it, the settlement had grown up around it. A farmer crossed by the plane of view just as we approached in a bright morning sun.
A lonely soldier is paid to stand sentry duty in front of De Gaulle’s house in a little hut. De Gaulle was a fabulously frugal leader, and spared no expense in saving expenses for the state.
He had an electricity meter put in so that he could separate his personal use from the office. When he retired he turned down much larger payouts due to former Generals and presidents (he was both!) for a modest colonel’s pay. What a guy!
A Roadside Auberge
There is a very cozy roadside auberge in Colombey-les-deux-eglises, it’s La Grange du Relais, on the A19 Route Nationale. For 21 years Martine Dambrine and her family have served the locals and especially, the people who drove out from Paris and many of the
patriotic French seniors who came to pay respects to Le General or visit La Bosserie, his ivy-colored large former home that is now a De Gaulle museum.
Dinner in the superbly cozy former stables was first rate—very creative cuisine, a generous slice of fois gras and a classy cheese tray with Fromage de Vache and Longres cheeses.
Madame Dambrine was quick to show us the newspaper clipping the day former French president Nicholas Sarcozy was in town for a De Gaulle memorial. There she is, right next to the prez!
The next morning we set off in the Champagne openness but not before I walked outside, early, to take in the sweeping views. It was fields and farmland as far as the eye could see. I shot some photos of a fence that trailed along the border of the Auberge’s property, birds singing sweetly and flying overhead in the gauzy, dewy morning light. France can be so beautiful very close up, at the earliest hour.
The Faux of Verzy
Langres, an ancient walled city in Champagne. We set off in the mild morning weather for a forest tour.
We had a lunch date in the forest, but first we’d be visiting a place that only has one equal. It’s the Parc Naturel Reginale de la Montagne De Reims, in Pourcy. Olaf Holm, a friendly tall German man, runs this 128,000-acre park where the main attraction is a grove of stunted, twisted beech trees called Les Faux. With lots of branches that lean over as if to offer seats to passing woodland visitors, these trees are indeed unique. I was told that they only grow here and two other places in the world, Sweden, and Germany.
There were metal barriers around the trees to keep people from bothering them, but we did get a chance to mingle with them and shoot some photos. The path through the grove is an interesting, unchallenging stroll. The woods are full of deer and wild boar, and Olaf said it’s a popular hunting destination during the season. Divier Couteau still lives in Paris, but he’s opened The Perching Bar in the same forest where the Faux trees live.
We parked the car and walked past a clubhouse for a local tree-climbing club and to a series of walkways, going higher and higher into the trees.
This is how you reach the Perching Bar, where customers sit at a railing overlooking a fabulous view surrounded by large trees and sip Champagne. At night it’s quite the hot spot with movies played on a big hanging screen suspended from the trees.
Couteau, a tall young businessman said he has plans to expand the restaurant up here 25 feet above the forest and to open a hotel with eight tree houses people can rent for the night. “I built a treehouse and many forts when I was a kid,” he explained. Divier added that he’s going to build his own tree house to live in, for now, he commutes on the TGV train 40 minutes to Paris.
Champagne is served in the Perching Bar, Didier Couteau, right is the boss. I was up north, north of Paris. I was in the wide open spaces of Champagne, where the cereals and rapeseed grow mile after mile, broad stripes of the brilliant yellow rapeseed, and the undulating dun colored wheat, with an occasional sparkle of sunlight.
A Coeur Du Bouchon
We were in Champagne, indeed, and as the afternoon grew into the still ambiance of the five o’clock hour, we headed out of our elegant hotel, La Maison de Rhodes, to a new hotspot in Troyes. It’s Au Coeur Du Bouchon, where pure Champagne is offered in five varieties by the glass and more than 140 labels from all 50 producers in the region.
Plenty of champagne flutes are used here and we were told about a great discovery when the place was built. No one knew there was a delightfully cool former wine cellar that had been covered up by walls hundreds of years ago. They opened it up and now it’s a perfect place for private parties…no air conditioning needed.
They have started a dog-friendly tour of the city with a website and directions to every cafe that will put out water for your hound and let you bring the pooch into your hotel room. It’s called TouTourism. Besides catering to the dogs, Troyes has other tourism innovations…they offer a running tour of the city. You gather at the tourism office in your jogging gear and sneakers and learn the history of this ancient city as you run the sites.
One of the 50 Champagne houses that are all sold at A Coeur Du Bouchon, Champagne Drappier is still very much a family operation. We stopped by Urville and met the senior man, Andre Drappier and his son Michelle.
It’s a fully three-generational operation, they have been making Champagne for many generations.
Troyes is a pretty city, with many, many half-timbered buildings making Champagne here since 1808. One of their newest creations is the gargantuan 40-bottle four-feet tall bottle called Melchisedech. It’s presented at big swanky events and is quite a party–in one wooden crate. They bring it with it’s own dispenser to pour out the bubbly.
I asked Michele, the son, about his father’s legacy and the continuation of the family line in the years ahead. He said he was pleased to have three children who have all become interested in the family’s bubbly business.
Charline, the oldest, studies at a business school in Paris and is poised to jump into the marketing and business side of Drappier when she finishes her studies in a few years. Son Hugo, 21, is interested in winemaking and is working as an engineer in Switzerland.
And the youngest son, Antoine, 16, has taken to raising horses, and has helped out at the vineyard with draft horses, giant Percherons used to till between the rows.
It looks good for Michele, handsome and well-dressed and clearly the right man to sell his high class Champagne to clients like Malaysia and TAM airlines, and to hundreds of importers around the world.
I asked Michele how the business was faring, and he said the brightest spots are Korea, Japan, and the US was picking up. “In France people would borrow money to buy Champagne,” he said with a smile.
His father, Andre sat with us and smiled, not venturing to speak to us in English, sipping some of his favorite beverage. He drinks Champagne every day, and at his age 87, he still comes into the office daily to check the mail and then read the newspapers.
He developed a special Champagne named after the most famous local resident, French President Charles De Gaulle, who is buried over in Colombey-des-Deux-Eglise, marked by a gigantic double-cross that you can see from miles around. “The family never bought a bottle of that Champagne,” Michele explained. “They didn’t want to drink it and have the stern face of their grandfather staring out at them.”
The Drappier company is famous too for their gigantic bottles of Champagne, called Melchizedek’s, which are about four feet tall and hold a whopping 40 bottles of bubbly. And it’s aged in the giant specially made bottles, not poured in from other bottles like some producers. They’re bringing some of these big babies down to the Bordeaux Wine Show later this month, along with a machine that pours the big bottles mechanically called a Vicanter.
Champagne is ancient, but as I could see, always changing and evolving with the times. It’s one place I know I can always return to, for new surprises and old familiar sips.