From our short stay in Epernay we are driving South towards Burgundy. It is not long before the rolling hills festooned with grape vines give way to wide open plains. This is wheat growing territory, and with harvest done and dusted over a month ago the fields are barren and brown, punctuated by the occasional plot of forlornly dead sunflowers... long since past their time to shine.
On our way we pass through many small villages. They are simultaneously chic yet ancient, all made from the same pale yellow stone, topped with red/grey tiles. The buildings are tightly packed, almost as if huddled together for protection from harsh weather.
As we depart glitzy Epernay the prosperity of the towns change, with some appearing shuttered and abandoned, their small businesses closed. Sometimes this is an illusion, as the French provincial lifestyle includes a sizeable shut down for 2 hours for the midday meal... including the very facilities that would seem natural to be doing a busy trade - if you haven’t already picked up your bread and cheese you could be out of luck if hungry between 12-3!
In other cases, it is no illusion at all, these tiny villages losing their youth to jobs in the cities, with population dwindling leaving houses empty and ramshackle. The central church with a roof in obvious disrepair, perhaps hurriedly patched with rusty steel sheets.
Our next stay is in one such village, though somewhat incongruously this sleepy village is home to a stunning Chateau tucked discretely behind a modest stone wall. Built in the mid 1800s, it boasts 24 sumptuous bedrooms, with large claw baths and antiques, two large outdoor swimming pools, manicured gardens, and its own Michelin starred restaurant.
It would be foolish of us not to partake in the region’s delicacies, so we indulge in a multi-course meal whose cost exceeds that of our accomodation by a factor of 3. The highlight of this being langoustine crumbled in local organic quinoa, sitting in an indescribable “cappuccino” broth with beans and cep mushrooms. A perfect balance of melt-in your mouth tenderness, texture and exquisite flavour. No wonder the French have such a reputation for decadence.
The following day we have lots of ground to cover, we are headed first to the Cote des Bar, the southernmost Champagne region closer to Burgundy than Epernay or Rheims. The small town of Noe Les Mallets is home to another of our Champagne producers, Veuve Doussot. This region produces excellent wines, yet less prestigious than those further North. This is Pinot Noir territory, so unlike the 100% Chardonnay wines of Serge Gallois in the Cotes de Blanc the wines here are fruitier, rounder, and fuller. Owner and winemaker Stefane Joly takes us on a quick tour of the vineyards, many of his 20 hectares are on steep slopes with old vines with an ideal aspect to the sun.
As a treat he opens up a full range of their wines, including several that we had not tried before- an Extra Brut, Rosé, and some of their premium Vintage champers. We are grateful of the time he afforded us as that same day was starting the first picking of the season, albeit most of the harvest to commence later in the week.
From there we leave immediately towards Chablis where we have another appointment awaiting us. Daniel-Etienne Defaix is one of the oldest and best producers of the region, owning much of the original site planted by monks on the slopes overlooking the town. Harvest is still two weeks away in Chablis, somewhat later than one might think. Like Champagne this year has been one of extremes, with sharp frosts kicking off the season, followed by high winds during flowering, and then multiple heatwaves. The only calamities not on the cards this year is hail and rain, there has been no rain here for over two months. As a result the harvest will be yet another small one, suffering losses of 25-50%. Daniel laments this is the sad new future of Chablis, with more extreme weather conditions threatening both the financial viability and the ‘typicité’ of the wines.
Defaix is old-school though, and with Paul Defaix being the 16th generation why wouldn’t they be. They are however the last producer in the region making wines in the same way as they were 60 years ago. Chablis is 100% Chardonnay, without exception. The modern Chablis style is typically lean and fresh, and unoaked, spending perhaps 3 months on lees. Defaix is stubborn though, he ages his wines considerably longer. Even his ‘entry’ old vine Chablis spends 2 years on lees, with the premier cru enjoying 3-5+ years with batonnage. A small portion matures in old oak, plus all wines undergo full malolactic fermentation, and longer aging in bottle before release. The result are broader and more expressive wines, with a richness yet unbelievably without losing the minerality in the wines that defines the region.
We finish the day with a trip up the hillsides to some of the best vines and views of the region. We can see the fate of the fruit on vines and see the unique kimmeridge soils that are so cherished. Alas we must drive on. Next stop, Noyers.