Many visitors to France, even those who know the country well, know the Seine only as the waterway that cuts Paris in half, that flows beneath the city’s picturesque bridges and offers vistas of its monuments. But the river is 483 miles long, only eight of which run through the French capital. Its journey from a field of springs in northeastern Burgundy to the English Channel snakes through history, past prehistoric encampments, ancient Roman towns, Viking strongholds, monastic abbeys, and World War II battlegrounds. About 70 miles from its source, the Seine flows through the medieval city of Troyes and cuts a deep trench through the dry chalk plateau of champagne country.
I used to think that “champagne country” meant the vast vineyards around the cities of Reims and Epernay, more than an hour’s drive to the north of Troyes. The loftiest houses—Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart, Dom Pérignon, and Bollinger among them—are situated in the Marne Valley, where most champagne is produced. But one day my friend Jean-Claude Ribaut told me about the underappreciated wines produced in the lush but less prosperous part of Champagne that borders the river and invited me to discover them with him.
Champagne on the Seine? The phrase suggests sipping the pale, bubbly beverage from a crystal flute on a river cruise. But Ribaut is one of France’s most respected food writers, and when he offers to take me along on a trip, I never say no.
Under French law, not just anyone can produce champagne. The French adhere to classifications and hierarchies as their way of defining excellence. The only sparkling wine in the world that can be labeled as authentic champagne must be made from grapes grown on officially designated plots of land in France.
Champagne topsoil must be light and not too rich, its subsoil chalky, its fields neither too vulnerable to frost nor too close to forests. Most designated vineyards are on slopes that face south. The champagne industry now pulls in $6 billion a year, and land designated to grow champagne grapes can be 200 times more valuable than ordinary French farmland.
Early one frigid January morning, Ribaut and I went looking for a different kind of champagne in the Côte des Bar, the main growing area of the Aube region. We traveled southeast from Paris by train to Troyes, then rented a car and headed several miles farther southeast to the hamlet of Villeneuve.
In the Middle Ages, the Aube became the wealthiest of the champagne regions. Its wines were sought by the area’s dukes and counts. There was easy transportation to the trade fairs of Troyes, where merchants from as far away as the Rhône and Italy came to buy. Fortune did not smile on the Aube, however. In 1911, the big houses to the north, in the Marne Valley, excluded the Aube from champagne designation. The vignerons—cultivators of wine grapes—of the south rioted in protest. An unhappy compromise was reached: The Aube champagne makers were granted a designation as Basse-Champagne or Champagne 2e Zone—“Low Champagne” or “Champagne of Second Rank.” It took another 16 years before the National Assembly passed a law that defined the champagne regions according to growing conditions like climate and topography, which allowed the vineyards of the south to qualify. Nevertheless, the second-class reputation clung to the region. No southern vineyard received the highest designations of grand cru or premier cru. The Aube vignerons found it more profitable to sell their grapes to the big production houses up north.
But in recent years, as the global thirst for champagne has grown, the southern vignerons have asserted themselves and created their own identity. The northern champagne makers rely on sophisticated blending, produce maswively, and evoke big-name luxury. Champagnes from the south have become desirable for their artisanal, creative feel. The southerners tend to be small and independent, making champagne in their own way from grapes they grow themselves. They focus on terroir, an elusive concept that involves soil, sun, rain, region, and authenticity.
The Côte des Bar is geographically and geologically much closer to Chardonnayproducing Chablis than to the well-known champagne region of Reims and Epernay. Yet this is firmly a champagne-producing region, with the notable exception of Les Riceys, famous for its still Rosé des Riceys.
Emphasis on the terroir contributes to a purity in the Aube’s champagne output, where single-variety, single-vintage, and single-vineyard champagnes are common.
Out of about 84,000 acres of vineyards in the Champagne AOC, fewer than 20,000 are located in the Aube, representing just a fraction (less than 25 percent) of global production, according to the Comité Champagne trade association. A previously well-kept secret: The Aube’s champagnes can now be bought outside France.
A tasting tour of southern champagne houses does not rank on the scale of visits to the huge houses up north, where champagne domaines are lined up one after another, and many are open only by appointments made months in advance. In the south you are more likely to find yourself driving on little-traveled back roads to modest vineyards where you might get a private tour and a tasting conducted by the vignerons themselves. You might pass through the village of Cellessur-Ource, whose entrance is marked by an enormous sculpture of a champagne bottle made from empty bottles. Or you might stop in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, where French president Charles de Gaulle spent the last years of his life and is buried. Then there is Essoyes, where PierreAuguste Renoir lived for many years in a two-story stone house that was a short walk from the Ource River; a tour of the village and Renoir’s home includes a tasting of two champagnes out of ten choices that have been matched with images of Renoir’s paintings.
Ribaut and I first stopped at the estate of Champagne Devaux, to meet its recently retired owner, Laurent Gillet. Its Manoir is a large 18th-century manor house with a tower, a dovecote, and a centuries-old well. A large tasting table with built-in metal spittoons dominates a futuristic white tasting room. As we sampled the vintages, Gillet explained how he came to own the domaine, which the Devaux family created in 1846: Jean-Pol Auguste Devaux, the most recent family owner, had no children, and sold it to Gillet, his distributor, in 1987. The manor house was included for free—almost; the condition was that every year the Devaux would receive 60 bottles of champagne. We tasted several vintages. Among them was a Devaux Grande Réserve Brut made mostly with Pinot Noir grapes. “Powerful, alive, eccentric,” said Ribaut. “Very much an acquired taste.” It was stronger than much of the champagne up north, with a distinctive mineral taste. This was not subtle, fruity elegance.
Gillet had something special to show us. He led us through the side door and along a path that cut through the garden. We found ourselves standing in front of a long iron railing. Below us was a fast-moving stream. The Seine! We were 50 miles north of the river’s source. Here, the Seine is about 30 yards across and only a few feet deep, too shallow for a boat, except perhaps the puniest rowboat.
“This is the only champagne house in France that borders the Seine,” said Gillet. “I have friends in Paris who come here and see the water and they ask, ‘Is it really the Seine? The same Seine?’ For Parisians the Seine is artificial, a regulated flow of dark, murky water channeled into a canal. I tell them here the Seine water is so clean that my father drank from it when he was a boy. I tell them I spent my childhood swimming in the Seine.”
Ribaut and I traveled deeper into champagne country with a vintner named Jean-Pierre Fleury. Unlike his friend Gillet, who bought his way into champagne, Fleury was born into it. With his ruddy complexion and callused hands, he retains the look of a man who is close to the soil. His family’s 37-acre champagne estate, near the village of Courteron, stands next to a 12th-century stone church—it was closed years ago, but its bells are still programmed to ring loudly on the hour. For four generations, the Fleury family has grown grapes in the Seine Valley. In 1911, when the Aube vignerons demanded full recognition for their champagne, Emile Fleury played a key role as the secretary of the movement. “My grandfather was a pioneer and a rebel,” Fleury said.
Fleury had wanted to escape rural life. He dreamed of becoming an astronomer, and at first he refused to go into the family business. But his father ordered him to quit his formal education after high school and stay on the farm. “I was truly upset, truly unhappy,” he told us. “But I was the only son. I gave myself over to the vines.”
Eventually, he poured his curiosity and love of science into the vineyard. In 1989, he transformed the Fleury vines into a biodynamic enterprise—a first in all of champagne country. Biodynamic farming, based on principles developed by the philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 1900s, centers on respect for the earth’s ecosystems, and Fleury also incorporates some of his own theories. The grapes are cut by hand. He extols the importance of using cow dung to create “horn manure,” which enhances the microbiological life of the earth, and explains that ground rock crystals will produce “horn silica,” which improves photosynthesis. He does not bottle champagne when harsh local winds blow or when the moon is full. “There is a connection among the earth, the vines, the sky, and the planets,” he said. “It must be respected.”
By now, Ribaut and I had been tasting Fleury champagne for more than an hour. Each vintage was better than the one before. All of them held the mineral taste of the land.
Fleury’s passion has intoxicated his children. His sons, Benoît and Jean-Sébastien, have joined the family business. His daughter, Morgane, has opened a retail shop in Paris’s Marais neighborhood where she sells wine—as well as the family champagne. His wife, Colette, operates a gîte—a simple vacation dwelling for rent—that can accommodate 25 people. Its garden is a stone’s throw from the Seine. The water is clear, the bottom of the river sandy, not thick and mucky like the floor of the Seine in Paris.
The location offers a place to picnic—and to swim. I asked Fleury if I could come to the gîte and swim when the weather was warmer. I expected him to give me a look that said, “Who is this crazy American woman of a certain age who lives a sophisticated life in Paris but wants to swim in a river?” Instead, he gave me a broad smile and replied, “Tout à fait!”—“Absolutely!”
His son Benoît stopped by at that moment, and I asked him if he ever swam in the Seine. “Ah, yes, in the summer,” he said. “I often go down for a swim when it is hot and I am done with work. I have it all to myself. The Seine is my private swimming pool.”
I knew I would be back.