ECONOMY

Postcard from Champagne: harvest time in the Côte des Bar

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This summer, a smart visitor centre opened in Épernay, eulogising and mythologising the wonderful world of wine-with-bubbles, with more than a nod to Bordeaux’s successful Cité du Vin. According to the promotional material, Pressoria offers a “sensory journey into the heart of Champagne” via a series of interactive displays.

I can’t tell you whether Pressoria is worth its €16 entrance fee, because I didn’t stop there. Instead, last week, I took my own journey into the heart of Champagne courtesy of a tractor-hauled trailer which lurched up through the serried vines of Colombé le Sec, a tiny village about 80 miles south of Épernay. Here the surroundings were particularly interactive, especially when the coolbox lid was lifted, and the wasps started showing great interest in my chilled glass of demi sec. That problem was solved by an adjournment to higher ground, where there was a bit of a breeze, another bottle to open and a far better view.

I was in the Champagne country that comparatively few people visit, despite it being prettier and more approachable than Reims and Épernay. In the latter, tourists buzz like wasps around the grand maisons of household names such as Bollinger and Moët & Chandon, where the story is all about branding, marketing and wallet-plundering prices.

Compared to this, Champagne’s most southerly area is less Instagram, more artisan. The Côte des Bar, southeast of Troyes, is where traditional mom-and-pop producers work among hills daubed with forest, threaded with rivers and corduroyed with vines. The villages here are quiet, the prices are low, and most brands have a friendly face when you come knocking, as I did.

In Colombé le Sec that friendly face belonged to Aurore Soret, sat at the wheel of the tractor, for whom I was the first English visitor of the year. She, husband Loic and brother-in-law Romaric run Soret-Devaux, a Champagne producer with eight hectares of vineyards.

Soret-Devaux is a Récoltant-manipulant, meaning it both grows the grapes and produces the wine (whereas many bigger houses buy in grapes from third-parties). There are some 668 of these small Champagne houses in the Côte des Bar’s patchwork land of one-boulangerie villages. Unlike the brasher northerly parts of Champagne, this is not a place of elaborate restaurants or sumptuous hotels — I was staying in an Airbnb — but there are still discoveries to be made.

For example, one lunchtime I ended up in the former rail station of Gyé-sur-Seine, on the bucolic upper reaches of one of Europe’s best-known rivers. The station has been converted into a restaurant whose menu (great value at €23 for three courses) leans heavily on the produce of a kitchen garden created in what was once the goods siding. Its name, Le Garde Champêtre, refers to a traditional protector of the rural environment, particularly one Monsieur Droze, the last Garde of Gyé, who used to patrol the byways on his sputtering VéloSoleX looking for runaway ducks and renegade bees, an ever-present Gitane dangling from his lip.

He sounds like exactly the sort of character who would have attracted the attention of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, many of whose later paintings found their inspiration here. The artist spent his summers in Essoyes, with its flower-bedecked bridges over a languid river, after a chance meeting with a village girl (and his future wife) in a crémerie shop queue in Paris.

But though all might seem blissful and bucolic, it seems this will be a year to forget for Aurore Soret and growers like her, thanks to a combination of late frost, mildew, and a dismally wet summer. For this year’s harvest, due to start on September 15, the Soret-Devaux will only need pickers for eight days, rather than the usual 10. They’d normally source those workers locally, around 20 of them but this year only three signed up. “It’s Covid. Successive lockdowns, state aid, fearfulness . . . all these factors no longer encourage people to look for work,” says Aurore. Instead they will employ pickers from Romania for the first time.

Still, it is hard to look on the dark side of anything when you’re trundling around a hillside sipping fizz in the sunshine, and I did my best to add a little cheer afterwards by loading up the car with a couple of cases: at €16 a bottle, it was impossible to resist.

Details

The Soret-Devaux ‘Trak’Tour’ costs €15pp, see champagnesoretdevaux.com. For more on visiting the Côte des Bar see champagne.fr

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