A Taste of Champagne
Once again I found myself meandering among the villages of the Aube, a department of the region of Champagne. This “séjour” was thanks to writer Janet Hulstrand who has a chalet-style home nestled at the edge of fields and forest just at the border of the tiny village of Essoyes.
Essoyes’s claim to fame, beside’s its charm and beauty, is that this is where impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir had a house and lived with Aline, his wife (Essoyes was her hometown) along with model and governess of his children, Gabrielle Renard. These women, of course, were well represented in many of his paintings and Essoyes is quite proud of this.
Janet celebrated her birthday with us over the weekend, a few days designed to be relaxing, productive and fun. A rental car with Avis was easy to pick up at the Gare du Lyon in lieu of taking the train on which work was being done on the tracks making it long and expensive, and in order to have a way of exploring the nearby villages. There was no plan, no one thing we HAD to do, and no particular schedule on the agenda. We could relax or work as much as we liked, eat and drink as much or as little as we liked, and impose nothing on anyone else. It was all too idyllic to say no to such an invitation.
I’ve written about Essoyes and the surrounding cities often, including recently when I trekked to the medieval city of Troyes with my daughter: “Deux Pas de Troyes (Two Steps from Troyes*)” We weren’t interested in champagne as much as just seeing what another part of France looks and feels like — an area of the country my daughter hadn’t seen before.
Now I was back and it was becoming ‘familiar territory.’ The landscape had changed, however, from even two months ago. The vineyards were greener, thicker, richer, happier and the wheat fields had been cut down to nubs. The bales of straw were in both cylindrical and boxed shapes, either dotting the fields or stacked ready for removal.
The Aube is a series of rolling plains and thick forests. There is a serenity about the landscape that is easy on the eyes and the spirit. The roads are pristinely perfect, often lined in deep purple-leafed trees (the type of tree it is I was unable to determine). The village houses are made of stacked stone and decorated with such attention to detail that it is very much the “pays de l’Aube fleurie” (the flowery Aube countryside). Those that live there are known as the “champenois” (or “chamenoise” for a woman) and there is a dialect also known as “champenois” which is one of the “langes d’oïl.”
With each visit, I learn a little more about the region and in particular about its most famous product: champagne. As a college student, Janet was recruited to hand pick grapes here in this very spot — one of the main reasons she ended up with a home here. She had a certain level of knowledge from that experience as well being a resident of the Aube.
On the way to Essoyes we stopped at a “vigneron” and “récoltant manipulant,” (marked on the bottles as “RM” — a grower who makes champagne out of their own grapes) with whom Janet was personally acquainted, “Richardot,” to have a “dégustation” and purchase a couple of bottles. Richardot is making “artisanal” wines known as “Grower Champagnes” and the makers will often be clustered around a single village.
At the bar were two French men and one woman who had obviously already tasted several glasses at different levels of their offerings before we arrived. One of them loved learning that he and I both had cousins living in the same town located in a Cajun part of Louisiana (Houma) and he was quite proud to have visited that U.S. state with French roots. He insisted on taking a photo of Janet and I with my iPhone using his less than steady hands.
In the vaulted “cave” (cellar) of the winemaker, where we were to retrieve the bottles of champagne, were old tools of the trade mounted on the stone walls, along with the racks of bottles and the massive vats made of steel. It was a stunning representation of the kind of cave one might find at any of the artisanal winemakers in the region. It is evident how proud and personal the wine/champagne-making is or these residents of the Aube.
In 2010, Essoyes was the welcoming town for “La Route de Champagne en Fête.” Every year several villages in the same area of the Côte des Bar come alive and offer festivities around their famous product, champagne. With a champagne flute and the “Carnet de Route” in hand (a special ‘passport’ costing €20), you are allowed a tasting in the open cellars of the Route de Champagne Route during this festival. Their publicity claims you can “discover the riches of the soil through the winemakers who share their expertise and their passion.”
Next weekend for 2015, the 20th edition of the festival, the welcoming town is Les Riceys, the largest viticultural terroir of Champagne (866 hectares) located in the heart of the Côte des Bar. Here there will 23 cellars open for “dégustations” (tastings). Saturday afternoon we took a tour of La Route de Champagne, stopping in some of the same towns as I had in lat May with my daughter, but this time with a special tour and birthday lunch in Les Riceys.
Les Riceys is actually comprised of three villages: Ricey Bas, Ricey Haute Rive and Ricey Haut (bottom, high river, top) and is the most southernmost town of the Champagne appellation. It has been scrubbed clean and decorated with flowers, both real and paper and plastic, to be ready for next weekend’s events (see 2015.routeduchampagne.com/les-riceys for complete information).
Janet and I had the good fortune of stumbling into what is clearly one of the town’s most illustrious restaurants if not one of the region’s — Le Marius Hôtel and Restaurant. We had an exceptional gourmet meal in the cellar rooms of the elegant restaurant for the perfect birthday lunch starting off with a “coupe de champagne” (of course).
By chance this weekend was the annual festival in Essoyes, the “Chevalets Essoyes,” a festival of the arts that we had enjoyed the same time last year. Les Chevalets d’Essoyes (The Easels of Essoyes) features the artists of the region who come to Essoyes to exhibit their work. We took time on Sunday morning to stroll to some of the exhibitions and speak to some of the artists, many of whom she had befriended over the years.
Janet has often given “Writing from the Heart” workshops in Essoyes and is planning to host one this coming Fall in mid October. “I believe that the best writing is born of both wisdom and courage. Wisdom comes from life experience. The courage to express what we truly believe and have learned through our life experience is the source of the best writing there can be.” Janet Hulstrand, author, editor, and workshop instructor
To learn more about the workshop and be in contact with Janet, visit her Web site.
For more reading about the Aube, Essoyes and Champagne, visit:
Last year’s Parler Paris Nouvellettre®
“Easy in Essoyes” in French Property Insider about property in the region
For more information about Essoyes, “à la Janet Hulstrand” and
France offers so much more than Paris to discover. With each excursion to “La France Profonde,” I am more deeply impressed with its cultural riches. As we sat across from one another at Le Marius dining so sumptuously for so little expense, we realized that this couldn’t have happened in the same way Stateside, except for in some small pockets such as Sonoma Valley…but certainly not in just about any corner like one can in France.
Take the time to discover what is beyond the “périphérique” of Paris!
A la prochaine,
The Adrian Leeds Group
(on the Route de Champagne)
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