By Jiles Halling.
In the third and final part of our travels in Champagne we are going to head out along the Marne River Valley that flows through Epernay westwards towards Paris. This is the home of the Meunier variety of grape (sometimes called Pinot Meunier) a black grape that thrives in the slightly richer soil and slightly cooler climate that prevails between the slopes on either side of the valley.
The river runs west for close on a hundred kilometres before finally joining the Seine near Paris, but the vineyards come to an end well before this, just beyond the town of Château-Thierry and about 40 kilometres from Epernay. The A4 motorway between Paris and Reims provides the quickest means of reaching this westernmost area of Champagne whether you are travelling to, or from, Paris. However the local roads along the banks of the river Marne bring you directly into the vineyards and are ideal for a day trip starting and finishing in Epernay
The ideal place to head for first of all is the village of Hautvillers perched on the hillside just to the north of Epernay with superb views for miles. It was here that the monk Dom Pérignon lived and worked in the abbey that once was the focal point of the village. Most of the abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution but vestiges remain and the adjoining church is still intact. It’s well worth a visit not only to appreciate its peace and simplicity, but also because Dom Pérignon’s tombstone can be seen in front of the altar.
Hautvillers is certainly one of the prettiest villages in Champagne. There are several view points from where you can enjoy superb vistas over the vineyards, the river below and across to the opposite side of the valley, whilst a stroll round the narrow streets of the village is a pleasant way to spend a few minutes and to admire the quaint houses many of which are decorated with wrought iron signs above the door. There is also a good local café, a restaurant and an excellent wine shop (Au 36) where you can taste a variety of champagnes and enjoy a light lunch and of course, dozens of small champagne producers where you can stop in to taste and perhaps buy.
Dropping down the steep hill from Hautvillers brings you to the village of Cumières and the banks of the Marne River. After a few kilometres’ drive further along on the same, north side of the river, (the right bank) you come to Damery where you can cross over the river passing through a magnificent and ancient alley of plane trees before joining the road running along the far side of the river.
Turning right (westwards) on this road brings to very shortly to the turning up to the small village of Boursault. It is here that the legendary Veuve Clicquot built a magnificent château, complete with turrets, on a promontory overlooking the valley. Although the chàteau is now privately owned and cannot be visited it is a splendid sight.
Continuing from Boursault and heading westwards along the side of the hill takes you along a quiet country road with magnificent views across the valley and along the length of the river in both directions. There are vineyards as far as the eye can see on every available piece of land except for the forests along the tops of the hillsides and for the land alongside the river in the valley below which is too prone to flooding to be suitable for growing vines.
In a couple of minutes you’ll come to the hamlet of Montvoisin where you can visit François Cuchet and his wife at Champagne Cuchet-Cez. This Is not the most obvious place to stop for a champagne tasting – indeed you’ll have to keep your eyes open wide to spot the emblem of 3 egrets on the wall at the side of the gate – but sitting in François’s tasting room which dates back many centuries and tasting his wonderful champagnes is an experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. Apart from being hugely knowledgeable about champagne François has lived in this area all his life and has a wealth of stories he can tell you although you’ll get more from the visit if you have a few words of French.
On leaving Montvoisin if you continue along the same road for just a few more kilometres you will arrive at Oeuilly and another superb champagne house by the name of Tarlant. Compared to many of the less well-known champagne producers Tarlant is relatively large, although still a minnow compared with the international brands you may have heard of, but you find a superbly equipped reception room, a warm welcome from one of the Tarlant family or their staff and an array of fabulous champagnes to discover that you will particularly enjoy if you appreciate a dry style with very little added sugar.
Before leaving Oeuilly you may wish to visit the Eco-museum which recreates a house and school as they were in 1900 and which provide a fascinating insight into life n Champagne at that time.
As you drop down to the main road and cross over the river at Reuil where you may care to stop by the side of the river and enjoy a picnic. You are now on the north, or right, bank of the river and as you continue west you will soon see ahead of you a huge statue atop a hill. This is the statue of Pope Urban II a priest born in Champagne who became pope in 1088. The village on the sides and around the base of the hill is Châtillon-sur-Marne and there are two champagne makers in close proximity that are well worth visiting
Just below Chàtillon-sur-Marne in the hamlet of Montigny-sous-Chàtillon, is Champagne Charlier, a family owned champagne house of long standing that has the rare distinction of using a battery of 34 huge oak vats to age their champagnes. You can even climb inside one of them to see what they are like inside.
Just a few kilometres away is the village of Cuisles where you will find Champagne Moussé Fils. Although this too is a family-owned business of long standing the outward appearance is quite different since Moussé Fils has one of the most modern wineries in the entire region. Every detail from the solar panels on the roof, to the underground geo-thermal heating system, to the well which supplies water direct from a local spring, has been designed or harnessed to create the smallest possible environmental footprint.
Cédric Moussé, the young and dynamic head of the business, will be pleased to present his range of champagnes made predominantly with Meunier grapes to give a soft, full and fruity character that is instantly likeable
Despite their differences in appearance, the two champagne houses have one important thing in common: they are both members of the prestigious Club Trésors de Champagne, an elite group of less than 30 champagne makers who have committed themselves to a set of demanding quality criteria above and beyond the norm that guarantees the excellence of their champagnes and that has earned them all an enviable reputation amongst wine connoisseurs around the world.
The Marne Valley area (La Vallée de La Marne) is like other regions of Champagne in as much as there are hundreds of champagne makers with the next one being always just around the corner so even though is it best to make appointments in advance you always have the option of just knocking on the next interesting door.
At the end of your day if you wish to return to Paris the motorway junction is about 15 minutes’ drive from Châtillon-sur-Marne. Alternatively it is a quiet 30 minute drive back to Epernay along the river, or about the same to Château-Thierry in the other direction.
Whilst these three articles have only been able to cover a small fraction of what Champagne has to offer I hope it has become clear that wonderful though it is, Champagne is more than just its world famous wine. It’s a rich a diverse region that is still overlooked by many visitors to France but which holds a lot in store for anyone who wants to get off the beaten track and explore.
To contact the champagne makers mentioned click on the links in the text or go to their web site.
18 rue de Champagne
Tel : + 33 (0)3 26 58 08 82
Author: Jiles Halling is an Englishman and long-time resident in Champagne. You can find out more on www.mymaninchampagne.com