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DINING STYLE: CHAMPAGNE FROM THE CTE DES BARS.

Byline: CLIVE PLATMAN

Approaching the last days of the harvest, Michel Drappier for the past two weeks before I met him, had been getting up each day at 6am and retiring at 2am. It was beginning to take its toll, but exhausted though he was, he remained the perfect host.

'I need time with my family. Stay for lunch and I can assure you of my undivided attention later this afternoon'. I was pleased to accept his offer and, of course, he was a man of his word.

I was visiting the Cote des Bars, a lesser-known region within the Champagne Appellation (AOC), located to the south-east of Troyes, a distance of some 100 miles south of the 'heartland' of the Marne, centred on Reims and Epernay. Although somewhat disconnected, it supplies some 20 per cent of total Champagne needs and, is particularly well-regarded for its Pinot Noir.

Unlike many other French wine regions, Champagne producers are facing a potentially massive, but in some ways welcome, problem of demand outstripping supply. Production is limited by law to the existing AOC boundaries, currently standing at about 33,000 hectares, out of which 31,000 are under vine.

It can be seen, therefore, that the growers are close to full capacity, and if the current worldwide fashion for Champagne continues to grow, then demand will outstrip supply.

To combat these long-term supply problems, the governing body, the CIVC, have been closely examining the existing AOC footprint, to identify potential parcels of land which could be brought into production. In addition, they have also been researching areas outside the AOC, in particular focusing on the Cote des Bars in the Aube.

In terms of location, this area is not just closer to Chablis in proximity, it also shares the same band of Kimmeridgean clays and limestone. The Marne to the north has chalkbased soils, with similarities to the South Downs, whereas the topography of the Aube Valley is akin to the Cotswolds.

Paradoxically, unlike Chablis which almost exclusively grows Chardonnay, the preferred grape of the Cotes des Bar is Pinot Noir. In fact, it is used to make the local speciality, Rose de Riceys, a still pink wine.

The Cote des Bars covers around 7,000 hectares. It remains relatively unknown, as around 75 per cent of grape production is sent onto Reims or Epernay. The remainder stays within the region itself, and is taken up by cooperatives or smaller producers.

The House of Drappier is located in the village of Urville and the current premises are constructed over 12thcentury vaulted cellars built by Cistercian monks. The family, originally drapers (hence the name), have been cultivating the vineyards since 1808, and today, their holdings extend to over 40 hectares, although additional parcels are sourced from contract growers throughout the AOC.

At one time, the Aube was widely planted with Gamay (the red grape of Beaujolais), but amidst some controversy, Michel's grandfather replaced it with Pinot Noir, acquiring the nickname 'Papa Pinot'. The variety is now dominant, accounting for some 70 per cent of their grape requirements.

Michel Drappier studied oenology in Beaune, later learning the trade with Domaine Chandon in California and then Piper-Hiedsieck. He is now totally involved in all aspects of his business and takes special pride in tasting the blends for the 'assemblage' for the various cuvees. The house, in particular, has a reputation for minimal use of sulphur.

The non-vintage, Carte d'Or, an 80-90 per cent Pinot Noir based cuvee, is very much the expression of the Drappier style, dominated by red fruit and citrus, seasoned with butter and spice. The Millesime Exception Brut 1999, a roughly 50-50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay blend that is part oak-fermented, has smoky citrus fruit, broadening out to flavours of breadcrumbs, nuts and butter. It was recently awarded an IWC Gold Medal. Impressive, too, is the Grande Sendree 1998, with Pinot Noir again restrained by around 45 per cent Chardonnay.

Drappier also happen to specialise in big bottles. The largest in their collection is the Melchizedech, containing 30 litres, the equivalent of 40 bottles.

Fleury Pere et Fils are also based in the Aube, and this relatively small family-run operation are pioneers of biodynamism, a rare breed of animal in Champagne. The present incumbent, Jean-Pierre Fleury was convinced that his soils needed more respect, so abandoned the use of chemical treatments for pesticides and fertilisers, in favour of organic methods. He is unequivocal that his grapes now have more character and provide a greater depth of flavour to his wines. Again, the focus is very much on Pinot Noir, and their Brut Non Vintage is listed by Waitrose (pounds 20.99). Suitable for vegans, it's full, dry and rounded, with apple-fruit developing into breadcrumbs and nuts. Other recommendations within the range are a Brut Rose produced by the Saignee (skin contact) method and the impressive Millesime 1996.

For Drappier Champagnes contact: Anthony Byrne Fine Wines (www.abfw.co.uk, tel: 01487 814555) and Fleury Pere et Fils: Richards Walford tel: 01780 460451 or Vintage Roots 0118 976 1999
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Mar 2, 2005
Words:845
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