HAUTVILLERS The cradle of Champagne, this tiny village in France explodes with endless stretches of vineyards. To say nothing of quaint wrought iron signs that tell stories. RISHAD SAAM MEHTA has more…
“P layful but not frivolous, mischievous but noble,” says Valérie Coudrain-Tribaut her eyes glowing with pride and affection. And, you will be forgiven for thinking she's talking about her children. She is, in fact, gushing about the way the Tribaut Rose Reserve Brut Champagne dances on the tongue. I am sipping on the same, sitting in her lovely garden. And, in front of me, vineyards stretch out till the horizon, spreading gracefully around the town of Epernay. Some of these vineyards belong to the Tribaut family, and, the vineyards are, indeed, tended and raised with as much love and affection as one would a child! Not surprising, because the Tribaut winery is one of the many in Hautvillers — which is where Dom Pérignon, the revered monk who discovered the ‘méthode champenoise', lived from 1668 to 1715. Today, he rests in a section of the abbey generally reserved for abbots — proof of the high reverence he's held in!
Hautvillers, the cradle of Champagne, is a lovely village to explore on a sunny day. The happily painted buildings cut a very pretty picture against the deep blue sky. Michel, who's to take me around the village, meets me at the tourist office, initially a church that was partly broken down during the French Revolution. The stones from it were used to build building Number 15, just opposite. Number 15 was first a town hall, and then, a boy's school. This is depicted by a metal sign of a boy at a desk, and hangs over the front door. In fact, Hautvillers is rendered even prettier and more interesting by the wrought iron signs that hang on many of the buildings depicting the profession of the person or the family that resides there. Michel tells me that the best way to walk around Hautvillers is with chin up and eyes on these signs.
One particularly interesting sign is above the house of a winemaker. It depicts the stages in creating Champagne — from the tending of the grapes, and the harvest, to the vatting of the juice, the turning of the bottles (a very important process) and the tasting of the wine.
Equally interesting is one of a woman washing clothes, and that hangs above the communal washing place built in 1832. The place was fed by springs running down the forests above the village. With enclosed bathrooms and washing machines, the place is, of course, no longer used!
As we walk through the town, we notice a large number of cars with Belgian licence plates. The Franco-Belgian border is just 40 km away, and on weekends many Belgians come visiting. The standing joke is that when they drive back, the noses of their cars point to the sky since the boot is laden with Champagne! Well, it may not really be just a joke — I do see a lot of them packing cases of the fine wine into the trunks of their car!
Walking along the streets of Hautvillers, I see more signs revering the monk, who was the cellarer of the abbey for 47 years until his death in 1715. In fact, there's a street named after him — Rue Dom Pérignon. It was supposedly his idea to use a pear-shaped bottle for Champagne similar to the one used today.
He's also supposed to have introduced the use of the cork as a cap. Bottles were initially stoppered by a piece of wood.
We get a clear view across the vineyards to Epernay, just seven km away. I am stunned to hear from Michel that 100 km of cellars exist under the houses and shops in Epernay! I had visited one of them — C Comme Champagne, owned by Frédéric Dricot. C Comme Champagne is a sort of champagne boutique and tasting bar. Its cellar holds over 3,000 different Champagnes, so their tasting list keeps changing. You can buy Champagne there or simply spend a lovely morning sampling different kinds, which is what I did when I was there!
A declaration of faith
In Hautvillers, Champagne is a declaration of faith, and each winemaker sticks largely to the method that Dom Pérignon had laid down. For all of them, this simple monk who gave the world its most celebrated toast remains an example of perfection and excellence.