13 September 2013

Champagne de Venoge

On Wednesday morning I phoned to reserve a taxi for 1440 to take us from Zonder Zorg to Epernay. This timing was calculated to get us there about five minutes before our 1500 appointment with Champagne de Venoge. The taxi arrived at the barge twenty minutes early, so we arrived at the doors of de Venoge nearly half an hour ahead of schedule. This left us with too little time to take a meaningful walkabout. Besides, it was threatening to rain again, so I rang the bell.

Our hostess and guide, Emma Dawe-Coz found no problem with our earliness. She is a lively young woman, born in French Guyana of a British mother and French father, and is nearing completion of her wine degree in Reims. Part of these studies is serving an internship in the export marketing offices of de Venoge.

As we walked through the tank rooms, she explained the background of the house of de Venoge. It was founded by Henri-Marc de Venoge, a Swiss who had earlier travelled to Italy and discovered wine. In 1825 he settled in the Champagne in Mareuil-sur-Ay, where he set-up in the wine trade. In 1837 his business became Champagne de Venoge. His wines very quickly rose to prominence and he played a dominant role in the rapid expansion of the Champagne business. He experimented with disgorgement and the refinement of other steps in the Champagne process. In 1864 de Venoge launched Cordon Blue, a symbol of nobility since the sixteenth century, and which has since become the synonym of refinement and of the art of living. De Venoge is credited as the originator of the illustrated label, a departure from standard at the time; black lettering on white paper.

From the fermenting rooms we descended deep into the chalk strata that underlie much of the central Champagne region. The chalk holds moisture well and maintains a humidity of around 70% in the cellars and the temperature remains a rather constant 11º to 13º year round. These conditions are ideal for the secondary fermentation of the wine and for its ageing on lees. The network of chalk tunnels beneath de Venoge extend about a kilometre and a half. De Venoge is considered a medium-sized house, annually producing about 800,000 bottles. Although it is one of the Grands Marques, its wines are not found in supermarkets. The house prefers to sell to restaurants, hotels and wine shops.

We walked past lines of pupitres, the riddling racks that are used to move the sediment from the side of a bottles to its neck. The sediment is mainly dead yeast cells from the second fermentation, the fermentation in the bottle that gives Champagne its bubbles. At de Venoge, hand riddling is still done on its cuvées prestiges and its vintage wines.

We then came to the reserves of older vintages. There are variously sized stacks of the what appeared to me to be the whole gamut of the house’s vintage-dated brands: Louis XV, Grand Vin des Princes, Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noirs, Brut Rose and Cordon Blue, and these were in varying size formats.

I found a bin of 1961. The scrawled label on the stack showed 45 bottles remaining.

A bit further along was a barred gate, much like the image of a prison door. Emma told us the room beyond held the older vintages, but it was too dark inside to see anything but forms. I thrust my camera through at full arm’s reach and shot some random flash photos. One of the photos showed some stacks around the corner to the right and across on the opposite wall. The labels that are readable show bottles from 1921, 1911 and 1893, two of the vintages younger than our skûtsje Zonder Zorg and one older. 

We continued our circuit of the caves, slowly making our way back to the staircase.

I couldn’t resist another shot at a rack of bottles of Louis XV.

While we looked at the displays of current and past packaging, Emma prepared a tasting for us.

We tasted a range of Champagnes, beginning with the Cordon Blue Extra Brut and progressing through to the Rosé Brut Réserve. Our favourites were the Blanc de Noirs Marquis and the Rosé Brut Réserve. We particularly liked the Rosé, with its hints of strawberries on the nose, delicate cranberry-strawberry palate and long, elegant fruity finish. This is finest non-vintage rosé that I can recall tasting in my many dozens of cellar visits in the Champagne since my first visit here in 1966. At about €35, it is definitely on our buy list.

Enjoying Ay

We had arrived in Ay on Sunday the 8th of September and had settled in on the wall immediately below the lock. For the first time since Namur, Belgium we dug the bicycles out of the forepeak.

We needed fresh produce and meat or fish for dinner, so we crossed the canal bridge and continued along about 300 metres to the Leclair supermarket, which I recalled from a previous visit here a decade ago. The store was still there, but it was closed on Sundays. We turned around and headed the three kilometres into Magenta, across the Marne from Epernay, where we found the Leader Price open. It is located in a cheap neighbourhood and has very low quality produce and meats to suit its main clientele. Nonetheless, we did manage to put together a small basket to see us through until the better markets open on Monday.

After lunch we walked into Ay to explore. At the town entrance is the wine country mandatory decorated wine barrel. Ay is one of the best of the Grand Cru villages of the Champagne and its specialty are the two red grapes of the region: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Ay is home to over forty Champagne producers. Signposts throughout the town pointed directions to those nearby. It is a small town, so most of the signposts show half to three-quarters of the producers.

The town is long and narrow, ranging along a strip between the canal and the base of the slopes of Montagne de Reims. We walked the three blocks through to the beginnings of the vineyards. The grapes were in good tight clusters and most had taken on the deep blue-purple colour of maturity. 

Some bunches in less sunny exposures were still in the process of changing colour.

Still others had not yet begun ripening. It has been a rather patchy growing year, with frost, rain and hail disrupting the flowering, fruit set and the ripening. This is not unusual for the Champagne, a region that lies at the northern extreme of the viticultural zone. The vines are tough and resilient and over my four and a half decades of visiting the region, I have seen that the growers and producers are even tougher and more resilient.

I have always been enthralled by the corduroy slopes of Montaigne de Reims.

We passed a wonderful series of open gates giving glimpses into the domains and lives of les viticulteurs, the grape growers. To me the art and science of grape growing is the most important aspect of fine wine. Wine of quality cannot be made without quality grapes. The winemaker can do nothing to improve the quality that comes from the grower; the winemaker’s task is to prevent as much as possible the lessening of the quality as the grapes become wine. 

We walked along streets that seemed completely lined with Champagne producers, some large, some small, some famous, others near unknown outside their own small circles. It was Sunday and everything was closed. Edi and I seemed to be the only activity in town.

We headed back down into the centre of town, past the church as darkening clouds threatened more rain. 

As we scurried to beat the rain back to Zonder Zorg, we hurried through an older section with many half-timbered buildings from a few centuries back. We promised ourselves to take more time in the following few days to further explore Ay and its surroundings.

Back onboard, the rain passed and we relaxed. Within a week we had seen the temperatures plunge from a daytime high of 38º last week when we were in Sillery to 19º this week. Autumn was closing in on us and the tree above us sent a continuous rain of reminders onto our decks.

We had a visit scheduled with Champagne de Venoge in Épernay on Wednesday, and our thoughts had been to head down the canal four kilometres, pass through the lock at Dizy and then head a little over five kilometres up the branch of the Marne to Port de Plaisance d’Épernay. This would entail about two and a half hours of motoring. Moorage in Épernay was listed as €2 per metre per day, so €34 a day on top of the €14 for the ten litres of diesel consumed getting there and back to our free moorage in Ay. Edi suggested that for the €48 we stay in Ay, take taxis to and from Épernay and buy a bottle of Champagne with the change.

With the trees above us accelerating their defoliation, we decided to move Zonder Zorg back up through the lock to the quai above it. It has no overhanging trees. We watched as a Freycinet gauge peniche filled the lock. These barges are within a few centimetres of the same dimensions as those of the chamber, and we watched as the skipper put the twin rudders hard over so that the lock doors astern could swing past them and close.

When the lock was clear we slipped our lines and I headed down canal about 200 metres to a point where the canal is about 20 metres wide, sufficient for me to wind Zonder Zorg around and in the process, twist the lock signalling wand. Meanwhile, Edi had walked up to the lock to receive the lines when I entered. In short order we had made it through the lock and were secured in a much less leafy place. We swept away the thick layer of leaves and washed the boat, then settled back into relaxing and enjoying Ay.

To Ay

On Saturday morning the 7th of September I walked over to Case à Pain for some pain chocolat and croissants, which we then enjoyed in the cockpit with cups of espresso. As we relaxed over breakfast, the sky slowly filled with cloud and the forecast rain showers began. We had the umbrella up, so we continued.

At 1015 we slipped from the wall in Relais Nautique de Sillery and continued up the canal. We glided along through wheat fields with a backdrop of Champagne villages nestled among their vineyards on Montagne de Reims. 

It was drizzling lightly, but this did not deter the serious fishermen, nor joggers nor even a young woman on her horse, all of whom used the old tow path beside the canal.

Along our planned route for the day were three locks leading up to the bief de partage, the summit pound, in the middle of which is Souterrain de Mont-de-Billy, a 2302 metre long tunnel under a rib of Montagne de Reims. From the tunnel, the waterway leads down eight locks to the end of the canal. The lock houses on the way up were occupied and well-maintained.

The intermittent drizzle had turned to persistent light rain by the time we arrived at the entrance to the tunnel. Its signal light was red and we could see the interior lighting was on, indicating a boat was inside. We didn’t know whether the boat was coming or going. If it was going we had a long wait; if it was coming the wait was much less.

There are no bollards along the new concrete wall in the tunnel approach, so we eased over and dropped the spud pole. Within a few minutes faint details emerged in the shadowy darkness of the tunnel mouth. The details filled and soon became the bows of a commercial peniche completing its transit.

Immediately the barge had passed the sensors at the mouth of the tunnel, the traffic light switched from red to green. As its stern cleared the mouth, the tunnel’s interior lights went out. We waited for the suck and turbulence of the passing barge to ease, and then raising the spud pole, we headed toward the entrance.

As our bows crossed through the beam of the sensors, the interior lights came on. Faintly in the distance we could see the point of light at the far end of the tunnel, 2.3 kilometres away.

The entire interior of the tunnel is lined with stones laid in a graceful arch. From this, it appears to me that the method of construction would have been to dig a deep trench across the ridge, build the arched roof and refill the trench on top of it. The tunnel was completed in time for the opening of the canal in 1866.

Looking back we could see the entrance slowly getting smaller. The interior was dry, with none of the commonly found dripping from the tunnel roof.

We took advantage of the respite from the rain. Edi went below and quickly put together a tray of bread, cheeses and olives for us to enjoy  during the twenty-odd minute passage through the tunnel. It was not her usual fancy spread; the table top was wet from the rain and would have soaked a tablecloth and our dry time was not anticipated to be sufficiently long to allow her to do a fancy arrangement. Lunch was wonderful, made even more so by the setting.

Zonder Zorg handled superbly through the tunnel, balanced between the effects off each wall and easily seeking the centre. A little bit of guidance with the tiller from time to time was all that was required. After twenty minutes we were at the end and ready to head back out into the rain.

We started down the six-kilometre long series of eight down-bound locks and about halfway along we came to a malfunctioning one. As we approached, we had as usual turned the control rod dangling over the canal. It lit the orange flashing light at the gate and turned the signal from red to red and green. It did everything that was automated to happen except filling the lock and opening the gates for us. We secured to a bollard on the bank and I called Ch22 on the VHF. Mme. l’eclusier said: “J’arrive”. 

The next lock malfunctioned also. It had allowed us in, but after I had lifted the activation bar the doors would not close. Again I signalled the lock keeper and she quickly came to set things in motion again. She seemed to know exactly what to do, as if these were regular occurrences, which I suspect they were so late in the season. They are likely on the VNF list of winter maintenance. 

At 1607 we finally made it down to the end of Canal de l’Aisne à la Marne, a T-junction with Canal Latéral à la Marne. We turned to starboard and headed downstream. The first lock along the canal, the one in Tours-sur-Marne malfunctioned, so I needed to call VNF again. It took nearly half an hour for a different lock keeper to arrive and lock us through, and by this time it was getting very tight for us to make it through l’Écluse de Mareiul before it closed for the day at 1700. Slowing us along the way was the first movable bridge we have seen since the Netherlands, but it responded quickly to our twist of the dangling wand and we needed to pause for only short while.

We arrived at the signalling wand for l’Écluse de Mareiul at 1650 and watched as our twist was acknowledged by a flashing orange light. However, the red light went out and stayed out; we got no red and green to show the lock was being prepared for us. We later learned that, even though the system is listed as operating until 1700, any new locking-through is switched off ten minutes before that; we likely missed it by seconds.

We secured to the bollards on the quai at the approaches to the lock and shut down for the day. We were in the countryside a kilometre short of the village of Mareiul-sur-Ay and four kilometres short of the town of Ay. When I checked the engine after our day’s run, I again saw diesel oil and coolant puddles in the bilge. I was not happy.

Sunday morning we arose to a world covered in heavy dew and the sun rising mists off the canal.

Beside us, next to the lock house the geese were warming themselves in the first rays of the sun, and above them on the slopes the grapes began another day of ripening. With only about two weeks until harvest, they need all the sun they can get.

Edi had the diced bacon smelling wonderfully and was just about to add the eggs to the pan when Mme.l’éclusier arrived to ask us if we wanted to lock through. I told her we were getting ready for breakfast and were thinking of going through in half an hour. She said the lock wasn’t working properly and it needed help, but that she would be away for over an hour. I told Edi to turn the bacon off and hold the eggs. Within two minutes we were entering the lock.

We passed through Mareiul-sur-Ay, and not tempted by the rather Dogpatch-looking moorings, we decided to continue on to Ay. From my visit here in 2004 in Lady Jane, I remembered a long quai in the centre of town, though I did recall very shallow water alongside. The new FluviaCarte showed the quai, but did not mention of the shallowness alongside. They left it to us to discover with our 0.95 metre draft. Fortunately, Zonder Zorg’s skeg is about 10 centimetres deeper than the tips of her propeller blades. 

I easily poled off with a boathook, and we continued along to Écluse de Ay, which we passed through without any need of assistance. This automatic lock was working, though with its very slow emptying, we suspect there is a problem with the upstream paddles. We secured alongside the wall on the bollards just below the lock and Edi reheated the bacon, put on the eggs and I pulled some espressos. We had arrived in Ay.