I Met a Couple
Who Loved Their Champagne
Story & Photos by Richard Frisbie
he taxi was a five-seat hatchback with six passengers. I rode in steerage,
contorted and uncomfortable, like some forgotten piece of luggage, desperate
for a limbering walk among the rows of grape vines I could see stretching
up and down the slopes on either side of the road. (Note to self: next
time remember to tell the cab company how many adult seats
well need.) Fortunately, it was a short ride. We were just minutes
outside of Reims in Champagne country, about to visit Fresne Ducret, one
of 4700+ small growers who make French Champagne.
Rows of grape vines stretch
into the distance
Our destination was Villedommange, a typical French
village growing up the slopes of a valley, what we would call a clove
in the Catskills of New York. It looked picturesque from the surrounding
hills, but on closer inspection was a collection of walled and gated
properties on a warren of streets with no shops or village center where
people could congregate. Little more than 10 minutes by car from the
bustling metropolis of Reims, it could have been a bedroom suburb rather
than the enclave of champagne growers it was.
caves filled with aging champagne
I crawled out the hatchback and stood stretching in
the gravel courtyard, feeling more like the family pet than one of the
visiting foodies they were expecting. They were a young couple, Pierre
and Daniella Fresne, the 8th generation of Champagne producers on this
land. Having just toured the Taittengier vineyards, with hundreds of
hectares under cultivation and millions of bottles in annual production,
Fresne Ducret was quite a contrast. We have 6 hectares (about
15 acres) of vines that produce about 50,000 bottles a year.
Pierre offered as we toured the ancient timbered building where production
used to take place.
Stepping through history into a modern two-storey addition,
Pierre proudly showed off the changes hes made since taking over
from his father and uncle in 2007. Weve consolidated
three separate work areas into this one location. On this floor we press
the grapes. Downstairs are the new stainless steel tanks where the first
fermentation takes place. As soon as I can afford to insulate and heat
this area, the bottling will be done here too. Bottling usually
takes place in January a year after the harvest, so heat is a necessity.
So far he was all business, still warming to our presence.
It was a family profession, his roots were here, and he reminded me
of a capable but reticent Maine farmer talking to tourists. He became
more animated as he described the champagne-making process, his vinters
genes allowing some mischief to peek through his professional veneer.
Eventually he relaxed, visibly enjoying our attention and questions,
happy to climb into one of the tall stainless steel tanks to show how
easy it was to clean. Then, with an elfin smile, he stuck his head out
of the tank. All boyish charm, he was a man in his own element. That
element is Champagne.
Pierre Fresne up to his ears in an empty wine
Talking about the succession of the business through
the generations, Pierre explained In family companies the children,
or one child takes over. My dads generation worked with their
parents longer than us. First, because they started younger, but our
generation has our children older, and we start working for our parents
later. My dad started at 15, while I was 25.
By this time we were walking along a dusty road through
the vines just outside the village. Pierre stopped to look down the
hillside to the valley below. He went on, Typically, a family
would start with a field of vines in one block. It would be divided
among the children, and some would go with the daughter when she married.
Sons marrying would acquire rows of vines in their wifes family
fields. Until, through the generations, with marriages and inheritances,
the large fields were divided into many small plots. We have six hectares
of vines, but not together. Some are there where the rusty end-poles
are; I have rows over beyond those trees there, and some along this
road and up the hill. It is a relaxing break to get in the car and drive
5 or 10 minutes between plots.
A grape cluster just beginning to develop
At first, the division of the fields was almost imperceptible.
What appeared to be a hillside of grapes became, upon a closer look,
a patchwork quilt of vines owned by different vintners. There could
be as few as 5 rows owned by one grower in a field of hundreds of rows.
Close inspection showed the delineations. Some growers allowed a groundcover
of vegetation to grow throughout their plot, believing that encouraged
the grape roots to go deep into the chalky subsoil. French law prohibits
irrigation of the vines, so sturdy deep roots are needed for grape production
during dry spells.
Some growers weeded only between the vines, while others
cultivated between the rows, leaving weeds between the vines. Each block
was different. Each grower confident their method is the best way to
grow healthy vines.
Pierre and his wife, Daniella, in their wine
Even the subtle difference of color divided the growers.
The end posts could be different colors. Shades of foliage could betray
the ages of the vines, and/or the type of grapes grown. In champagne
country, Chardonnay grapes are grown mostly for the Blanc de Blanc,
with some for blending, while Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are grown
for the blends and roses. While the first two have green leaves, the
meunier leaf is distinguished by what appears to be a light dusting
of flour. Hence its name, meunier, which translates as miller in English.
Pierre replaces about 3.5 % of his vines every 3 years.
The vines start producing in three years, with full production reached
in six. The vines themselves have a life expectancy of 75 100
years, their roots eventually reaching 45 feet down into the chalky
soil. As the deep roots of the old vines decompose, the new vines
roots follow their literally ground breaking path to the
moisture and nutrients that give champagne its distinctive flavor.
Pierre harvests grapes from vines his grandparents planted,
as he plants vines for his great grandchildren to tend. As the new roots
follow the old, each successive generation of grower follows the path
of their ancestors. It is this viviculture, this sense of continuity
a grape grower fosters as he shepherds his children and the vines through
his tenure as vinter. It is how eight generations (and counting) of
the Fresne family have prospered on these fields.
A display of Fresne Champagne
with their awards
Reflecting further on the history and nature of wine makers,
I wondered if the boundary-less fields were a release from the
sanctuary of their walled-in homes, or if the structured confines
of their homes comforted them after a day in the open and unprotected
fields. Eight generations and two World Wars suggest the latter.
The wars we hold in distant memory were fought on their grandfathers
doorsteps. This part of France was The Front. These grapes grow
on the battlefield, and the champagne caves carved through these
chalk hills were the sanctuary of a war-torn populace. In that
perspective, the gated, walled compounds the men came home to
made perfect sense.
We walked back, our throats dry, as much from the dusty road
as the anticipation of tasting the Champagne Pierre produces.
He heightened our expectations with this tidbit: We bottle
one rose, one vintage, 2 Brut (one younger than the other) 2 demi-sec
(rose & white) all in different sizes to add up to 10 or 11
different products to sell. All are champagne. I could
almost taste them as he spoke.
Back in the tasting room, Pierre readied a trifecta
of Brut Origine, Brut Réserve, and Brut Rosé
Céleste, but the aroma coming from the adjoining kitchen
distracted me from the champagne. Daniella, Pierres Canadian-born
wife and business partner, had whipped up some canapés to go
with the tasting. Besides handling all the bookkeeping and shipping,
those customs forms are complicated! and caring for
their daughter and son (aged 4 and 2 respectively) she told us, I
have a cooking school here. People come for a class to learn how to
cook food to serve with champagne, then we sit down and have a tasting
with the meal they just prepared.
Pierre pours the champagne
I love the idea, especially after I tasted the goodies
shed prepared. Highlights included a cannoli looking parmesan
cracker stuffed with farmers cheese that I thought was brilliant
in concept, besides being excellent tasting! It was deliciously savory,
not sweet, but it looked like dessert. Her riff on rillettes de canard,
a particular favorite of mine, was tasty and, she confided, "Its
easy to make. If you dont have duck rillette, you can take some
duck confit, the legs are available in most supermarkets, shred the
thigh meat and add ratafia along with some of the duck fat. Mix it up
and spread it on baguette rounds. Its that simple."
Some of the appetizers Daniella prepared
By coincidence, just the day before Id tasted
ratafia in a specialty shop of local Reims products. It is a sweet liquor
made from aged champagne and grape juice. (see below) This canapé
is one Ill serve often. It is so good, and odds are your guests
havent tasted anything like it!
Ratafia de la champagne is a natural aperitif drink
made from fresh grape juice obtained exclusively from the Champagne
region and fortified with spirits from the region. During aging the
ratafia acquires its mellow and bright amber color. The syrupy flavor
of the ratafia comes from the natural sugar contained in the grape juice.
More of the delicious appetizers served with
The time spent at her table swapping recipes, (see below)
with Pierre pouring and describing the Champagnes they produce, made
for one of the nicest tastings I can remember. Daniela and Pierre have
created a warm working and living environment, and some damn good champagne.
Im sure theyll gain more accolades (and an American distributor)
before the next generation continues the familys champagne-making
When visiting the champagne region of France, naturally
you will visit the various champagne houses for a tasting. Instead of
the group tour cattlecall of a tasting youll get in
the big houses, cheek-to-jowl with busloads of grumpy tourists, why
not combine a personal and intimate champagne tasting with a cooking
class by Daniella Fresne? Youll have the award-winning Fresne
Ducret Champagne and an entertaining few hours in the kitchen with this
delightfully talented cook. I cant think of a nicer way to spend
an afternoon in France.
Daniella sharing her recipes as she passes
Champagne and pea soup (Crème Ninon) recipe
graciously shared by Daniella Fresne
- 2 cups fresh or frozen peas
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp flour
- 1 celery stalk, chopped
- 200 ml homemade chicken stock
- 1 ¼ cup heavy cream
- 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup champagne
- Salt, pepper
- Crème fraîche*
- Chive flowers and/or chives
Melt butter over medium heat in a large saucepan and
cook onion and celery until tender but not browned. Add flour and stir
well; this makes a sort of fragrant roux that will make the soup creamier.
Add stock, heavy cream and lemon juice. Reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper. Add peas and leave on heat just until the
soup is warm dont boil it, or the peas will overcook and
lose their fresh flavor! Purée soup in the pot with an immersion
blender or in batches in a blender. Strain through a mesh sieve or a
food mill with a fine plate. Stir in champagne, season with salt and
pepper. Serve hot or chill until cold. Serve with a dollop of crème
fraîche*, chopped chives and/or a sprinkling of chive flower petals.
Tél: (0)3 26 49 24 60
10, rue Saint Vincent, 51390 Villedommange
General information: contact Daniella Fresne by email
Cooking classes can be in English and/or French.
The classes are private, by reservation, and the price depends on the
size of the group. Usually 135€ to 155€, including the class,
the three-course meal the class prepares, champagne throughout both,
plus all recipes and a visit to the winery and cellars. Classes last
around 5-6 hours.
there: Air France
Lorraine Region, Spirits
of the World, Montpellier,
*Crème fraîche is very easy (and inexpensive!)
to make yourself if you cant find it at your supermarket. Pour
1 cup heavy cream into a glass bowl and stir in a tablespoon of yogurt
or buttermilk. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set in a warm place
(in the winter I put it on the radiator, in the summer I put it in a
sunny spot in front of a window, you can also put it in the oven on
the bread rising setting if you have one but you want to keep
it below 40°C/100°F) for about 24 hours until thickened. Then
refrigerate it until its clotted, at least 3 hours. Before serving,
gently push aside the clotted crème fraîche and pour off
the whey thats settled at the bottom of the bowl (if you dont
pour it off, your crème fraîche will be quite runny). Stir