Of Champagne and the Knights Templar
Champagne wasn’t so much as a gleam in a winemaker’s eye
when the Knights Templar met their demise, yet in the vineyard cellars of the
French Aube region its connections with the crusading order quickly become apparent.
The thread starts with Hugues de Payns, a Knight born in the
village near the city of Troyes that bears his surname. In Payns there is a
museum and the remains of a commanderie
– or Templar base – that he founded. After the First Crusade he had badgered
the King of Jerusalem to sanction the creation of a monastic order of Knights
that would protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. The King granted the
order headquarters on the Temple Mount. Hence their name.
The web of links widens with Bernard of Clairveaux – later
St. Bernard – who set out rules for the Knights in 1128. These regulations were
pretty proscriptive: among them obedience, modest living, no sex and no excessive
boozing. They were to comport themselves, in other words, as did Chaucer’s
“verray, parfit gentil Knyght”.
Being a Cistercian, Bernard no doubt practiced what he
preached. He was said to have hurled himself into icy water to control his
lust. But that didn’t stop him raising money for his abbey by planting Pinot
Noir vines. According to Michel Drappier, head of the Champagne house Drappier,
he wanted to produce a red wine to rival those produced by monks in Burgundy. Pinot
Noir became the dominant grape in Champagne production.
Whether or not revenues from the sale of that red wine found
their way into the Templars’ soon to be groaning coffers isn’t known. At
Clairveaux Abbey, founded by Bernard and overlooked by his hilltop statue, they
will tell you the order didn’t benefit from any of the monastery’s largesse. Aside
from the beautifully restored monks’ refectory with its elegant, early Gothic
vaulting – now used for the occasional concert – it’s a bleak place with little
to remind you of the influence it once wielded. Blame Napoleon. He turned the
abbey into a prison. Victor Hugo used it as the basis for a short story, Claude
Gueux, an attack on 19th century judicial retribution that he expanded on in
Les Miserables. At that time there was no glass in the windows. Other inmates
have included the resistance hero Guy Moquet, Jacques Mesrine, the criminal
seen as a latter day Robin Hood, who was the subject of a two part film - and
Carlos the Jackal. You can see the grimly fascinating cages a poules (chicken coups), wood and metal hutches that served
as cells until 1971. A prison remains part of the sprawling abbey complex. It
is earmarked for closure but meanwhile visitors must handover their passports before
entering the abbey confines and are forbidden to take photographs.
The Templar connection also leads you to Avalleur, another of
the order’s commanderies – in this
case run by its non military wing, who farmed to ensure the Knights received
finance, horses, food and arms for their campaigns in the Holy Land and against
the Moors in Spain. In the chapel is a stone found in the nearby forest, its
carved emblems indicating that it marked the border of their territory with
that of the King.
It was in the original, Romanesque, Cathedral of St Peter
and St Paul, in the Aube capital, Troyes, that a council of Bishops and
delegates from Rome approved the establishment of the order and its rules. The rebuilt
cathedral’s treasures includes a reliquary of St Bernard – ironic in view of
his recorded tirade against those who allowed their veneration or such riches
to divert them from the truly sacred. It also contains plunder from the sacking
of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, including a casket owned by a
Byzantine emperor. Logic suggests it was brought back by a Templar, though it’s
not thought the Knights played a major part in the plunder.
They owned property in Troyes, establishing their Champagne
region commanderie on a street called
the Rue du Temple for seven centuries until 1906, when it became The Rue General
Saussier. It is now the site of a Catholic school. On the Rue des Changes the
Templars issued credit notes to travellers who would need readies when they
Troyes is a feast for the eyes. Ravaged by fire in the 16th
century, it has a large number of half timbered houses built in the aftermath. There
are so many you don’t need to go out of your way to see them, though some are
closeted in courtyards, such as the Hotel du Lion, with its external, spiral
But lovely though the city may be, it is in the vineyards
that the continuity of history really comes home, in the realization that vines
were tended there before the crusades and long after the Templars’ fell from
grace amid dubious accusations of heresy, corruption and sodomy. The second fermentation that produces Champagne
wasn’t used until the 17th century.
At Monial and at Drappier, both of which have Cistercian
cellars. For one of his cuvees Michel
Drappier uses the Arbane, a grape thought to have been brought by the Romans which
‘has disappeared everywhere else on the planet’. His great, great, great
grandfather first settled in the village
of Urville in 1808 but, France being at war, had to sell his wine to merchants
in Epernay. His grandfather acquired the cellars, which had been built at the
behest of Bernard of Clairveaux. It wasn’t until 1951, after a half century
that had seen production and sales hit by philloxera, the Great Depression and
two World Wars, that Michel’s father really got the business going.
Today Drappier employs modern, eco friendly methods. By next
year it aims to be 70% solar powered. Michel has been experimenting with
curious, egg shaped barrels.
But the oak for some barrels still comes from the Templars’
forest. Sipping La Grande Sendree (the cuvee, made from grapes grown on a patch
of Drappier terroir fertilized by ash
from an 1838 woodland fire, was misnamed. It should have been spelled with a c
as in cinders) you might wonder what the Knights would have made of it.
They might have had serious difficulty toeing the line. One
if the 70 odd rules governing their behavior – and demanding moderation -
quoted Solomon: “wine corrupts the wise”.
www.monial.net (Champagne Monial)