Alfred Gratien – traditionalist on the move

The champagnes of Alfred Gratien have a special place in the hearts of English wine lovers. This is somewhat improbable given that it is relatively small, very traditional, négociant business, tucked away behind the grand Avenue de Champagne in Épernay.  You are only a few metres from the palaces on the Avenue but the spirit and the scale of the place could not be more different.  And how has the bond between Gratien and the English been formed?  The Wine Society, pillar of the English middle classes, has been importing Gratien’s wines since 1906 no less. And the relationship is going from strength to strength. The Society’s buyer is known here just as ‘Marcel’ and he much valued as a taster as well as being a client.  When we visited the company in March 2013 Marcel had visited recently and discussed a special release for a forthcoming Wine Society anniversary.  The long term relationship is to our mutual benefit – as befits a mutual society on the one hand and a small Champagne house embedded in local relationships in the region on the other. 

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Alfred Gratien is based on long-term values, relationships and traditional approaches to wine making.  The company itself was set up in 1846 and the current wine maker or chef de cave is the jovial Nicholas Jaeger, the fifth generation who has held this key post.  His wife runs the office and there are in addition just three others in the winery.  With this tiny staff they have been producing 100,000 bottles a year.  They are purely a négociant business, that is, there are no vineyards at all. Rather they source quality fruit from the Vallé de la Marne and from the Côtes de Blancs.  They also get fruit from the Montagne de Reims but Nicholas explains that he finds that more of a challenge as he has no family and friends there and so does not have the relationships.  The grapes are grown across the region but become Gratien’s when they are put in the communal press near the CIVC building in the centre of the town.  They also ‘import’ some juice, not grapes, from the Aube, Champagne’s southernmost section.

With this raw material Jaeger proceeds to ferment his base wines in old oak barrels, typically three to five year old Chablis barrels.  Apart from a more rounded out, developed style this give the wine maker one intriguing advantage. There are a few large scale stainless steel  vats in the winery but that is solely for the blending operation. Before that, as is the traditional way, each marc of grapes, the 4000 kilos which fit in a basket press, produces ten barrels of still wine.  In turn each of these bears the name of the person who sold the grapes. Once the wine is made Jaeger invites his growers in to talk about the wine and taste it together. With a gentle smile he says: there is a ‘small competition’.  While this is a négociant business, it is not the case that each grower’s successes and failures disappear into a large common vat; there is an unusual level of personal connection between the grower and the still wine. 

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But you should not get the impression that Gratien is stuck in the past.  The group as a whole, which includes the much larger Gratien & Meyer in the Loire, has been bought by the German Sekt giant, Henkell.  The good news is that this change is leading to investment but not interference.  The Gratien wines are still being made in exactly the same way as they have been in the past.  Henkell wished to have ‘100% made in barrels’ on the label so that led to buying more old barrels.  The major investment is going into two areas – efficiency and capacity.  Thus, we saw the amazing barrel storage system which not only allows a single person to rotate the barrels but also pull them out of the holding system. This means that sampling of wine and cleaning can be done without having to move the barrels, full or empty.  A whole new extension to the functional winery has meant that there is more space for the work that they do and capacity for yet more barrels.  The current expansion is from 100,000 to 300,000 bottles per year with an option to go to 400,000.  There are two advantages here.  The obvious one is that the same work force can produce three to four times the volume to the same, high, standard.  Whereas the barrels used to have to be moved thirteen times a year, they can now be moved just the once.  The subtler advantage, which excites the chef de cave, is that more barrels means more opportunity to select.  This should give the ability to expand the top-end wines.  And the further developments?  A first step will be to raise the humidity so that less is lost to the angels. And then, Nicholas Jaeger adds with another smile, perhaps we will get some refurbishment of the buildings. 

In terms of wine style, Alfred Gratien makes a series of decisions which aim for freshness alongside complexity, noticeable underlying acidity and potential to age. The first we have already commented on, the practice of fermenting in old oak barrels.  While these are making a comeback in Champagne (eg André Jacquart), they represent a big commitment more normally associated with houses with huge resources such as Bollinger or Krug.  Secondly, the house is firmly in the ‘anti-malo’ camp.  No malo ever, sums up their approach; they wish to keep the zip of malic acid in their wines.  Along with this goes a ‘hands off’ approach to the wines during its six months in barrels, so no battonage. Similarly, this prioritises freshness over richness.  These last two decisions mean that you can only afford to buy ripe fruit.  Finally, the reserve policy is to change the reserve every year to avoid over-oxidisation in the wines. With one exception, the reserve wine is always just one year older than the base wine. The exception is for liqueur d’expédition, the wine which is used to top up disgorged bottles, which is drawn from a five to six year old reserve.  The final factor is the dosage of 10g or, in older wines, 8g – not the lowest in the trend towards drier finishes.  Putting all these factors together, it is clear that the slightly richer liqueur d’expédition and the dosage offset what could have been an extremely dry and acidic style. The end result is wines of poise, refreshment and complexity and with a capcity to age – see the picture above of the as yet undisgorged 1985s waiting for their time.

Some Alfred Gratien wines

Brut Classique NV – the base wine is currently 2008, 41% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Noir, 17% Pinot Meunier, 10g residual sugar. This is the house’s calling card and 75% of its production.  It is all the same wine whether you buy it with a Gratien label, a Wine Society one or any other …  the house is committed to you having the same experience.  Fine, toast and honey notes, ‘fresh white bread’ rather than brioche says perceptive taster Matt; makes you want to drink more says Nicholas its maker, correctly!  After 10 minutes in the glass the fruit begin to emerge in a remarkable way for a basic NV. 

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Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru – from five Grand Cru villages (Mesnil, Avise, Oger, Chouilly, Cramant), the base wine being from 2007.  Brioche, melon and honey on the nose; mature, even confit, fruit, fine acidic chalky finish. 

Cuvée Paradis Brut – a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend of 2006 Grand Cru and Premier Cru fruit, 8g of residual sugar as the wine has spent five to six years in the bottle during the second fermentation and ageing staging.  Beautifully toasty, rich and candied fruit (pineapple), excellent integration with the oak. 

Brut Millésime 2000 – time was running short at this point, but we got to taste hurriedly the medium gold vintage wine, 64% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 11% Meunier, 8g of residual sugar.  Honeyed already from some bottle age, herbs and white flowers; steely taut palate with fruit and orange rind notes; complex, long, lots of potential to develop in the bottle.

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There are also two pink wines in the range: Brut Rosé and Cuvée Paradis Rosé.  Alfred Gratien continues to work to exacting standards in traditional ways.  Let’s hope that the German investment will only lead to the wines becoming more widely available. 

 

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