Chef de cave Nicolas Jaeger who still ferments everything in oak barrels
Alfred Gratien must be one of the least visited of Champagne aficionados’ favourite houses, which is a slightly more tortuous way of saying something I’ve said before: every wine writer I can think of loves Alfred Gratien Champagne, but (and this I haven’t said before) it’s not a house that’s been on many itineraries. This summer, after decades of visiting producers of every size and persuasion from multinational giants to individual growers, I finally made it to Alfred Gratien in Epernay.
Before I go on, let me point out that I’m going to shorten it to Gratien even though there’s also Gratien & Meyer in Saumur in the Loire – and, yes, they're related. Both were founded by Alfred Gratien in 1864 to produce ‘Champagne’, a description liberally and legally applied to all sorts of sparkling wines back then. Since early this century, they’ve been owned by Henkell, the German Sekt giant, itself a subsidiary of the food giant Dr Oetker. Henkell is unlikely to have been greeted very warmly in the Champagne region at the outset but has turned out to be a benign and hands-off owner, providing funds but leaving Gratien to carry on doing things in the way that makes its Champagnes so distinctive and admired.
This has meant, very unusually in a company that’s not family-owned, the position of chef de caves (winemaker) has been passed down within a family. Nicolas Jaeger is the fourth Jaeger to hold the position, which he inherited from his father Jean-Pierre after working with him for 17 years.
It doesn’t mean nothing changes. The dosage has gradually come down from 11–12g to 7–8g; less Pinot Meunier goes into the non-vintage Cuvée Classique than 15 years ago; more Chardonnay goes into the vintage; and Jaeger now uses a solera system for his liqueur d'expédition (aka dosage)so that it’s the same for each cuvée. But Gratien’s principal distinction (almost unique) continues: fermentation in oak barrels, mostly four-year-old barriques from Chablis that are used for up to 20 years. It’s the only house other than Krug still to do all its fermentation in oak and it makes Gratien, which produces 300,000 bottles a year – just 0.1 per cent of the market – Champagne’s third largest barrel owner. More importantly, oak gives depth, complexity and longevity to the Champagnes. Something else that contributes to the characteristic vitality and ageing potential is never allowing an acid-softening malolactic fermentation to take place. Tradition also rules the riddling (remuage) and disgorgement processes – still done by hand.
The work in the cellar is difficult and takes a lot of time, but an advantage of having individual barrels is, says Jaeger, that he can keep all the different growers’ wines separate (the house has almost no vineyards of its own) and, if he has a problem with a barrel, "it’s only one barrel”. In fact, the work has been easier since Gratien invested in a nifty Sagarte barrel-stacking and moving system that glides barrels in and out as if they were as light as corks.
I tasted 12 different cuvées (one of them with two different seals), which demonstrated everything I’ve said about depth, complexity, vitality and ability to age and reinforced the impression that Alfred Gratien is as much a Champagne for wine lovers as it is for Champagne lovers.
It's also remarkable value.
Alfred Gratien Cuvée Classique Brut – current cuvée (the same as The Wine Society’s own-label)
A blend of two-thirds 2010 with one-third 2009 reserve wines; around 50% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier. There’s always a minimum of 45% Chardonnay in Cuvée Classique and it can be up to 55% (Pinot Meunier used to be higher). Flavours of nuts, wheat, lightly toasted bread, hints of coffee bean, apricot and honey, creamy texture cut by steely acidity.
Alfred Gratien Brut Classique Rosé (again, the same as The Wine Society’s own label)
Based on 2012 (a very good year) with 2011 reserve wines and 8–12% red wine from Bouzy, always from same grower’s old vineyard. It’s the cost of the red wine that makes rosé more expensive than white Champagne, PDG Olivier Dupré says, plus the marketing. Medium salmon pink. A burst of red fruit – cherries and raspberries with some cranberry and pomegranate – combined with the same wheaty, toasty character and same energy and acidity as the Cuvée Classique.
Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis 2008
65% Chardonnay (grands crus and one premier cru), 33% Pinot Noir (grands and premiers crus). 7–8g dosage. Intense, concentrated flavours, tight structure, piercing, youthful acidity. Very promising Champagne from an excellent vintage, but I wouldn’t drink it for at least two years (I shan’t: I’ve got a bottle). I’d be happy to drink it without food, but it’s certainly a Champagne you can drink with food – fish, poultry, cheese and, when it’s more than a decade old, foie gras.
Alfred Gratien Blanc de Blancs 2007
Chardonnay from five grands crus – Le Mesnil, Avize, Chouilly, Oger and Cramant. 7g dosage. Floral nose; biscuity richness on the palate around a core of racy, sweet fruit (apple-pear-peach) and rippling, vibrant acidity. Nicolas Jaeger’s first cuvée – chapeau!
Alfred Gratien Brut 2004
68% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot Meunier, 13% Pinot Noir. Nicolas Jaeger’s father gradually upped the proportion of Chardonnay in the vintage. Full, generous, structured; youthful acidity but in balance; nuts, spice, candied peel.
The first five Champagnes – Brut Classique current cuvée to vintage 2004
Alfred Gratien Brut Classique – 1998 base wine with 1997 reserve
12g dosage. Honeyed and toasty with mature gamey richness. Long and dry, impeccably fresh acidity. Full, layered, still taut. A demonstration of how well Gratien non-vintage matures.
Alfred Gratien Brut 1992 – two bottles, one with a crown cap, one with a cork
76% Chardonnay, 18% Pinot Noir, 6% Pinot Meunier.
Under crown cap (left glass below): Mousse still lively. Honeyed, toasty, mature aromas and flavours, but fresh acidity. Still has structure, but oxidizes in the glass fairly quickly.
Under cork (right glass below): Slightly greener colour. Fresher, more mineral nose. Wheaty, biscuity, creamy. Very long and doesn’t deteriorate. Jaeger says crown caps keep the pressure better but, whatever the lining, let in more oxygen; with cork, you lose more C02 but less oxygen gets in.
Alfred Gratien Brut 1961
35.72% Chardonnay, 35.72% Pinot Noir, 28.56% Pinot Meunier. How’s that for meticulous blending and record keeping by the chef de cave? A famously warm year. The grapes were in perfect condition, according to Jaeger. They cost 2.90 francs per kilo, or about 40 euro centimes, compared with 7€/kg today. Pale gold. Softly sparkling. Mushroom and truffle on the nose, but still fresh on the palate.
Alfred Gratien Brut 1998
A terrible July, but then the warmest August since 1961. Lovely, refined, mature. Still fresh, but not the most concentrated.
Alfred Gratien Brut 2002
Floral and creamy with a delicate hint of honey. Lime blossom and biscuit, minerality and acidity. Weight, texture, finesse, length. Very fine. Almost perfection.
Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis Rosé 2007
Deepish salmon. Richly aromatic and fruity – cherries and cream – but around a structural, mineral backbone. A Champagne for food, with plenty of ageing potential.
Alfred Gratien Brut 2000 (the vintage The Wine Society is currently selling)
Pale gold. Intense and layered flavours – rich candied fruit and peel. Lots of creaminess, taut, youthful acidity. A very good 2000.
The Society's Champagne Brut, £28
The Society's Champagne Demi Sec, £31(I haven't tasted this)
The Society's Champagne Rosé, £32.50
Alfred Gratien Blanc de Blancs 2007, £33
Alfred Gratien Brut 2000, £42
Other UK stockists include Berry Bros & Rudd, TheDrinkShop.com, Millesima UK and AG Wines.
US: quite widely distributed.
Europe: stockists include Millesima, which sells it in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
All photographs by Joanna Simon