The Wines of Champagne Alfred Gratien

Alfred Gratien has appeared as a regular ‘blip’ on my Champagne radar over the years. Although I have enjoyed many fine wines from the domaine, I confess that I’ve never really explored the marque in the level of detail that its quality surely merits. At the annual ‘Printemps’ festival (a week-long series of Champagne trade-related events held in Reims every April), and for the second year in a row, Alfred Gratien stood out for consistently scoring high marks across the entire range. As the old saying goes, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, and so an appointment to visit their smart new boutique in Epernay was promptly made.


Cuvee Paradis23-year-old Alfred Gratien established his first wine business in 1864, not in Champagne, but many miles away near Saumur in the Loire valley. Convinced that the best sparkling wines were made further north, Gratien expanded his holdings to include facilities in the Epernay area.

It would be another ten years before Alfred and Jean-Albert Meyer (from a wine-making family in Alsace) would meet, discovering a shared passion for quality sparkling wine. Over the next decade, Alfred and Jean-Albert would expand the business further, increasing production and honing the style of their product.

Following Gratien’s untimely death in 1885, Jean-Albert stepped up to oversee both businesses at the behest of Alfred’s widow. So successful was he that the widow Gratien made him full business partner and renamed the house Gratien & Meyer.

Sadly, Gratien’s only son was to die in the battle of Verdun during the first world war, and so control passed exclusively to the Meyer family. Albert-Edmond Meyer’s son-in-law, Eric Seydoux, joined the company in 1936, and took over in 1965 after the death of his father-in-law.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the Seydoux family, faced with the impossible combination of the Napoleonic Code (French laws governing inheritance, where each child receives the same proportion of the estate) and thirteen potential beneficiaries, sold the Alfred Gratien group to Henkell & Co.  Though we live in a world of large, aggressive corporations, it is fair to say that Henkell has been an unusually benevolent and supportive owner, investing heavily in the marque, yet allowing Champagne Alfred Gratien a large degree of independence. Thanks to Henkell, Champagne Gratien is fit and ready to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

From Father to Son

Perhaps the most fascinating aspects of the house is the consistency of style over the last 150 years. Current cellarmaster Nicolas Jaeger is the fourth generation in charge of winemaking duties at Gratien. He joined the firm in 1990 before taking over from his father, Jean-Pierre, in 2007 (Nicolas’ great-grandfather was the first in 1905). As far as I know, this level of continuity is unique in Champagne, successfully calibrating the house style across the centuries.

Nicolas has clearly inherited a lot of history and knowledge from his family, and it would be easy for him to rely solely on this legacy. However, he is not afraid to embrace new techniques to improve quality where appropriate (being very careful not to contradict or damage the existing house style).  The range has been modernised too, including a Brut Nature and the new Cuvée 565 (see below). Although they have always been sourced from a single harvest, the Blanc de Blancs and Paradis cuvées now show the vintage date on the label.


Nicolas Jaeger, with Monsieur Gratien watching carefully in the background.

Vinification and House Style

Gratien owns just 1.5 hectares of vineyards, with the majority of their fruit fulfilled via long-term contracts with growers across a diverse set of Crus.  All three of the major grape varieties are used, although the percentage of Pinot Meunier has been reduced over time.  The grapes are picked and pressed near the vineyards, the musts (grape juice) are then transported to headquarters in Epernay, where they are placed into oak barrels and fermented.

The barrel room is an impressive place: more than one thousand, 228-litre barrels (all previously used, and coming from Chablis in Burgundy) are stacked row upon row.  During my visit, the winemaking team were burning sulphur in some of their empty barrels, spectacularly causing a precipitous fog to spread around the barrel room like some 1960s horror movie.  Apart from ensuring that the barrels (and indeed my trachea) were thoroughly disinfected, it is a contributing factor to Gratien’s slightly smoky style.

While the champagnes are built around a core of barrel-fermented base wines, the oak remains fairly neutral, imparting a vanilla tinged, toasty complexity without burying the fruit.  The use of oak doesn’t lead to any obvious oxidative character here either, and in combination with a blocked malolactic fermentation, enables fresh, energetic champagnes, blessed with fine texture.

rose a pointeOnce blended and placed in bottles the wines are aged sur pointe, using crown cap for the non-vintages, and cork for the vintage wines.  Cork is actually a more consistent and less oxidative closure than crown cap, but is more labour intensive: bottles have to be disgorged by hand and then checked individually for cork taint. Pictured: Gratien’s rosés aging sur pointe.

The higher acidity from the ‘non-malolactic’ regime allows the wines to absorb a relatively high level of sugar in the dosage, and they do not appear overly honeyed or sweet. This generous dosage is another important factor in the potential complexity and age-ability of these cuvées.

Nicolas’ stores reserve wines using a reserve perpetuelle system (similar to a solera). These reserve wines add early depth to newly released, non-vintage cuvées, as well as being the source of the liqueur d’expedition (dosage).

The Alfred Gratien Range

The range begins with the consistent Brut Classique NV, approximately 50% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir, and 25% Pinot Meunier, and a high proportion of ‘reserve perpetual’.  A really classy wine that rewards a few extra years of cellaring.

It is of course de rigueur to have a zero-dosage cuvée in your range these days, and Gratien have joined their peers by creating the Brut Nature, which is actually the Brut Classique, kept for an additional two years on lees to help smooth out the acidity.

The Brut Rosé NV is also based upon the Classique blend, sensibly released one year earlier (to express fruit at the expense of autolysis), with the addition of around 10% vin rouge from Camile Saves in Bouzy.

A brilliant new non-vintage concept, Cuvée 565, demonstrates the quality and importance of the Gratien reserve wines.  The ‘565’ represents three important aspects of the wine: ‘5’, the number of years included in the cuvée (assemblage of 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011), with ‘6’ years on lees, to delight the ‘5’ senses.

There are a number of vintage offerings, starting with the Vintage Brut, a Chardonnay-dominated blend and usually the oldest wine available from the marque (as I write the 2005 is the current bottle release, and the magnum is the 2004!).  One of my favourite wines of the range is the Blanc de Blancs Vintage.  Almost always made from the grand crus of Cramant and Avize, this is a wine that has become distinctly more fruit-driven in recent years, while retaining a certain zip.

At the top of the range we have the house tête de cuvée: Paradis.  Made in both a blanc and rosé styles (the latter being the blanc version with the edition of some red wine) it’s around two thirds Chardonnay, and one third Pinot Noir, and another wine that is becoming less overtly toasty and more fruit driven.

Gratien caves

Apart from the ghostly apparition on the wall, what lies in the dungeon?  A treasure trove of older wines, with vintages dating back to 1945.

The Wines

(2018) Based upon the 2013 vintage (Usually 1-2 years older in magnum), this release feels a bit more constricted than normal, and will need a bit of time to reveal its potential.   At the moment, enjoy the zesty grapefruit palate and toasty reserve wine complexity. Leave some bottles in your cellar for a year or two to gain that extra roundness and realise the 91/100 potential, drink 2019-2025.
(2018) A new cuvée about to hit the market, so not in UK retailers at time of review. Vanilla and toast on the nose, a balanced, linear palate, lightly honeyed with a candied orange peel aroma.  Again, the reserve wines add an extra, savoury depth to the ensemble.  A great new cuvée! Drink 2019-2024.
(2018) I’m not usually a fan of low dosage Champagne (I find many of them severe and unbalanced), but the longer lees aging in combination with the reserve wine provide us with a fine example of the genre. Fresh and bracing, citrus, spicy, and honeyed with fine acidity.  Smooth, well balanced on the mid-palate, the lack of dosage is only felt in the slightly clipped finish, but an excellent wine in this style.  Drink upon release.
(2018) Nicolas Jaegar’s second vintage, and what a monster: Upon release, a wine of remarkable precision, dazzling pear-like fruit with thundering acidity on the palate.  This has already mellowed in the last year or so, the pear aromas giving way to something creamier, but still firmly in its 'fruit' phase.  Waiting for the nutty aromas, but what a scintillating wine!  Currently at 93/100, this will drink from 2020 through to 2030, and should hit 95/100.  A real bargain though not yet in stock in the UK at time of writing.
(2018) A wine that is drinking well out of the gate: lush fruit leaning towards the tropical, supported by a baseline of buttery richness. An easy-going Champagne to be enjoyed in the medium term, and although a rated lower than the 2008 overall, a solid effort none-the-less, and still a bargain.  Currently scoring 92/100, with a little a bit of upside potential.  Drink from 2018 until 2024.
(2018) I often struggle with this vintage, the combination of over-the-top ripeness and botrytis can be rather cloying.  Fortunately for us, this Champagne possesses neither in excess, although I wouldn’t age it for too long.  Elegantly toasty, with a touch of mushroom on the nose.  The palate is all about youthful stone fruits that turn quite juicy in the glass.  I suspect a short and sharp evolution for this wine, maybe wait one or two years for the walnut richness to emerge.  Drink from 2019 until 2023.
(2018) Nicolas’ treated us to a couple of wines from his wine library.  First up, the Paradis 1997, originally disgorged in the mid-2000’s.  66% Chardonnay, 24% Pinot Noir, and smidgen of Pinot Meunier.  Fully resolved, with smooth toasty complexity.  A streak of walnut oil running through the palate is surely a sign of maturity, although the Champagne remains fresh and vibrant. Not available retail at time of writing.
(2018) The second wine from the oenotheque, disgorged 2016, with 57% Chardonnay, and 43% Pinot Noir.  Creaminess is building, biscuit notes emerge from a peachy core of fruit.  An excellent wine for the vintage, this will certainly evolve further in the next couple of years, but I rather like it now!  Drink from 2018 until 2022, and again not listed for sale in the UK at time of review.
(2018) It was interesting to compare the bottle with this large format version in Magnum.  Instantly a step away from bottle generosity and one towards magnum sternness.  The magnum character shines through with its struck match reductive character on the nose, the peach flavours are replaced with a zesty-lemon bouquet in this format.  A distinct aroma of coffee is beginning to develop on the finish, completing a contrarian wine that is both nervy and open at the same time.   Drink this from 2019 until 2025.
(2018) I’m fed up of recommending Champagnes from 2008 (almost), it would be far easier to simply list the bad wines!  Another lovely wine, this has the authority and resonance one has come to expect from this vintage.  A fragrant bouquet of apple, supported by a note of almond.  A palate redolent of crunchy red-fruits, aromas of plum and quince emerge from the glass as the wine warms.  Impeccably balanced, the aromatic volume is cranked up for the Pinot Noir dominated finish.  Superb, but a real baby that is currently hovering around the 92/100 mark.  Should start drinking well from around 2021 until around 2032.