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.
23-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.
Once 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.
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.