It’s safe to say, we’ve rarely met a champagne we haven’t loved. But as we’ve delved deeper into the different houses and their comparable styles, we’ve discovered how seemingly subtle choices can have a profound effect on the finished product. In the case of Alfred Gratien, none are likely to question the House’s respected reputation as a top producer, and likely everyone will acknowledge its dedication to certain methods that have resulted in a truly distinct quality.
Épernay is ground zero for Champagne lovers. Its existence was born out of being the principal town from where Champagne is exported.
Just outside the centre of the city on Rue Maurice Cerveaux is where Alfred Gratien established his champagne house in 1864. Throughout its 158-year history, the Gratien family has managed to maintain ownership. While that fact alone is not particularly rare in ‘Old World’ wine regions, what we did find remarkable is that the family responsible for the winemaking at Alfred Gratien has been involved since 1905.
We had the good fortune of meeting current Chef de Caves (Cellar Master) Nicolas Jaeger for a few minutes before we toured the cellars.His humility and unpretentious nature are a common trait we’ve seen amongst top winemakers in the region where the terroir and finished product is the focus of marketing, not the name of the winemaker. Still, we were admittedly a little star-struck to meet someone of his reputation in the Champagne world and he couldn’t have been more gracious.
He proudly told us that he was the 4th generation of this family to be the Chef de Caves at Alfred Gratien and that it had never occurred to him to do anything else than follow in his father’s footsteps.
Literally born and raised among the local vineyards, Nicolas spent years learning firsthand from his father every task, decision, and result, that specifically goes into making Alfred Gratien Champagne, until it was his turn to takeover from his father in 2007.
We asked Nicolas about where he sources the grapes and he told us that while the House owns a couple of hectares of vineyards, most of the fruit they use comes from dedicated growers of premier and grand cru vineyards. Unsurprisingly, given the generational bond between the Gratien family and the Jaeger family, there is also a long and steady relationship with the growers they have used over several generations.
We stepped out of the tasting room with Hospitality Manager Melissa Coquel who began our tour by taking us across the courtyard and into the barrel room. It’s here where the conversation starts about the importance that wood plays in the unmistakable House style. Since its inception, Alfred Gratien has always done fermentation 100% in oak barrel, and is one of the only Champagne Houses that still does so today.
Melissa further explains that Alfred Gratien uses the barrels to age their wines much longer than the appellation requires, “Only the first pressing goes into barrel, and it spends at least 3 full years for non-vintage instead of the required 15 months, and 5-20 years for our vintage champagnes instead of 3 years. This longer type of ageing is for a deeper approach of style, and taste and complexity of wines.”
From the barrel room, we walk back across the courtyard and head down a steep set of stairs into their cellars. We stop at some riddling racks and ask whether riddling by hand is still done at Alfred Gratien or whether these are for display only, “We are attached to a certain form of transmission and tradition of Champagne in here. We are still riddling by hand 15,000-20,000 bottles [of 300,000 total bottles]…we choose to keep some of the traditional small batches of bottles produced to keep the method alive and keep transmitting it through the years.”
While Melissa believes that there is no definitive advantage between hand-riddling and machine riddling in terms of accomplishing its objective of getting the yeast sediment into the neck of the bottle before disgorging, there is a significant difference between vertical and horizontal bottle ageing.
They use vertical ageing for their vintage bottles and certain special batches of bottles sometimes offered as different from the main range of the winery. With vertical ageing, you don’t have the same amount of contact between the dead yeast and the wine.
“Horizontal [contact] is through the whole bottle, vertical is only in the neck. Because they are ageing vertically, we must riddle those bottles first because gravity is not enough—you can’t just put the bottle down and expect everything to collect to the neck because a champagne bottle isn’t straight. It has an elbow on the side and the finest deposits will stay stuck on the elbow, that’s why we have to riddle first and put to age second to make sure the bottle is correctly riddled, and all the dead yeasts are collected in the neck.”
This longer ageing is perfectly demonstrated by the batch of bottles she points out nearby that are from the 1998 vintage and are still not ready for release by Alfred Gratien standards.
Understanding firsthand the level of dedication to quality practiced at Alfred Gratien certainly set us up well for tasting their wines at the conclusion of our tour. It was our first time trying their wines and we were suitably impressed. The House style is genuinely distinct and one of remarkable complexity. The use of wood through the entire vinification process combined with the fact that they don’t do malolactic fermentation, leans toward a richer style that is both balanced and refined.
Alfred Gratien’s respect for tradition combined with its unwavering commitment to preserving the deep-rooted relationships with winemakers and growers over the past century and a half, has resulted in a consistency of style that is virtually unmatched.
Alfred Gratien NV Brut
This wine is based on the 2017 vintage. The blend is 50% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier. The first fermentation of the vin claires is done in neutral oak barrels which contributes to the wine’s body. This wine comes across as quite dry (7 grams/litre dosage) and strikes a lovely balance between roundness of texture and definition. Citrus notes dominate the flavour profile while bread dough, pastry and hints of green apple add additional layers. The wines do not go through malolactic fermentation. This is a very high quality NV Brut.
2015 Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis
This is the houses Tête de cuvée. It is a delicious blend of 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir.
In the glass it shows a lovely light gold colour and a fine mousse. We get notes of lemon curd, orchard fruit and hints of almond. This is a wine of great elegance and finesse. With a bit of air pear and melon notes join the mix and make for a very complex young wine. The finish is long and shows hints of green apple and good cut. There is subtle power to this wine which plays a secondary role to the elegance and shows its terrific balance. This is delicious right now but will surely gain even more complexity and finesse over a long life in the cellar.
2012 Alfred Gratien Brut Millesime
The blend for this vintage Champagne is 60% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Meunier and 15% Pinot Noir. A lovely minerality instantly strikes you palate, that evokes a blanc de blancs even thought there is 40% Pinot in the blend. Citrus notes are layered over hints of brioche. This wine is round and very approachable now.
30 Rue Maurice Cerveaux
51201 EPERNAY Cedex – France
T: +33 (0)3 26 54 38 20