The more good Champagne I have, the more it seems to me that you really get what you pay for. Unfortunately, what you have to pay for the really good stuff is out of the reach of most wine lovers, which was why I didn't like Champagne until several years after I started getting into wine.
Now I love it, but only because I've been able to taste Champagnes like these.
Alfred Gratien represents an interesting class of Champagne producer. When we speak of those who make Champagne, we most often talk about the Champagne "Houses" -- the massive brands who contract with sometimes hundreds of growers to produce very large quantities of bubbly -- and the "grower producers" who make what some call affectionately "farmer fizz."
There is a third category, however, that in more ways than one represents an earlier age in Champagne production. Before the big Champagne houses got so big, they were small. While they did not grow their own grapes (or at least not a majority of them) they made small lots of handcrafted Champagne with grapes from growers with whom they had long term relationships.
Champagne Alfred Gratien, founded in 1864, operates not only at the scale of these traditionally small houses, producing no more than about 22,000 cases of wine per year, but also maintains all of the handcrafted traditions that some of the larger houses have had to abandon over the years (Gratien was sold to a holding company in 2000, but has changed none of its practices or production levels as a result).
The estate gets its grapes from 65 different small farmers spread throughout the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne growing regions. In some cases, these farmers have had family relationships with the estate going back many decades. After meticulous hand harvesting in small lots, the grapes are crushed and fermented entirely in 228 liter barrels made of old French oak. This small-lot, barrel fermentation represents the traditional method of champagne production that is rarely practiced today, as most larger producers favor fermentation in steel for volume and ease.
In a similarly old-fashioned manner, the wine is never allowed to go through a secondary malolactic fermentation, but is instead carefully blended with older vintages (in the case of non-vintage wine) and put into bottles with the liqueur de tirage (the mix of sugar and yeast that produces the sparkling fermentation in the bottle) and closed with a wired cork. The use of a cork at this step is extremely unusual, time consuming and costly. The rationale for using a cork at this stage is much like using a cork at any stage -- the tiny amount of oxygen that the cork permits into the bottle helps to mature the wine.
The trouble is, however, that this cork closure comes with all the downsides of normal cork -- you have to remove it carefully by hand and you have to make sure that the wine is not corked. So after careful hand riddling (the process of turning each individual bottle to settle the yeasts and other sediment into the neck of the bottle) and three years of aging, each bottle must not only be opened and re-corked after adding the dosage (the mix of sugar and older vintage wine), but each needs to be tasted to make sure that it is not corked - a daunting task even at the estate's maximum production level of 250,000 bottles per year.
The estate's production is overseen by cellar master Nicolas Jaeger, who is the fourth generation of the Jaeger family to hold this title at Alfred Gratien. Under his guidance, the estate produces five non-vintage and one vintage wine of outstanding quality and distinction from the traditional blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes, many of which are organically, or at least "sustainably" farmed.
While they are made in small quantities and cost a pretty penny, these wines are most certainly worth the effort and the money required to experience them.
NV Alfred Gratien "Brut Classique" Champagne, Epernay, France
Pale blonde in the glass with fine bubbles , this wine has a remarkable nose of mineral, and striking hibiscus aromas -- a unique combination of floral and fruity qualities. In the mouth it is bright with a mineral acidity, very soft mousse, and beautifully yeasty warm bread quality that merges nicely with citrus elements as the wine lingers through a long finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. Where to buy?
NV Alfred Gratien "Brut Classique" Rose Champagne, Epernay, France
Pale salmon in color with very fine bubbles, this wine has a nose of old socks (in a good way) and redcurrant aromas. In the mouth it offers hints of berries amidst deeper more earthly flavors of wet chalkboard, and wet dirt. Excellent acidity floats the wine through a beautiful finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. Where to buy?
NV Alfred Gratien Blanc des Blancs Champagne, Epernay, France
Pale green-gold in the glass, this wine has a bright zingy nose of lemon juice and lemon zest aromas. In the mouth it is equally bright, with flavors of pink grapefruit and lemon zest with lovely accents of warm brioche in the very fine mousse that seems to linger quite long in the mouth. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $75. Where to buy?
1998 Alfred Gratien Millesime Blanc de Noirs Champagne, Epernay, France
Light gold in the glass with the tiniest of bubbles, this wine has a beautiful, ageless nose of warm brioche and rainwater aromas. In the mouth it is nothing short of phenomenal. Beautifully layered with core flavors of warm freshly baked bread and brewers yeast wrapped in an explosively tangy layer of citrus and brown sugar qualities that moderate to toasted white bread flavors on the very long finish. Outstanding. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $100. Where to buy?
NV Alfred Gratien "Cuvee Paradis" Brut Champagne, Epernay, France
Palest gold in color, this wine has a nose of toasted brioche and bright lemon and mineral aromas. In the mouth it is soft and airy with clear, bright flavors of lemon zest, and a beautiful yeasty quality that lingers beautifully on the palate for a long time. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $130.Where to buy?
NV Alfred Gratien "Cuvee Paradis" Brut Rose Champagne, Epernay, France
Pale salmon in color with extremely fine bubbles, this wine has a nose of wet wool and hibiscus aromas. In the mouth it is strikingly mineral and lean with hibiscus and rose hip flavors peeking around the edge of a remarkable stony core of the wine that maintains a presence in the beautiful finish. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $130.Where to buy?
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