Text Size:-+
01.03.2009

Alfred Gratien Champagne, Epernay, France: Current Releases

gratien_logo.jpgThe 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.

TASTING NOTES:

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?

Comments (10)

Dylan wrote:
01.04.09 at 9:09 AM

Lately most people describe value wines as those which offer a higher quality than their price tag demands. Though it may just be a question of semantics, I disagree with the recent pattern of conversation regarding "wine value" by this definition. I believe a value wine is one which offers quality at the price demanded (be it high or low). Sad, but true, quality is an independent variable, distinct from price in it's own regard.

That independent trait is what makes the difference between a quality or "value" $6 wine and a low-quality $6 wine. Anyone who has explored this end of the price spectrum I'm sure has run across both. However, that quality is somewhat limited to the $6-$10 level; even the highest quality or "value" $6 wine isn't usually able to match with, for example's sake, a $50-$60 bottle.

I'm a firm believer in you get what you pay for. Not that it's always the case, but that it should be the case, that this is the responsibility of those who sell a product for a higher price. They are held responsible for matching their quality to the price level demanded, if not out of obligation to their own passion, out of obligation to not fail as product and become uncompetitive in a higher price market.

In a year ahead where many are making predictions falling toward majority purchases of "value wines" by the earlier definition, I still believe there is room for the type of value found in this post. In my mind, value is worth, and as long as what is sold is worth every penny, that's value to me.

Lisa Mattson wrote:
01.04.09 at 9:30 AM

Thanks for bringing attention to the often-forgotten little houses of Champagne. We import the wines of Champagne Delamotte in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and we were just talking last week about what a challenge it is to bring awareness to smaller houses when so much focus has been traditionally put on the big houses and now the grower Champagnes. Wonderful producers like Alfred Gratien or Delamotte don't have the budgets to buy big ads -- or produce stylish furniture and hand bags (nor would they want to). But the big guys make a lot of noise, so it's easy for the little houses to get lost. Thank you for telling their stories.

MODman wrote:
01.04.09 at 10:07 AM

Alder...

Thank you so much for your participation in the Menu for Hope. Your heart for the children of Lesotho will not go unnoticed.

I have posted that my readers (a very small flock) should leave you a comment of thanks on your blog. You need to hear how much you are appreciated.

Thank you so much.

Mike wrote:
01.04.09 at 5:48 PM

Great report. Any Nor Cal locations to buy them? Would love to try

Thanks again

Colman Stephenson wrote:
01.05.09 at 11:23 AM

Alfred Gratien have supplied Champagne to the UK's wonderful Wine
Society for a few generations now.

Many people can remember there first taste a quality champagne: one
which demanded to be treated as a proper wine.

Mine was Gratien 1983 which I opened in 2005 when I passed my
professional exams. It was amazingly fresh and lively, as well as
delicious.

UK Champagne Lovers should join The Wine Society for access to Gratien
at excellent prices. For example Cuvee Paradis Rose is going for GBP
39.00 (vs $130 quoted by Alder).

Bill Brinton wrote:
01.05.09 at 5:26 PM

May I post a great recipe that goes with champagne? Simple, easy and quick to prepare and it wonderfully has smoky, nutty salty flavors that stimulate thirst and is a great 'starter' with champagne

Wolfy wrote:
01.06.09 at 9:15 AM

Alder, I love Champagne and Gratien is among my favorites, but I can't help noticing that wine importers in the US are marking up pretty heavily, especially on Champagnes. In Italy I can easily find the Brut Classique for EUR 35 ($46) and the Cuvee Paradis Rosé for EUR 77 ($102) including taxes.

Sherry wrote:
01.15.09 at 4:48 PM

@Dylan - usually price does match with quality. For example if your want a very nice car lets say an Astin Martin you are going to have to pay the price for this "quality" in engineering. You will not see the same build quality of car compared to an Astin Martin at a price of £10,000 whereas the Astin Martin costs ten times more at £100,000

However sometimes with items that are not understood by everyone and for example we can take wine, business sales people can pitch the product at a certain price to give the impression of being high quality and infact once th big price has been paid a poor wine can taste like a very good wine purely from a phycological point of view.

Infact some did a test by poring some low value wine into an empty bottle of top quality wine and selling it at a restaurant and all you could hear was the customers saying "marvelous, marvelous"

So there is a clear distinction between percieved quality and real quality in relation to price.

Per wrote:
06.02.11 at 5:57 PM

I Have a Alfred Gratien vintage 1969 in my winecellar, and it has been stored in good conditions since the beginnings of the eighties, before that I don´t know. What do you think? Is it possible that the wine is ok? And what do you think of the value of the bottle?

Per

Alder wrote:
06.02.11 at 10:11 PM

Dunno the value of the bottle, but it's unlikely you'd be able to sell it to anyone anyway, so you should just open it up, and if it's good, drink it.

Comment on this entry

(will not be published)
(optional -- Google will not follow)
Yes
 

Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Buy My Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Facebook Pinterest Instagram Delectable Flipboard

Most Recent Entries

Tallying the Damage from the Napa Quake Vinography Images: A Sea of Blue Vinography Unboxed: Week of September 14, 2014 The Taste of Something New: Introducing Solminer Wines Vinography Images: Swift Work Social Media Answers the Question: Where Did Australian Wine Go Wrong Hourglass, Napa Valley: Current and Upcoming Releases Drought Problems? Just Have an Earthquake Vinography Images: Just One Vinography Unboxed: Week of September 1, 2014

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo, Toyama Prefecture Wine.Com Gives Retailers (and Consumers) the Finger 1961 Hospices de Beaune Emile Chandesais, Burgundy Wine Over Time The Better Half of My Palate 1999 Királyudvar "Lapis" Tokaji Furmint, Hungary What's Allowed in Your Wine and Winemaking Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Appreciating Wine in Context The Soul vs. The Market 1989 Fiorano Botte 48 Semillion,Italy

Archives by Month

 

Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.