Grapevine Archive for January, 2010

Fri 22 Jan 2010

Ending one year and starting the New

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Quite unintentionally, the old year ended with a visit to Alfred Gratien in Epernay and was followed, a few days, and a couple of turkeys later by a visit to Gratien & Meyer in Saumur.

Visionary Alfred Gratien founded his company with its two distinctive areas of production in the same year in 1864 and a century and half later they both continue under the same dual management.

Some things have changed over the intervening years. New ownership bought much needed capital which was used wisely, firstly in the cellars. The Saumur site, built into a cliff face overlooking the Loire was in a desperate state with immense problems caused by subsidence. The site in Epernay needed a new lift shaft and both Saumur and Epernay have since benefited hugely from new equipment including new stainless steel tanks.

Gratien and Meyer in Saumur used to be vineyard owners but the decision was taken a few years ago to sell off the vineyards and this has allowed the company to buy grapes from further a field. It has allowed us for example to create our own blend of Celebration Crémant de Loire with a much lower percentage of chenin than before and as a result we have gained in finesse and delicacy. My visit in The New Year was about tasting the 2009 still wines and making the Society blend. This is now ready for bottling and for the second fermentation in bottle. After a year or so of ageing, this will be available for members to purchase, maybe just in time for the London Olympics!

Back in December it was pleasure to introduce The Society’s new chairman, Sarah Evans, to Champagne and at the heart of the experience was the visit to Alfred Gratien in Epernay. This was the occasion to taste wines from the 2009 vintage and it is without doubt the most interesting tasting experience that I can think off. In Champagne terms, Alfred Gratien is a small House though it has nearly doubled in size in the last ten years. It is run by Nicolas Jaeger who took over from his father a couple of years ago.

Historically Gratien owned no vines in Champagne but the new owners were quick to realise the strategic importance of being able to control as much grape production as possible and set about buying vines. Grape prices in Champagne are among the most expensive in the world, several times the price of grapes from Saumur vfor instance. The Jaeger family originated in the Marne Valley but Nicolas’ mother comes from Le Mesnil, a Grand Cru classified village with an outstanding reputation for chardonnay. Contacts is everything in Champagne and thanks to the Jaeger family’s networking skills, Alfred Gratien have been able to piece together a modest Domaine, first in Le Mesnil but more recently around Bouzy as well.

Champagne is about the sum of its parts. The skill of the blender, in this case, Nicolas Jaeger, is to know the vineyard and to be able to secure the best grapes. He then of course has to be able to make blend, drawing together different grape varieties and origins to make a coherent whole. The vineyard is classified as it is in Burgundy with the best designated Grand or premier cru. Gratien’s cellars and methods of vinification are perfect for the understanding of Champagne’s terroir as grapes are vinified separately in small 225l barrels of oak. Each origin is also kept separate so that we were able to taste chardonnay from Avize, Cramant, Vertus and of course Le Mesnil. The blend is finalised during the winter and the still wine is then put into bottle with addition of yeast and cane sugar in early spring. The Society’s Champagne will spend three years before disgorgement and a further four months or so before dispatch to Stevenage.

After tasting the still wines, it was time for the real thing which included the most recent lot of Society’s Champagne based on the 2006 vintage. This was most delicate and a sheer delight and I think members will love it. We tasted from a number of vintages and had a sneak preview of the 2002 which will be one of the stars of the exceptional vintage. But Alfred Gratien doesn’t like releasing their vintages to early and the 2002 still needs at least another year.

The fact that Alfred Gratien is more in control of its supply of grapes means of course that it has more wine to play with. Not everything goes into the main blend. What to do with the off-cuts? In the past these were sold off in bulk but now with so much coming from top vineyard sites it seemed sensible to hold on to them and process them differently and in a way that would reduce costs and create a less complex and lighter style Champagne which we call Albert Meyer after Alfred Gratien’s partner and eventual successor. It tasted admirably well and though lighter in style and rounder as it has much less chardonnay, it still showed off its high-born origins and Nicolas Jaeger’s winemaking skills.

Lightness is in fashion these days and for those who for whatever reason go further and need a sparkler without alcohol, Gratien and Meyer have the answer. This is of course not Champagne or even Saumur and is made from grapes bought from far and wide but it is delicious too and by the way has allowed Gratien and Meyer to by-pass French advertising laws that ban adverts on alcohol. If you are lucky and if you are ever in the Loire Valley in the spring you might catch a glimpse Of Gratien and Meyer’s balloon advertising their zero alcohol fizz which is called, appropriately enough, Festillant.

Categories : Champagne
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