Alfred Gratien: celebrating 160 years of tradition

Alfred Gratien has stuck more by champagne’s historical production methods than many, but it is also embracing modernity in the winery. Eleanor Yates reports on the latest from the house.

Tradition is an essential part of champagne production. From the traditional method of secondary fermentation in bottle to centuries-old regulations which have set standards industry wide, the image of champagne has arguably never been stronger.

Alfred Gratien, which sits under the Henkell Freixenet portfolio, takes its traditions seriously. Since 1864 the house has exclusively vinified its wines in oak, in small 228-litre barrels, and remains the only brand to do so. The winery has a little over 1,000 of them, both new and old barrels, some of which have held up to four harvests. Current cellar master Nicolas Jaeger is the fourth generation, which means for more than 100 years, winemaking at Alfred Gratien has been passed down from father to son, each maintaining the house style while adding their own character.

To celebrate 160 years, Drinks International visited the house in Épernay, where Jaeger explained that many of the barrels used come from Chablis. “They spend four or five years in Chablis then come to us. But this is finished now as it was on a rental basis.”

However, Jaeger adds: “It’s good for me because now I am doing three different experiments with three different coopers. One is using wood from the centre of France, which I don’t like as it’s too strong. I’m also trying wood from the west of France which I like, and one that’s local to Champagne with a medium-plus toasting level.”

Character preservation

Another tradition of Alfred Gratien is that the wines do not undergo malolactic fermentation, preserving the character of the fruit – something which only a handful of champagne houses still do. As for its vintage wines, Alfred Gratien uses traditional cork stoppers known as a bague carrée as it “allows a very slow supply of oxygen through, which is needed for the wine to develop properly while retaining its freshness,” Jaeger adds.

Alfred Gratien has 1.56ha of grand cru and premier cru vines and sources its grapes from around 60 winemakers. “We don’t work personally in our vineyards, we rent to a grower, but I’m a grower too, I have some Alfred Gratien vineyards,” says Jaeger.

“The Champagne region is approximately 23% grand cru and premier cru and our grapes come from 62% grand cru and premier cru, that’s why we are here. With the proximity it’s easier for me to keep a good relationship with our growers. Part of the growers are my family, part of them are my friends.”

As part of its 160th celebrations, the brand has introduced two anniversary wines – a Paradis Brut Rosé 2008 Vintage and a jeroboam version of its 2008 vintage. “2008 stood out within its decade for its ability to produce fine champagnes suitable for ageing”, says Jaeger, with maturation for the Brut and Paradis taking at least eight years in the cellars, up to multiple decades.

With annual production limited to 300,000 bottles, Alfred Gratien and its core range of wines are cherished by the trade, hence its inclusion in The World’s Most Admired Champagne Brands 2022. However, its new vintages, combined with Jaeger’s work with different wood from around France, are some of the ways in which Alfred Gratien is sticking by its traditions yet finding new ways to add character and keep its fans wanting more.