Our two enterprises have much in common. We could both be described as unusual, unique, even, in our respective fields, sharing a certain independence of spirit, and an obsession with quality. We share a belief that suppliers, whether they grow grapes or make wine, are indistinguishable from customers and we care passionately about both. We've supported each other through two World Wars, economic upheaval and, most recently, a pandemic. You could call it a symbiotic relationship but it's more than that. It's quite literally a mutual admiration society. Says Marcel Orford-Williams, who ought to know with his long tour of duty as Champagne buyer, 'I don't think there is another Champagne house quite like Gratien where relationships are so personal and so close. It makes it perfect for an importer like The Society'.
The world has altered beyond recognition since the eponymous Alfred, an ambitious twenty-something opined that 'Champagne should be to wine what haute-couture is to fashion'. That his legacy is unchanged owes much to an extraordinary family of cellarmasters, at the heart of winemaking here for four generations, and ensuring, from father to son, that Gratien Champagne is bespoke, not ready-to-wear. It is fairly safe to say that our Champagne is one of the few still made as it was over 100 years ago and, as such, offers exceptional value for money.
In 2007, the baton was handed to current chef de cave Nicolas Jaeger, great-grandson of founding father Gaston. Like his ancestors, he learnt his craft from his father, serving a 17-year apprenticeship working at his side before taking over the reins in his turn. Nicolas, rather modestly says, given the number of winemaking awards he has won, 'I feel confident in what I am doing as I am simply repeating the techniques I have been shown by my father and his father before him.'
It's worth reminding ourselves of what else makes The Society's Champagne Brut so special. Starting with the raw materials, the company has just a couple of hectares of vineyard holdings, sourcing the majority of their grapes only from dedicated growers in premier and grand cru vineyards, another symbiotic relationship, cemented by regular tastings between oenologist and viticulturalist and going back several generations. Each parcel is vinified and labelled separately before blending. Only the cuvée, or first and purest pressing of juice, goes into the 1,000-plus French oak barrels that once held white Burgundy. Fermentation in oak is an unusual approach in Champagne, with Krug the only other house that does this, but it's precisely the slow and steady ingress of oxygen that creates the subtle richness on the palate we've come to expect.
Equally atypical is the avoidance of malolactic fermentation, the acidity-buster of choice that makes Champagne drinkable and saleable much sooner in its evolution. That would please most finance teams but Gratien's has learned the value of patience. The Society's Brut is matured for more than three times the minimum ageing period required by the appellation – 48 months in total, in a cool, dark dormitory carved out of the region's famous chalk.
The Society's current Champagne buyer, Sarah Knowles MW, who took on the Champagne portfolio for us in 2017, talks about having the rare luxury of tapping into the memory banks of her predecessors in the role, from outgoing Head of Buying, Sebastian Payne MW to current boss, Pierre Mansour. Intensive tastings with the Jaegers loom large for all of them.
Marcel remembers the vivid deconstructions that took place between December and February of every painstakingly vinified cru, often with its vigneron (the person who grew the grapes) present. He also recalls how the Gimmonets, one of our go-to Grower Champagne sources would relish the instructive, always respectful comparisons between their own bottlings and the wine made at Gratien from the same plot of vines. Indeed, another aspect that marks Gratien out is the respect in which they are held by the grape growers. They were the only Champagne house asked to submit their wines to an inaugural tasting of Grower Champagnes when this movement first took off nearly a decade ago. In fact, Les Artisans de Champagne, as the group is called, even asked Gratien if they would like to become members.
A comparison Pierre will never forget was a tale of two closures: a 1992- bottled under the more usual crown cap and the same vintage under a cork stopper that continued that gentle micro-oxygenation from barrel to bottle. The wine under cork had evolved so much more evenly and harmoniously that it tasted wholly different from its crowned counterpart, with a 'wonderful aromatic nose, textured and broad'.
It seems that similarly good advice is on hand for new recruits to Gratien too. When he took the reins as CEO in 2002, Olivier Dupré recalls being told by old-hand Alain Seydoux to think of The Wine Society not as a customer but as a friend. He was not to worry about what Marcel, famously tight-lipped when tasting, or any of us might be scribbling in our notebooks, just 'give them the best!'. Olivier is still doing that at our tastings, pouring a dash of pride into every member's glass.
In an industry where it's all too easy to slap a house label on a mass-produced fizz, The Society's remains the hand-crafted Champagne it has always been: a blend of all three classic grapes with the emphasis on chardonnay, and equal parts pinot noir and pinot meunier, with a generous dollop of older reserve wines to maintain the balance and finesse that hits the spot, year-in, year-out.
But perhaps the most eloquent expression of this extraordinary relationship is to be found in the glass. If you haven't yet sampled the benefits of long-term friendship, we urge you to let The Society's Champagne do the talking.
We're confident that it's one bubble you'll want to join us in forever.