Keeping the bubbles popping

News editor Joanna Goodman meets Olivier Dupré the man in charge at The Society’s longeststanding supplier, Champagne Alfred Gratien and Gratien & Meyer in the Loire

Olivier Dupré

Olivier Dupré will be a familiar face to many members who attend Wine Society tastings. The two companies of which he is CEO, Champagne Alfred Gratien in Epernay and Gratien & Meyer in the loire, have been supplying Wine Society members with bubbles since 1906. When Olivier took over in 2002, he was keen to carry on the traditions of the company.

Though Olivier was born and bred in Saumur – prime sparkling wine territory in the loire – he didn’t immediately enter into the wine trade. With a degree in electronics and post-graduate qualifications in sales and marketing, it was the computing industry which first attracted him. But he always had an interest in wine and during a business trip to Bordeaux, a friend in the wine trade invited him to Vinexpo, the huge wine-trade show held annually in the city. His eyes were opened for the first time to the true diversity and romance of wine. ‘I thought the wine world would be more interesting to work in than computers and keyboards. I was lucky, at that time it was much easier to find work, so quite shortly afterwards I started work with loire producer Ackerman.’ Olivier spent 14 years with the company working his way up to export director and acquiring along the way a deep love for sparkling wine including, of course, Champagne.

‘Our founder’s ambition when he started out more than 150 years ago, was to make Alfred Gratien the haute couture of Champagne.'

When the position came up to run Alfred Gratien and its sister company Gratien & Meyer in the loire, he was more than ready to take up the challenge. ‘Our founder’s ambition when he started out more than 150 years ago, was to make Alfred Gratien the haute couture of Champagne. It is safe to say that this was achieved and today it is one of the few companies left making Champagne in the same way as winemakers did 100 years ago. It was exciting to take on such a business and, together with the Saumur operation, respect all the rich traditions but help integrate new technology too.’

Gratien & Meyer jazz festival

In the summer Gratien & Meyer put on a jazz festival over several nights. Members are more than welcome to come along – take along a copy of The Society’s newsletter for free entrance!

Nicolas Jaeger, fourth-generation cellarmaster at Alfred Gratien, with his father Jean-Pierre Nicolas Jaeger, fourth-generation cellarmaster at Alfred Gratien, with his father Jean-Pierre

Epernay and Saumur are more than 450km apart so I was curious about the logistics of looking after the two businesses. ‘At first I used to make sure I visited Epernay at least once a week – the high-speed train line (TGV) means the journey is less than three hours. But the Jaeger family [cellar masters at Alfred Gratien] have been running the business for generations and know what they are doing. I can rely on Nicolas Jaeger, so I don’t visit so often now. Administration for both companies has always been done at Gratien & Meyer in Saumur.’

‘It’s important in our home market to innovate and this wine is doing very nicely for us in boutique wine shops.’

Olivier explained how the two companies have helped each other out with the exchange of knowledge and expertise: ‘When I employed Florence [Haynes] as oenologist at Gratien & Meyer, the first thing I did was take her to Epernay so that she could see how things are done there.’ They now produce a premium chardonnay/pinot noir Crémant de loire for the French market made in exactly the same way as Alfred Gratien Champagne with barrel fermentation, six months’ barrel ageing and a further nine months in bottle. ‘We’re very pleased with it,’ Olivier said, ‘it’s important in our home market to innovate and this wine is doing very nicely for us in boutique wine shops.’

New product development is not the sort of phrase you expect to hear from the producers of such classic products with long-held traditions, but Olivier explained the importance in the off-trade of reinvigorating your brand and making sure that the taste profile of your wines is still what consumers want.

One such innovation has made its way onto The Society’s list and that’s the no-alcohol fizz Festillant. Olivier explained how this product, the first of its kind in France, came about, ‘In France it is still the norm to serve sparkling wine as an aperitif when you arrive at a friend’s or in restaurants. Sales of sparkling wines were plummeting [something he attributes to much stricter drink-driving controls in France] and we needed a solution.’ Festillant has been a runaway success and now there is a range of flavours; the Mojito and grapefruit varieties are particularly popular in France, apparently. This side of the business has grown so quickly that it now represents a third of the business, ‘everyone has to have one good idea in their life,’ Olivier says. It seems rather a delicious irony that this man who loves his Champagne came up with the idea for non-alcoholic fizz and that it is bringing extra funding into the company to support the real thing!

Florence Haynes, Gratien & Meyer’s winemaker Florence Haynes, Gratien & Meyer’s winemaker

Something that both the Loire and Champagne houses have in common is the reliance on bought-in grapes. Sparkling wines are traditionally blends and sourcing the best grapes for the base wines is crucial for the final quality of the wine. In the loire the company owns no vineyards at all and much of Florence’s work is on the sourcing side; you need to know your region and growers extremely well. Gratien only works with chosen growers in Anjou and for our Society’s Saumur, it is the Loire’s signature grape, chenin blanc which predominates with a little of the red loire grape cabernet franc, adding a fruity edge to the wine.

Our Society’s Sparkling Saumur Rosé is made from a blend of cabernet franc with a touch of the more unusual loire red grape, grolleau, which adds roundness and charm. Both are fermented traditionally as in Champagne and then spend a further year ageing in bottle in the famous tufa cellars. For our Society’s Celebration Crémant de Loire 2013 , the rules determining the mix of grapes are a little more relaxed with no upper limit on the inclusion of ‘foreign’ grapes, such as chardonnay. Olivier tells me that they try to buy as much chardonnay as they can (it accounts for a mere three per cent of total plantings in the loire) and that they are one of only a few who source pinot noir for their blends. The final mix is made with The Society’s buyer (Joanna locke MW was involved in putting together the 2015 blend which we will see in two years’ time) and usually includes chenin blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet franc. This last grape forms the basis of the new Gratien & Meyer Crémant de Loire Rosé 2013 , plus a little chardonnay and grolleau, which Joanna Locke was so taken with when she visited the cellars that she decided to buy some for the current offer.

I asked Olivier if they were noticing the effects of climate change at all and whether the reds in particular were benefiting. ‘We have some surprises. This year, for example, we were eating lunch outside in November, it was 22°C! But in general, the differences are not that noticeable. I believe the work of the winemakers is a more important factor.’ Olivier says that these are really exciting times for the loire as they are seeing quality increasing every year, ‘2015 will be wonderful in the loire and Champagne,’ he added. Of course, we’ll have to wait another couple of years, or five in the case of Champagne, before we can taste the fruits of 2015.

Alfred Gratien 100 years Label to celebrate partnership with Alfred Gratien for 100 years

In Champagne, Alfred Gratien does own some vineyards, just two hectares, primarily in grand cru sites. ‘Over the last 10 years, little by little we have been trying to buy small plots of vines in the best areas, in le Mesnil and Bouzy, for example,’ Olivier told me, going on to explain the strategic purpose of such purchases: ‘To make good Champagne you need to secure grapes from the best premier and grand cru vineyards. We have good contacts with growers and we lease our vineyards to be worked by growers who already have vines in the best places. As well as the grapes from our vineyards they then also supply us with their own grapes, so for the two hectares we lease we are guaranteed a total of eight hectares in return.’ This goes some way to explain the quality behind our Society’s Champagne, which Olivier informs me is made from 50% premier and grand cru grapes.

'We make each grower’s wine separately and mark each of the 1,000 barrels in our cellar with the name of the grower and the village the grapes came from. In January we invite the growers to taste the wines. It’s a matter of pride for them.'

When I asked why the grape growers choose to sell their grapes to Alfred Gratien, Oliver explains, ‘It is partly the long relationship that the Jaeger family has with the growers, but the growers are essentially farmers; they want their grapes to be made into the best wines. Because of the way we work, using small oak barrels, we make each grower’s wine separately and mark each of the 1,000 barrels in our cellar with the name of the grower and the village the grapes came from. In January we invite the growers to taste the wines. It’s a matter of pride for them.’ And because of the way Alfred Gratien makes its Champagne they are even considered as growers, with the association that represents many, Les Artisans de Champagne, even asking them to become members!

What is clear is that the two houses, Alfred Gratien in Champagne and Gratien & Meyer in Saumur, under the watchful eye of their CEO Olivier Dupré, are in fine form. The traditions of the founders, Alfred Gratien and Albert Meyer, still live on, but a shrewd eye on the modern age means that the wines cannot fail to go from strength to strength.

Here’s to the next 110 years of enjoyment from the bubbles they produce!

The view from atop Gratien & Meyer’s cellars – where you climb up to go in!

The view from atop Gratien & Meyer’s cellars – where you climb up to go in!

March 2016

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