Nicolas Jaeger: 'one of the real points of difference for our Champagne is that we ferment the base wine in small oak barrels'
The fourth generation of his family making The Society's Champagne Brut, Nicolas was named Winemaker of the Year by the renowned French wine publication the Guide Hachette des Vins. We asked him what it felt like to receive such an award and how he is carrying on his family's fine tradition in the cellars of Alfred Gratien.
1. How did you feel about winning this award? It is a fantastic achievement and recognition of your work. Were you surprised?
Nicolas and father, Jean-Pierre
Yes, I was surprised because as you know in Champagne we have great winemakers and to be recognised among them was a great honour for me and a reward for all the work done at Alfred Gratien over four generations of my family.
2. What sort of effect will this award have on you as a winemaker and on Alfred Gratien as a business?
For me, it is a reward that pushes me to keep on doing our best at Alfred Gratien. I have my family tradition to uphold! We have had a lot of compliments and not only in France and I hope that this will strengthen our image – we are actually not so well known as you might think and are a relatively small Champagne house.
3. Talking of keeping up the family's good name, how was it for you taking over from your father and knowing that you had to keep up the reputation of your family and Alfred Gratien? Did you feel a great pressure?
Nicolas inspecting the lees (sediment) in a bottle of Champagne
When I became chef de cave in 2007 I knew that upholding the quality of our wines was a duty that I had to rise to. Traditional Champagne production at Alfred Gratien has been in our family for generations. My great-grandfather, Gaston Jaeger, became the first chef de cave here in 1905. I'm fortunate to have a father who helped me a lot and I had a lot of experience of watching my father work since I was a small boy. I am also lucky to have directors of the company that put their trust in me because I think my success would not be possible without our teamwork.
4. Have you introduced new ideas yourself or are you keeping everything as traditional as possible?
I want to retain the DNA of our Champagne house as what we do is a little different from everyone else and that's what makes us stand out. For example, we ferment the base wine in barrels and we don't let malolactic fermentation occur (where the sharp malic acids are turned into softer lactic acids).
But on the other hand, I also want to keep on upgrading our quality. In order to have great wine you need great grapes so I have been working on sourcing even better quality grapes, increasing the percentage of grands crus and premiers crus grapes by 50% in the last 10 years.
I have also carried out work on the processes in the cellar too. So, for example, I have stopped using the second pressing of grapes since 2007 so that we just use only the best first-pressed juice for the wine. We have installed a temperature and humidifying system in the barrel cellar to optimise conditions for fermentation and I have developed a new style of liqueur d'expédition (the wine added to top up the bottle after the plug of sediment is removed before the bottle is sealed), and finally, I am working on some other projects for the future. There is always more to do!
5. You are renowned for your 'quality-first' approach but how are you different from other Champagne houses in this respect?
What singles us out is the high percentage of grands and premiers crus grapes that go into our classic brut wine (The Society's Champagne Brut). Also, using barrels for the first fermentation of the wine is a point of difference. It allows a micro-oxygenation to take place, bringing a degree of complexity while also respecting the fruit character.
Unlike most Champagne houses, Alfred Gratien use corks to seal the bottles as they age rather than crown caps, adding to the complexity of the wine
We are also unusual in that we age our Champagne bottles with cork stoppers not crown caps like other producers. This too allows for a little further micro-oxygenation to take place adding even more character in the wine.
Then, only using first pressings for the wines carrying the Alfred Gratien name, preventing malolactic fermentation from taking place (so as to keep the freshness and fruitiness in the wine) and last but not least, as with all good things, it's a question of time. We give our wines a minimum of four years on the lees (the yeasty sediment that is produced as a result of fermentation) for a brut classique and more than 10 years for other cuvées.
6. How do you manage to maintain the relationships with the growers in Champagne and persuade them to sell their grapes to you rather than other houses?
Most people forget that Champagne is a wine and there is no good wine without good grapes. Our winegrowers are the partners who contribute to our quality. This is why we have a very close relationship with them. Because we ferment in barrels it allows us to ferment and age every single batch of grapes separately so we mark every barrel with the name of the village and the name of the grower, this way every grower can come to taste the result of their work by tasting in January the base wine produced with its own grapes. All of them come!
7. Have you noticed changes in ripeness of grapes due to climate change?
It must be confessed that what we are noticing is that, on average, the time of the grape harvest is getting earlier. We must all of us try to find solutions to stop global warming but with regard to the quality of the wines up to now we have much more to gain than to lose given our position in the north of France!
'There is no good wine without good grapes…'
8. Are organics/biodynamics becoming more common in the vineyards of Champagne? How do you feel about this?
Yes they are increasingly being talked about. For me I think we must go towards a sustainable and reasoned viticulture and today I can guarantee that we do everything to push our growers to go in this direction.
9. And what about the future? I know you have children, are they showing any interest in following papa around the winery?
The future, now that's a good question!
My 17-year-old daughter is studying in a completely different field but she loves Champagne and helps us regularly in our own family vineyards. My 11-year-old son does not know yet but I will do the utmost to make him choose this fine job; he is also joining us when we work in our vineyards during the summer holidays and again during the harvest when there is no school. We are keeping our fingers crossed!
Read our Champagne Guide