And right in the thick of it:
And right in the thick of it:
It has been home to the Champagne wine cellar since as early as 1864. And a real one of a kind, as Nicolas Jaeger is aware, who readily leads the visitors through a large wooden door into the cellar of the building. As is an everyday occurrence for the winemaker, all of the guests’ thoughts about the inconspicuous courtyard outside in the fog fade away in an instant. Whilst their wide-eyed gaze falls on the countless wooden barrels stacked up in neat rows, the sweet-sour smell of young wine fills the room and their noses. “Those who want to understand why Alfred Gratien is not just another Champagne amongst many, have to start her,” explains Nicolas Jaeger whilst walking through the rows. There are more than a thousand barrels here, each one of them labelled — sometimes two or even three letters decorate the warm wood. What, to laymen, sound like unknown travel destinations according to their airport codes, are abbreviations for the wines contained in the barrels. Jaeger knows them all, not just by name but also by taste. He knows about their characteristics and the origin of their peculiarities. “The grapes for our wines, which form the basis of the Alfred Gratien Champagne, are exclusively obtained from a thirty kilometre circumference around Épernay. They come from the Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne regions,” explains Nicolas Jaeger, who has been managing the premises as part of the fourth generation since 1990, and has therefore followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. “These wooden barrels fascinated me even as a child,” recalls the 44-year-old, who makes sure that everything is in order on a daily basis — even on weekends — takes samples, tests the smell of the wine and, finally, lets the taste of the wine melt in his mouth — knowing full well that it is still a long road to the perfect Champagne.
Before the wines are processed further, they age for six months in the oak barrels — and completely without malolactic fermentation, in order to preserve the aroma of the grapes as fully as possible. Every year, 250 000 bottles of champagne are bottled here. What initially sounds like a considerable number, is later put into perspective upon comparison with another Champagne wine cellar in Épernay, that produces up to 32 million bottles annually. “Champagne from Alfred Gratien is and remains something special, not a mass-produced product,” explains Nicolas Jaeger, emphasising the philosophy of the traditional company that has belonged to the Henkell & Co. group since the year 2000. In doing so, there was a conscious choice made in favour of a brand that places quality at the top of its priorities, a brand where you search in vain for the large production hall, and even one where things take place like they would in a factory but where — yes, you heard correctly — only four colleagues work alongside Jaeger. The Cuvées that result from the wines during the second processing step ultimately age for at least four or five years in their bottles before restaurants and selected distributors can offer them as Alfred Gratien Champagne. To better understand this process, the visitors firstly have to go back outside, quickly through the courtyard and through the long-forgotten fog and into the second building, into the lift and down into the depths. More precisely: 18 metres underground. It doesn’t take long for your eyes to become accustomed to the semi-darkness, but yet you rub them an unbelievable amount of times upon entering the champagne cellar. 1.5 million bottles — or better: five years — of champagne are stored here, inserted into wooden racks almost upside down, in kilometre-long corridors that even reach all the way under the premises of the neighbouring wine cellar. The bottles are rotated by hand or machine at regular intervals, so that their contents slowly turn into sparkling Alfred Gratien Champagne. This fermentation process has long been completed for a row of very special bottles, which — covered with a white chalky layer of dust — were bottled as early as 1967 or even 1945. “Our little museum,” smiles Nicolas Jaeger modestly — and is, indeed, visibly proud of the fact that he is a wine maker for Alfred Gratien.
When you ask him, Nicolas Jaeger doesn’t take long to consider what the best occasion is to open a bottle of champagne. “Champagne is drunk upon victories and defeats, in sun and rain, because of love and in times of sorrow,” laughs the Frenchman, for whom not a day goes by without a glass of Alfred Gratien. “Our champagne is unbelievably versatile. Imagine a dinner: A different champagne is served with each course, perfectly matched to the dish. You will be wowed by the different flavours,” he gushes passionately.
So beautiful and so impressive? It would have been impossible to have imagined a trip to the Champagne region such as this one.