Given that the basic concept of Champagne is to maintain consistency of the product by evening out vintage variation by blending, one tends to think of Champagne as a bit static in its approach. A visit to Michel Drappier gave me a different perspective, when I visited last week as part of research to update my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of Champagne.
Located on the Côte de Bar, well south of the main area of Champagne, and in fact closer to Chablis than to Reims, Drappier seems to occupy the center of Urville with a large group of buildings off the main road. Driving from Troyes to Urville along the Route Touristique de Champagne gives a rather different experience from, say, driving along the Côte de Blancs south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs gives the impression of a monoculture of vines on gentle slopes: the Route Touristique along the Côte de Bar passes through more fields of sunflowers than vineyards, giving somewhat the impression of an alluvial valley. The vineyards in fact are along slopes a mile or so off the main road.
The visited to Drappier started with a trip out to his top vineyard, Grande Sendrée, in a fleet of old Citroens, led by the bright yellow Torpedo from the 1920s, followed by a 1930s model, and ending with the famous DS (which for me always brings Maigret to mind). The name of Grande Sendrée reflects its origins. A big fire in 1836 burned the whole village and the forest around. The ash was a good fertilizer so the area was planted with vines. Before phylloxera the village reached 370 ha, but now has only 170 ha. “This is an improbable place to make wine but it’s become iconic,” says Michel.
“Grande Sendrée is a terroir not a clos. The name comes from cinders, it should be Cendrée. But whoever made the mistake made our fortune, because it’s a monopole.” The particular feature of the soil is that the limestone was broken up so it has more clay and humus. “It’s Grand Cru Chablis soil with Pinot Noir from Burgundy to make Champagne,” Michel says. Grande Sendrée was one of the early single vineyard cuvées. “In 1974 we decided to make a separate vinification and wanted to have a separate cuvée, but it was an awful vintage so we did not declare it. The first release was 1975,” Michel explains. It’s usually produced every 2-3 years.
From the 5 ha of Grande Sendrée you can see back to Urville and some of Drappier’s other vineyards beyond the village. Michel points to a plot of Pinot Noir that is used to make a red Coteaux de Champenoise. Adjacent to it are plots of some old varieties, no longer much grown in Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. These are the basis for the unusual cuvée, Quattuor.
“Quattuor was almost a joke. I wanted to make a new Blanc de Blancs with no Chardonnay. I planned to have one third each of Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc, which I planted in 2000. The first crop was 2004, and the first release in 2007. The blend was too vegetal–it was like Sauvignon Blanc–and at the last minute we decided to add Chardonnay. So now it has one quarter of each. Pinot Blanc gives fat and texture, Chardonnay gives balance and makes it all come together. Some years Arbane dominates, some years Petit Meslier.”
“We blend and press Arbane and Petit Meslier together, the others are made separately. The total surface of Arbane in Champagne is 1.6 ha, and we have 0.6 ha, so we are the largest producer of Arbane in Champagne. I found out why my father and his generation spent 30 years pulling it out, you work for nothing. But it’s elegant. We don’t produce Quattuor every year because I want to have one quarter of each cépage.”
“My father is very experimental and is always trying things,” says Charlene Drappier, as she takes us round the cellars, which date back to 1155 and were built by St. Bernard (who left Burgundy to found the abbey of Clairvaux). St. Bernard is supposed to have brought Morillon (a possible ancestor of Pinot Noir) from Burgundy. “So we have 800 years of Pinot Noir in the house,” Charlene says. “The cellars are made of Kimmeridgian limestone, so the vines grow on Kimmeridgian limestone and the bottles mature in it.” One experiment manifested itself in a wooden “egg,” in which the wine is supposed to mature with a natural movement of fluid that in effect keeps it in contact with the lees without any battonage.
After visiting the vineyards and cellars, we tasted through the range. Quattuor makes a sophisticated impression with faint herbal overtones. Michel says this release is dominated by Petit Meslier. Later in the week, at Champagne Duval-Leroy, we taste an unusual 100% Petit Meslier, which shows a distinctive herbal spectrum; you can see why it adds complexity in a blend. Drappier’s Millésime Exception from 2012 is quite different. “For Millésime Exception the idea is the vintage not the terroir. It has to reflect the weather of one season. It is chosen from lots in the cellars, not by picking–the other cuvées are chosen in the vineyard—but for Millésime we choose those wines that are an especially good reflection of the vintage.”
Grande Sendrée 2008 is not so much overtly rich as simply full of flavor. The Grande Sendrée rosé is unusual for its perfectly integrated red fruits. For me, obvious red fruits give a rosé a disjointed impression, but this is a rare case in which they really integrate to make a characterful wine. And then there is the Charles de Gaulle cuvée, faintly toasty, showing the typical body of Pinot Noir, which certainly dominates, with an impression more towards stone fruits than citrus. “The Charles de Gaulle cuvée is named for the general because he was a customer in the sixties, but not a big one. We would have preferred to have had Winston Churchill. That is probably why Pol Roger is a major house and Drappier is a small one,” Michel says wryly. Dosage is modest on all the cuvées. “My father used to have 13 g dosage, when I began it was 12 g, then it came down to 11 g, and from the nineties to 2005 it was 9 g. Now it’s always under 7g,” Michael says.
We wound up with a wine that had been matured under the sea. This was Grande Sendrée 2005, placed under the sea at St. Malo for a year, and then retrieved to be sold as part of a charity event. It was very smooth and supple, with only the first touches of development. “I have done experiments to see what affects aging,” Michel explains. “I tried putting Champagne at altitude in the mountains, but altitude is not the answer, it ages very quickly in the mountains, so I thought I would try the opposite, under the sea. The idea was to see the effect of pressure. The temperature is 9-10C, the pressure is 2.5-3 bars, and of course there’s no light. So you lose less pressure. There’s a slight difference, for me it seems a little better after a year under the sea.”
Michel is on a constant quest to understand and control every aspect of his wine. The liqueur d’expedition is produced in house and matured for 15-20 years in oak vats and glass demi-johns, there is no transvasage and sizes up to 30 liters are matured in the bottle, and a new shape of bottle is about to be introduced with a narrower neck to reduce oxidative exposure. It’s all go.