There is something magical about tasting champagnes in France’s Champagne region. The people live and breathe the effervescent wine. They speak of their ancestry, their history, the wines, saints and God with equal reverence. Nowhere was that more evident than at my recent visit to Champagne Drappier following the International Wine Tourism Conference in Reims, France.
Meeting the Drappier Family
I arrived in the village of Urville on a cool, drizzly spring day after a 90-minute drive from Reims. Urville is in the middle of champagne country. Vineyard-covered hillsides, broken only by the chalky white rock that helps create the unique qualities of Champagne, were originally planted with vines in the early Middle Ages. This area was first seriously developed for its wines after the arrival of Saint Bernard in 1116. He brought Morillon Noir grapes with him from Burgundy, the predecessor to today's Pinot Noir.
The beautiful Drappier estate is the core of Champagne Drappier. It was originally constructed in 1152 by Saint Bernard, then rebuilt after a massive fire destroyed most of Urville in 1836. I could feel the history and the march of previous generations of wine makers surrounding me.
Michel Drappier greeted me, dashing in his blazer and scarf, draped in only the way French men seem to master. I felt as if I had entered a great home and was made to feel part of the family, particularly when André Drappier, Michel’s father, joined us. The senior Drappier, turning 89 this year, remains a presence at the house each day. “He is my best and worst customer,” jokes the younger Drappier. “He drinks a bottle of Champagne every day, but he never pays.”
While the senior Drappier remained in the tasting room by the roaring fire, we made our way down stone stairs into the heart of Champagne Drappier. The land became part of the family in 1808, but the cellars were originally constructed in 1152 as an annex of Clairvaux Abbey. At the time, the French kings demanded the best wines and those came from the hillsides of Champagne. At the time of Saint Bernard's death, they were producing more than 600,000 liters of wine annually. Those very wines were kept in the same cellars where the Drappier Champagnes sit today. Clairvoux Abbey became a prison during the Napoleonic years and went through many transitions. The Drappier family bought the cellars following World War II and they now hold some of the family's best champagnes.
Exploring a Grand Tradition
Walking through the cellars, cooled by the chalky ground that encompasses them, I am thrilled by all the bottles of the lovely liquid, all in different stages of aging and fermentation. As Michel Drappier describes the process, it is obvious that the passion for wine runs through his blood. As he tells of how they create the “liqueurs of dosage”—the small amount of sugar that is infused in different percentages to create the various types of champagnes—his eyes all but glow.
At Champagne Drappier, they cultivate small amounts of their own wines and add pure organic Martinique sugar before letting it mature for 20 years in oak casks to create the liqueurs of dosage. After 20 years, the liqueurs of dosage are stored in demijohns (large glass vessels). To create each champagne, they add less than a drop to create just the right concentration. This infinitesimal quantity, however, is one of the key ingredients in the outstanding champagnes of Drappier house.
Drappier uses a variety of casks to help age their wines to perfection. Two of their wines, including the Grande Sendrée that I tasted (see below), are placed in barrels made of Allier (France) oak trees for part of their aging so that there is no overt oakiness. They also use oval and ovoid casks for their wines that help to create some of the best champagnes I tasted on my trip.
Champagne Drappier has a rare Ovum oak barrel shaped like an egg. This is considered the ultimate shape for aging wine. That wine will be ready for distribution in 2017. I look forward to trying it, but it will be pricey. There is only a limited quantity of the champagne in this unique barrel—and Drappier only has one of these barrels that sells for around 30,000 € each.
The second fermentation takes place in the bottle for all sizes from the half-bottle upwards. Drappier is known for offering some very large bottles of its champagne, including the Melchizedek that contains 30 liters.
Michel Drappier, his father and one of his children have allergies to the sulfites usually found in champagnes. In an effort to reduce the sulfites, Drappier uses only certain types of grapes to create lower—and in one of their labels, no—sulfites. Drappier is also striving to be completely organic. One third of their vineyards are certified organic. The remaining vineyards use organic methods, including natural composts. There is no filtration of the wines, fermentation is at lower temperatures over a longer time, creating smaller bubbles and an exquisite champagne.
The Grapes of Champagne
The wines of Champagne changed dramatically following both World War I and the destruction of vines due to phylloxera. It was then that the beautiful Pinot Noir was introduced to the region, when a Pinot Noir vine derived from Pinot Fin was planted.
Today, although there are seven official grape varieties of the Champagne Appellation, most growers only plant Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Drappier, however, grows all seven varieties: 70% Pinot Noir, 15% Chardonnay on the east-facing slopes, 13% of Pinot Meunier, and the remaining 2% divided between Blanc Vrai (Pinot Blanc), Petit Meslier, Arbane (an extremely rare indigenous grape variety) and Fromenteau or Pinot Gris.
Tasting the Wines of Champagne Drappier
I could have stayed wandering the cool caves and listening to stories all day with Mr. Drappier, except that the desire to taste drove me back above ground to the tasting room. As I settled in next to the fire, I tasted several different labels. There’s something about that subtle pop of the champagne cork that makes my mouth water. It was late morning as that first cork popped and I thought of the message I had received many years ago from the French manager of a lovely British inn outside of London: “There’s never a bad time for champagne.” Especially true when it is Drappier.
We tasted several wines, but my two favorites were the Quattuor Cuvée and the Grande Sendrée. The Quattuor Cuvée is a rare Champagne made from the “forgotten” varieties—25% Arbane, 25% Petit Meslier and 25% Blanc Vrai—along with 25% Chardonnay. This is a very low sulfite wine, it is not filtered, they use gravity to transfer the wine from vats to lower oxidation and they use only low pressure mechanical presses. They use alcoholic fermentation for two weeks, followed by total and natural malolactic fermentation. After bottling, the champagne ages for at least three years. The aromas of crisp citrus and honeyed apples brought to mind a warm summer day filled with flowers and breezes. It had a lovely minerality and the fine bubbles make this an ideal champagne for a hot day. It is served at 44.6°F making it ideal for an aperitif, but it would also be lovely with seafood.
The best wine we tasted during my visit at Drappier was the Grande Sendrée, a unique blend created following the massive fire in the area in 1836. The scorched ground, with more than a foot of ash covering a once wooded area, became the perfect vineyard for Drappier. Michel Drappier's great-great grandfather planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the scorched land and decided to name the magnificent wine it produced “cindered earth”. However, he was not an astute speller and replaced the correct spelling (Cendrée) with the still-used Sendrée.
Grande Sendrée is made only from the juices of the first pressing (the cuvées) and they use low-pressure mechanical presses. There is minimal sulphur, they use gravity to transfer the wines from vats to lower oxidation and there is no filtering of this magnificent champagne. The alcoholic fermentation is two weeks, total and natural malolactic fermentation with 9 months maturation in the very best oak barrels. After it is bottled, it ages for at least six years. Drappier ages it in the very best casks and it shows in the complexity of the wine. It again has very fine bubbles, a gorgeous golden color and there is a deep richness to this champagne.
Grande Sendrée has a toasty aroma with hints of citrus and white peaches. It is an elegant wine, one frequently enjoyed by heads of state visiting the French president. It is served at 44.6°F and makes a perfect aperitif, but would be lovely with a chicken dish. This champagne retails in the US for about $130.
Although I didn’t get a chance to try the Rosé Brut during my visit, the Drappiers sent me home with a bottle of it. This 100% Pinot Noir is a lovely pink, created with the “Saignée method” in which the crushed grapes are soaked with the skins, seeds and stems for three days. There is no mechanical pumping, no filtering and minimal sulfites in this champagne. It ages for two to three years after bottling.
The aromas of strawberries is the first thing you experience when drinking this champagne, but there is a touch of spice and hint of cherry from the Pinot Noir grapes. There is a 7.5 grams/liter dosage that gives it a lovely freshness and it has the classic Drappier small bubbles. This is such a complex champagne, making it quite versatile. It is perfect to sip as an aperitif, but would be ideal with a spring salad (my mouth waters thinking of spring greens with strawberries and goat cheese) or with a grilled salmon. Definitely one of my favorite champagnes. It retails in the US for about $56.
If You Go…
Exploring the Champagne countryside in France is one of those “must-do” items during your life. A visit to Champagne Drappier will be a highlight. The tasting room in Urville is open Monday through Saturday, closed on Sunday and holidays. The tasting is 5 €. They offer visits in French, English, German and Spanish.
Rue des Vignes
10200 URVILLE France
+33 (0)3 25 27 40 15