Disdain and Champagne

Vintage Gratien Champagne is one of the handful of advantages of being a member of the Wine Society as they are the UK agent and no one else sells it – although this is the Blanc des Blancs rather than the real vintage. One of the disadvantages of being a member of the Wine Society is that they flog all the good vintages of Gratien in en primeur offers these days.

I have to say I think it is pretty shitty of them to sell the best vintages of what could easily be thought of as a Wine Society staple by en primeur offer alone. This is mainly because it restricts a wine from the maximum number of Society members, who supposedly are all equal, from obtaining the best vintages because they are not on the open list.

Furthermore, when I read the T’s & C’s of the Gratien 2012 en primeur offer (I was more vexed I could not buy the 2008, but I wanted 2012 too) it made it clear that those with most cash to flash would get the most wine.

Repeat purchasers of previous en primeur offers, especially those ordering large amounts, would be given priority in the allocation. Well, fat chance of me being a repeat customer buying huge amounts because I am an unemployed lunatic who survives (and buys wine) with disability payments.

Then there is the fact that the minimum order size is a case of six bottles. Gratien is quite a keenly-priced wine at the Wine Society, but it is still a vintage Champagne and six bottles of them bloody well cost. The only wines I have managed to buy six packs of in recent years have been German Kabinetts that cost circa-£10 a pop (in bond). Again, it is those of us who lack cash who do not get a look in.

It is not just we people living in penury who do not get the chance to buy the best vintages of a Wine Society staple. Those experimenters who are not sure if they want six bottles and would rather try one bottle first. Tough titty matey. Those people who do not need six bottles and two will suffice for them. No, none will suffice. Anyone wanting to buy a friend a gift to show how good the Wine Society wines are to entice them into joining. You had better like that friend rather a lot because you will be giving them six bottles!

This is grotesquely unfair. Each member of the Wine Society owns a share and is supposedly afforded equal benefits of holding that share. Are they bollocks! If you want a good vintage of a type Wine Society wine – Gratien is the Society’s Champagne and the vintage version is just that: a vintage version of the Society’s Champagne – you have to cross their palms with a wodge of cash for at least one six pack months before the wine is delivered, if you want the best vintages.

I wrote to the Wine Society about this. They had a limit on the number of characters one could write in the feedback box, So I gave a condensed version of the above, and asked if unit sizes could be reduced to ease this manifest unfairness and followed it up with a simple question: Why cannot this Wine Society staple be put on the open list for everyone to buy?

The person who responded to me went into great length about how it would create an impossible amount of work to put individual bottles into members reserves and withdraw individual bottles on request. This was dodging my question.

I did not ask about putting bottles into member’s reserves. I wanted to know why people could not buy 1, 2, 3, 17… bottles and have them delivered to the member the moment they come into stock. I neither know nor care how many people use members’ reserves. I have never used them, I want to own my wine when I’ve paid for it.

Moreover, the argument is not true anyway. Lay and Wheeler allow one to order single bottles from a lot of their en primeur offers and will put them in storage for you or dispatch them when you ask them too. Last year I placed nine individual orders for single bottles of 2018 Kumeu River single vineyards (I could only afford one bottle at a time), and when they all arrived they collated those nine orders and sent them out to me with one delivery charge. It is not too much work for Lay and Wheeler!

My question about putting wine on the open list for everyone to buy was not answered for the simple reason that en primeur offers are a very easy and cheap way to sell wine.

With an en primeur offer you take orders and take money for those orders. This means you have the correct amount of money to buy the right amount of wine that has been ordered (plus overheads). If people only ordered ten six-packs, you have the money for ten six-packs, pay the supplier for ten six-packs and import them, get the customer to pay duty and VAT (if required) and either ship those ten six-packs or put some of them in the oh so terribly important members’ reserves. If you get orders for one hundred six-packs you have the money to buy that increased amount of wine.

Thus, en primeur offers mean the Wine Society is not trying to guess how many bottles will sell before the next vintage comes along and invest money in wine that might be hanging around for a year or two before it sells out. En primeur offers are cheaper and safer. This is why the person did not answer this question I raised.

It is not just the good vintages of wines like Gratien Champagne that the Wine Society sell en primeur. An ever increasing number of en primeur offers from them hit my email inbox all the time. For the reasons I have stated, these offers are unfair and do not allow the maximum of members the opportunity to buy wines that are only offered en primeur.

It may save the Wine Society time and money to only offer wines en primeur, but that excludes members from buying, and this strikes me as being completely against the ethos of a supposed cooperative where no one should be excluded from the possibility of buying as much or little of a wine the cooperative sells, as long as they can afford one bottle and the winemaker made enough.

So how can I be reviewing a good vintage of a Gratien Champagne? Well this is the 2012 Blanc des Blancs – this is a cheaper wine than the classic vintage blend. Moreover, Gratien make a limited amount of the vintage Blanc des Blancs, so even if the Wine Society were obliged to buy the whole of that year’s production, they would be buying only a small amount of wine. So on two counts, there is less cash risk to the Society offering the vintage Blanc des Blancs on the open list for everyone to buy. Nice to be offered a few crumbs brushed from the fat cats’ table.

So, 2012 is a good vintage, particularly in the Cote-des-Blancs (where Gratien have some good vineyards). It is not as good as 2008, but it is certainly a vintage worth acquiring especially in preference to the 2014 (that the Society are also offering, if they think your money is good enough for them…). Blanc des Blancs is literally white from the whites, or in less florid words: it is a white wine made from the only white grape of Champagne, Chardonnay.

Let us crack on!

Gratien Blanc des Blancs 2012 from the Wine SocietyChampagne Blanc des Blancs 2012, Alfred Gratien

Another en primeur offer arrived as I opened my Surface to write this note after the above rant yesterday. They are shameless.

This has a ripe, rich nose of lemon fruit, fizzing with life but quite full bodied. Almost lemon curd-y. There is an abundance of bready, toasty, biscuit-y characters as well. One could almost say there is a lemon meringue pie aspect to the nose, and I think that is quite a fun thing to say so I am sticking with it.

It is quite vinous. This may seem an obvious thing to say, but Champagnes, particularly Blanc des Blancs, are often quite a lot lighter in character to ‘normal’ wine and so do not seem all that wine-like. I put this vinous character down to the initial fermentation being carried out in oak casks.

That is not to say the wine is at all oaky, it has just gained a degree of additional weight, power and density from contact with it – this is a common effect on a wine when it has some interaction with oak.

The nose is scintillating with life, freshness and vigour, but I do not think it is the most complex nose for a Champagne. I like it a lot, most certainly; it is energetic, with plenty of fruit and autolysis characteristics, plus that vinous nature, but you will not need to brood over this wine for many minutes to get its full measure – as one might with, say, a Gimonnet Special Club from a vintage like this. It is a pleasing, attractive, charming nose that invites one to drink. So I will!

This has a similarly attractive, charming palate – lawks it is good fun! The mousse is delightfully refined and really works to highlight the other attractive characteristics on the palate

It has a good dollop of lemony fruit that is ripe but not sweet; throw that pie in the face of someone deserving from the Wine Society. I get a slight feeling that the lemon fruit here is a bit like the fruit on a good, ripe, Saar Riesling made in a drier style – again it is quite vinous, it has a degree of density and is quite pure and focussed.

With that lemon fruit comes good, but tame rather than screeching, acidity. This is child’s play compared to the pain inflicted on my stomach by a lot of Champagnes – I do not mind that, though, good Champagne is good pain. It is certainly fresh and lively enough, and since you do not feel your teeth dissolving it just adds to the pleasure of this delicious wine.

There is a reasonable suggestion of a chalky grip on the finish, but it is not a dominating character of the aftertaste – you really think about the fresh, vivacious fruit and that delicious sparkle. Like the nose it is not an intensely involute palate, nice as it is.

As I said there is some weight and density, which enhance the vinous character, but as one drinks more of this one gets the feeling that this is not what the wine is all about, it is about fun! Fun!! FUN!!!

That is the main feeling The Editor and I experienced when we were drinking this, that we were having a good time. Maybe not intellectual thrills and spills, but visceral pleasure. As this is relatively cheap for a quality – Gratien undoubtedly put the effort in making their wines – vintage Blanc des Blancs, I think that is a perfectly acceptable performance metric for this fizz to do well in. It was highly enjoyable!

Now some may be wondering whether this will age. In the past I have pissed away hundreds of pounds trying to age Gratien Blanc des Blancs, they have always fallen apart and turned into filth.

However, in 2007 Gratien started working with a new winemaker/cellarmaster and he has noticeably improved the quality across the board at Gratien. I therefore think this will age, in the medium term at least.

However, I would question why you would want to. It might gain some more density and more toasty/bready characteristics, but that could be at the expense of the youthful exuberance that makes this so utterly delightful to drink now. Up to you, really. I have two more bottles of this delicious little charmer and I will drink one in the next year and I will try, but possibly fail, to keep the other for three or so years.

If you want to buy a Gratien wine to age, then the Wine Society can serve up a better vintage of Gratien’s prestige cuvee. Gratien Cuvee Paradis 2008 is a great wine from a great vintage and will age and age; buy it, if you can afford it (prestige cuvees are not cheap), now before the Wine Society’s (unsurprisingly) limited stocks run out!