Wine: Not many people know seven grapes allowed in champagne

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I was delighted to see in the newly updated fizz bible, Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne and Sparkling Wine, it is not just big name brands that are given prominence.

Authors Tom Stevenson and Essi Avellan MW have given lesser known champagne houses more of the limelight in this new book.

One of my favourites among the dynamic small independent houses is Champagne Drappier, which has a whole page in this fizz bible. Drappier is very well known to the French, but not the British. It was, after all, statesman Charles de Gaulle’s favourite champagne, but football fans might be interested to know that it is also Sir Alex Ferguson’s preferred fizz tipple.

I took a trip down to the southern Aube valley to meet the Drappier family at home. It was a revelation. Two hours’ drive south-east of Reims, the beautiful Aube with its medieval villages and bucolic landscape often gets left out on champagne maps – but it is a significant area and Drappier is its best producer. Near to Urville, where Drappier is based, is the pretty village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, home of de Gaulle and now his burial ground.

“Madame de Gaulle and my mother were good friends and I remember their Citroën 2CVs often parked alongside each other in Urville’s market square as they regularly swapped over cases of champagne,” says Michel Drappier.

Charming Drappier is the current custodian of the family’s old 17th century cellars. It was his grandfather who was known as champagne’s “Papa Pinot”. Thanks to him, Aube is now the most important area for pinot noir in the whole champagne region. Drappier’s grandfather replaced the lesser gamay grown in the area with the more suitable pinot noir grape.

“The climate here is more continental and drier with less Atlantic influence than near Reims and Epernay – so we tend to get riper flavours in these southerly vineyards – remember we are just 40km from Burgundy,” says Drappier. His champagnes would suit those who like fruity, rich pinot noir-dominant champagnes – but he produces an astounding number of cuvées to suit all, from blanc de blancs (just white grapes), nil dosage (brut nature), sans soufre (no sulphur: another first for champagne) to the celebrated Charles de Gaulle cuvée – and more.

Drappier’s best champagne is his single vineyard Grand Sendrée – a pioneering single vineyard vintage champagne. “The idea came to me when I was 15 and my father, Andre, let me try it as a single vineyard cuvée when I started winemaking here with him,” says Drappier.

Grand Sendrée’s name comes from a corruption of ‘cendrée’ (which means burnt), as it had once been a woodland that burnt down in 1838, so the soils are full of ash. Today Grand Sendrée, made from 70-year-old vines is one of the best made and best value single vineyard champagnes.

While his grandfather was dedicated to pinot noir, Drappier also now focuses on reviving other neglected grape varieties.

“Not many people realise that seven grapes are allowed in champagne,” says Drappier. “Everyone knows about chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier – we grow all of them as well as lesser known petit meslier, pinot blanc, pinot gris (known as fromenteau) and arbanne,” he says.

Drappier makes a feature of these forgotten grapes with his deliciously floral, crisp and highly unusual Quattuor blend, which includes four white grapes: chardonnay, petit meslier, arbanne and pinot blanc.

Another Drappier speciality is big format bottles. Deep in his cellars I found the largest bottle ever made in champagne: a melchizedek – 40 bottles’ worth. All his big bottles, from jeroboam to melchizedek, are vinified in the bottle they are sold in, which is unusual in champagne.

I first discovered Drappier in Oddbins many years ago. Now I am delighted to see that Drappier’s whole range is back on the shelves of a winemerchant near you – so it will not remain a French secret for long.

A drop of Drappier

Champagne Drappier Blanc de Blancs Signature Non-Vintage

(£30, Berkmann Wine Cellars, www.berkmann.co.uk)

Crisp, elegant, rich citric fruits: an unusual blend of chardonnay with blanc vrai (pinot blanc).

Brut Nature Non-Vintage

(£30-£33.50, Cork & Cask, Edinburgh; The Corner on the Square, Beauly)

More floral and lighter than many 100 per cent pinot noir champagnes: clean, dry finish from the zero dosage.

Carte d’Or Non-Vintage

(£30-£33.50, Aitken Wines, Dundee; Markinch Wine Gallery; The Corner on the Square; Cork & Cask)

Mainly pinot noir-based blend with a touch of oak ageing to add complexity.

Quattuor

(£30, Berkmann Wine Cellars, www.berkmann.co.uk)

Floral, delicate, delicious blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc, petit meslier and arbanne.

Grand Sendree Vintage 2005

(£45-£50 Markinch Wine Gallery; Aitken Wines, Dundee; Will & Bess Fine Wine, Staffordshire)

A delicious blend of 55 per cent pinot noir and 45 per cent chardonnay with one third oak-aged. A honeyed, liquorice-scented, full-bodied, spicy, deeply fruity cuvée. Incredibly good value for its quality. Drappier also make a rosé version which is excellent. Star Buy

Join Rose’s champagne tastings in Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews in 2014: prices from £30, www.rosemurraybrown.com