From the moment you arrive at Champagne Drappier, there is no doubt that this is a family firm. In the lobby, two hobbyhorses wait for riders; outside, eight-year-old Antoine Drappier is carefully feeding a baby bird that has fallen from its nest.
The atmosphere is a far cry from that of the big houses in Aÿ and Epernay, where managers in suits rush by or sit in closed offices formally conducting business. Here, Michel Drappier is dressed in chinos and a polo shirt and fielding phone calls as though he were a receptionist rather than head of the company. At the same time, his wife Sylvie is sorting out an order from a customer. André Drappier, patriarch of the family and now semi-retired, is busy recommending a nearby restaurant to visitors.
But don’t be deceived by the casual vibe. Champagne Drappier, located in the small town of Urville in the Aube’s Côte du Bar, is a serious producer whose passion for quality has endured ever since the family planted its first vines in 1808. Its production may be relatively small—1.4 million bottles compared with Moët & Chandon’s 25 million—but it is lauded by critics and has garnered fans from New York to Tokyo.
Today Drappier is sharing in the Champagne region’s unprecedented prosperity, largely a result of skyrocketing global demand. But times have not always been this good. Indeed, during the past two centuries, France’s northernmost vineyards have been wracked by calamities of almost biblical proportions: Along with world wars and pestilence, Champagne has endured riots, killer frosts, economic crises…. Miraculously, the house of Drappier, now celebrating its 200th anniversary as a family-run business, has weathered it all. “Sometimes it helps to be small,” smiles Michel Drappier. “You can run between the raindrops.”
Like other growers in the Aube, Michel Drappier’s ancestors initially supplied grapes to the Champagne houses in the Marne, some 90 miles to the north. Business was tough for many years but finally took off during the prosperous era of Napoleon III, when Champagne flowed freely in the courts of Europe and the family’s grapes were bought by the likes of Heidsieck and Moët. The party came to a premature and depressing end, however, when the phylloxera epidemic wiped out vineyards throughout France.
The 20th century brought equally daunting challenges, starting with the 1911 riots that ensued when the Marne lobbied Paris to exclude the Aube from the area officially allowed to grow grapes for Champagne. “We still have pictures of my mother-in-law taking part in the demonstrations,” says André Drappier. “She had been elected one of the ‘Queens of Champagne,’ and she wore her costume while protesting.” The matter was temporarily resolved—and civil war averted—by an agreement to consider the Aube a sort of “second-string” region. In 1927, it was fully integrated into the Champagne AOC. Yet while the area has continued to supply grapes to the great houses to the north (70 percent of Aube harvests are sent to the Marne), it is only relatively recently that it has begun to produce its own acclaimed Champagnes.
Michel Drappier’s family got into the winemaking business in the 1950s, shortly after his mother, Micheline Collot, married André Drappier. “I didn’t know anything about winemaking,” says André, “but I thought that it could be more profitable and more interesting than simply growing grapes.” It was also much more difficult, but he and his bride persevered, continually expanding the vineyards and purchasing the magnificent 12th-century Clairvaux Abbey cellars that are now the pride of the property. “It was hard work and slow going,” recalls the affable André. “Vineyards are like children, they don’t grow up overnight!”
He readily admits that the Champagne house really came into its own when his son joined the business in 1979. “Michel studied oenology and worked at vineyards overseas, so he brought a lot of new expertise to our operations,” says André. “Most important, he is absolutely passionate about what he does.” Michel’s improvements and innovations range from adopting sustainable agriculture methods to launching new bottles. Drappier now comes in no fewer than 11 sizes, from the diminutive quarter-bottle to the party-hearty Primat (36 bottles) and Melchizedec (40 bottles), both unique to this maison. He also carefully tends to the house’s liqueur d’expédition (sugared liquor), which is added to Champagne just before it is corked to impart a bit of sweetness. A rarity in the region, this homemade concoction is aged in large handblown demijohns for at least 10 years.
Champagne houses typically produce a range of bottlings—a house blend, a rosé, a blanc de blancs, a blanc de noirs and so on—and Drappier is no exception. Yet while the larger houses, which use grapes from a variety of growers, tend to develop a signature style that they replicate year after year, Drappier belongs to the new generation of small grower-producers who play up the characteristics of each vintage. “For example, if there’s a hint of cherries,” says Michel, “I try to accentuate that rather than smooth it out.” This can result in Champagnes of wildly differing styles. Some are creamy and restrained, others are powerful, evoking hints of apples, pears and chocolate. “We look for the soul, and sometimes that can be something different,” he says.
Drappier’s top-of-the-line bottling is La Grande Sendrée, which takes its name from a fire that destroyed much of Urville in 1838 (the ashes were collected and scattered in the vineyards). When the Drappiers went to register the name of their special cuvée, the clerk misspelled it, and cendrée, or ash, came out as sendrée. Misspelling aside, many people say this is the Aube’s best Champagne. A deft balance of 55 percent Pinot Noir and 45 percent Chardonnay, it is made with exquisite care, using only the oldest vines from the best parcels and the coeur de la cuvée, or the best must from the first press.
The house is also known for its Cuvée Charles de Gaulle, a vintage Champagne that is 80 percent Pinot Noir and 20 percent Chardonnay. The former French president lived just a few miles to the east of here and is buried nearby. For years he was a loyal client of the house, and in 1990, the 50th anniversary of the General’s famous radio broadcast from London, Drappier obtained permission to name a cuvée in his honor.
While most Champagnes are made of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, AOC regulations do allow other varietals, and in 2000, Michel decided to experiment with some of them. The result is Cuvée Quattuor, composed of four white grape varieties: Arbanne, Pinot Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay. With the exception of Chardonnay, all had practically disappeared from Champagne more than a century ago, their vines uprooted because they were slow to ripen and so low-yielding that “my father said you had to harvest them with your finger tips.” Fortunately, there were still two small patches of them growing on the Drappier property.
“Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how these old varieties would respond to modern winemaking methods,” says Michel. To his delight, not only did the grapes respond well, they also ripened more than in the past because of global warming. The result is a Champagne of stunning clarity with flavors of gooseberries, rhubarb and green apricots. “It gives you the pleasure of a saveur ancienne,” he says.
A more recent addition to the Drappier stable is a 100 percent Pinot Noir “zéro dosage.” These bone-dry Champagnes—part of a trend that is catching on as consumers increasingly favor light and fresh wines—have no added liqueur d’expédition. Other efforts to come up with a better bubbly have led to Drappier’s Sans Soufre—the first Champagne ever made without sulfites. Although sulfites are an essential tool for stabilizing wines, they also give many drinkers headaches. For the moment, the wine is being produced in minute quantities and is available only at the domaine. Is this the future of Champagne? Michel and his father hope so, for both are allergic to sulfites, which are used as sparingly as possible in all their wines.
As Drappier heads into its third century, Michel is already thinking about passing the torch to his children, who would be the eighth generation to run the family business. “I made three of them,” Michel laughs, “in hopes that at least one would want to follow me. I try not to pressure them, but it’s hard. The other day, my 18-year-old daughter Charline said, ‘Look Dad, I’m interested, so you can quit asking me!’”
Champagne Drappier, rue des Vignes, 10200 Urville. Tel. 33/3-25-27-40-15; champagne-drappier.com.