Interview with Michel Drappier President of Drappier

BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Michel Drappier, CEO of this historic Champagne House carrying his name, to learn more about Drappier’s champagne and the unique history and style of this family-owned House in the Côte des Bar region of Champagne. 

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Michel Drappier, President of the Drappier House and the 7th generation of the Drappier family

In May 2011 Michel Drappier was named Commandeur of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, a champagne wine fraternity whose mission is to contribute to the dissemination of essential information concerning the wines of Champagne.

BestChampagne: What is champagne Drappier history and how this impact on the House style?

Michel Drappier: I am now the 7th generation of the Drappier family which came to France in 1808 under Napoleon I, my ancestors were lumberjacks supplying wood for the ovens of the Champagne crystal glassworks in Bayel.

When he saw all those crystal glass products he had the idea to settle in Urville next to an annex to the abbey of Clairvaux, owned by the diocese to grow vines as he did not have the resources to produce wine, our family sold the grapes to the great champagne houses of Reims and Epernay for more than a century.

During the phylloxera crisis in the 1890’s it was necessary to replant the vineyards my grandfather decided to replant the vineyards a strategic choice to go for pinot noir, an elegant and fine variety. Hence he bet on quality rather than quantity. This is how we have rebuilt our vineyard between the two world wars.

After the Second World War my father started to expand the business and had the opportunity to acquire the cellars that were the annex to the abbey of Clairvaux. St Bernard de Clairvaux was a monk from Citeaux next to Clos de Vougeot, who during the XII century introduced the morillon noir grape, the ancestor to the pinot noir varietal, in Champagne.

Considering the history of this varietal and the continuing the heritage of St Benard de Clairvaux we remained faithful to pinot noir which develops well here on a limestone soil engineering an intimate bond to this village of Urville and to the soil for more than two centuries.

BC: What characterises the Drappier style?

MD: Thanks to this limestone vein identical to the grands crus in Chablis, our soil imparts a marked minerality. Hence our pinot noirs, vinified in a very natural way, express such minerality, this elegance and the fruit of pinot noir is very authentic and intense.

The Drappier style is 70% to 75% of pinot noir planted in our vineyards and used in our champagnes.

Since 2/3 of our grape supply comes from our properties and our associates, the rest is from external providers through the Champagne region, from which 2/3 is also from the Côte des Bar, we can say Drappier is champagne of terroir, of this sub-region of Côte des Bar.

This is particularly true for our champagnes produced only with our own grapes like the Grande Sendrée, our cuvée de prestige with a majority of pinot noir, the bruts nature which are 100% pinot noirs, our rosés, and the cuvée Quattuor made of ancient grapes: arbanne , petit meslier, blanc vrai (or pinot blanc), and chardonnay.

BC: Your champagnes are characterized by very low amounts of sulphites. Why that and what is is the impact of flavours and sensations in your champagnes?

MD: Sulphites have been used in wine since three or four centuries to protect against oxidation. But too much sulphites disturb those allergic to this substance, like my father and I for example.

It is true that in the production of wine; sulphites are often overused to avoid any dire disclosures. An excessive use of sulphites cause headaches and anesthetizes the palate to the perception of flavours.

At the same time to make wine without sulphites is too risky since the wine may not preserve well as expected. It is then better to add some sulphites to protect the wine than obtain a wine of poor quality. Hence we are not sulphite enemies; we are enemies of its excessive use.

We have the same approach in the vineyard: for 20 years 1/3 our vines are cultivated using biodynamic methods and the other 2/3 are on the way to using these methods as well. In the cellar we have been pioneers in these techniques: our wines are not filtrated, not centrifugated, not decolorated and very little sulphites are added, hence very little intervention.

Furthermore in champagne wines we can limit the use of sulphites because gas created during secondary fermentation, which is not and antioxidant on its own, but it does act as a precursor to help in limiting oxidation to wine.

PH is also very low and protects the wine, together with relatively high total acidities. If we add to this a great deal of precautions during vinification with fermentation at low temperature we can afford to further lower the amounts of sulphite. We even produce a champagne absolutely sulphite free, a prototype in champagne!

BC: The Drappier House is also known to produce champagnes with little dosage. Champagne is by tradition a wine that receives dosage, but the overall trend is to reduce the amount of sugar; why is this?

MD: Globally the trend is indeed toward less and less dosage in wines. In the past champagne was consumed mainly at the end of the meal, with dessert, and champagne was associated to sugar and richness, until the end of the XIX century. In the XX century this progressively changed and the in the XXI century champagne is associated to purity.

It must also be said that heavy dosage allowed to correct wines that were not always well made. Today the quality of the wines has dramatically increased and we can afford to commercialize wines that receive little or no dosage because of proper structure, finesse, elegance and freshness.

This is why we produce champagnes with very little dosage, with extra brut with up to 6 grams of added sugar per litre, or even champagnes with absolutely no added sugar.

Then it is a matter of taste: these champagnes are very clean, refreshing, and more true to the wine and brings out the accurate flavours such as vine stock, yeast, Jurassic limestone. When we remove sugar and sulphite, we can perceive the whole portfolio of flavours and aromas.

If we want the wine to be more polished, that preserves better and add complexity, a little bit of liqueur de dosage is very useful, in small quantities, possibly made of different grape varieties and matured in oak casks.

I personally believe both styles are possible.

BC: What do you aim to convey with your champagnes?

MD: We have made the deliberate choice to go beyond pinot noir which has been on our peculiar limestone soil for 850 years now. We have decided not to disguise the wines by adding very little or no sulphites. Likewise we do not conduct filtration, leading to very expressive wines.

By doing so champagnes mature until a specific definition which properly corresponds to our house style: the one of my father, mine and of my kids. In a certain way it is our family spirit that we convey. All our clients adopted the wine we love.

It sounds a bit like a dictatorship of taste buy we do not impose it. Drappier represents just about 0,3% of the entire champagne production which means that around the world 0,3% of consumers like this taste.

BC: What is the impact on the champagne trade of the current economic crunch and what is Drappier development strategy within such framework?

MD: Champagne has never really lost market share in the current economic framework since the champagne trade has been growing constantly at 1% to 2% per year for the last 30 years. So today we can talk about a current minor crunch which is part of champagne economic cycle.

I think the current situation is normal. Indeed it is linked to the global economic crisis but champagne is not aimed at supplying the planet; just about 8% of all sparkling wines in the world are champagne.

Indeed champagne is more expensive than other sparkling wines but these represent a different market. There is though a limited degree of competition between entry level champagnes and high end sparkling wines produced with Méthode traditionelle.

Drappier exports about 2/3 of the production. We once reached 78% but this was too much, as we want to be in France which remains champagne No.1 market on the world. Hence we have continued to expand but faster in France than abroad.

Today we export in 83 countries and since we produce a quality champagne, very distinctive, with a marked vinosity, non-filtered with a strong identity we are not born to be liked by everybody. We have found our clientele among those who love wines which have a marked identity.

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3 generations of Drappier: Michel, Charline and André

BC: How can one discover his or her own champagne favoured style?

MD: There are about 5,000 champagne producers, each one with their own style, history, grapes, soil, vinification methods and many other aspects that comes into consideration.

It is then up to the consumer to taste and discover. It is a personal matter between him or her and the glass of champagne under the nose. Either there are emotions, or there are not. Champagne is totally subjective, like fashion, car, or paintings.

Which Picasso conveys to you the most emotions or has more value according to you? What is best a Porsche or a Ferrari? Some will prefer the sound of the engine, other the performance or the materials used. In champagne, it’s the same: some prefer Blancs de Blancs, some Blancs de Noirs, and some other types of champagne.

In fact champagne is even more personal because it enters your body. Even more than other wines, it talks to you; make noises through the music of its thin bubbles, music which is different from champagne to champagne.

It is a love story, or it is not. For this I think it is too personal for me to give advice.

BC: Mr Drappier; what defines champagne for you?

MD: Champagne is first of all a passion, and all my life. Just the other day my wife said to me again, while we were sipping champagne “thanks God you have some time for me”. We have 3 wonderful kids, we do plenty of things together, we travel extensively, but champagne remains at the heart of our life.

Champagne is also a story. Champagne pertains to a Region, a culture, a civilization, a country, and to all the people that have drunk it. Charles de Gaulle was our customer, and we have international celebrities who drink our champagnes on a regular basis like Jean Paul Belmondo, the latest President of France, Gorbachev, Venus Williams just to name a few. Hence this history of champagne is made by all these people who love our champagnes and that make them live with us.

And then champagne is emotions, plenty of them. I love wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Sauternes, the Italian wines, but frankly, champagne… The noise of the cork, the sight, the little music in the glass, the tingling on the tongues, the aromas, the length, the depth, and most all the sense that we feel to drink it again, and again, it’s seems infinite. With champagne, you seem to never stop.

Click the link to discover the Drappier house and champagnes.

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