Michel Drappier took over from his father André, an incredibly charismatic and entrepreneurial Champenois, in 1979. Ever since, he incessantly experiments new ways of doing things to further improve the quality of its champagnes, while making the family business as sustainable and nature-friendly as possible. This is how, in 2019, he received the Prize for Innovation from La Revue du Vin de France. A lively and lovely man, truly passionate about champagne and his native land, I cannot imagine him doing anything else in life than great wines that bring smiles.
What is the history of your house and how does it impact your style?
I am now the seventh generation of the Drappier family that came to Champagne in 1808 under Napoleon I. One of my ancestors was a lumberjack 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 to grow vines, as he did not have the resources to produce wine.
During the phylloxera crisis in the 1890s, my grandfather decided to plant pinot noir, an elegant and fine grape variety.
Our family sold grapes to the great Champagne houses of Reims and Epernay for more than a century. During the phylloxera crisis in the 1890s, it was necessary to replant the vineyards and my grandfather decided to plant pinot noir, an elegant and fine grape variety. That was a strategic choice and a bet on quality rather than quantity. This is how we have rebuilt our vineyard between the two world wars.
After WW2, my father expanded the business and acquired the cellars annex to the Abbey of Clairvaux. St Bernard de Clairvaux was the monk who introduced, during the 12th century, morillon noir, the ancestor to pinot noir, in Champagne. Considering the history of this variety and continuing the heritage of St Bernard de Clairvaux, we remained faithful to pinot noir which grows well on the limestone soil of the Côte des Bar, developing a long-lasting link with the village of Urville and its soil.
What characterizes the Drappier style?
Thanks to this limestone vein identical to the grands crus in Chablis, our soil imparts a marked minerality.
The Drappier style is based on pinot noir planted in our vineyards and largely used in our champagnes. 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 and elegance while the fruit aromas are very authentic and intense.
Drappier is a champagne of terroir, of this subregion of Côte des Bar.
Two-thirds of our grape supply comes from our properties and our associates, and the rest from external providers through the whole Champagne region, from which two-thirds are also from the Côte des Bar. Hence, we can say that Drappier is a champagne of terroir, of this subregion of Côte des Bar. This is particularly true for our champagnes produced only with our grapes like Grande Sendrée, our cuvée de prestige–made with a majority of pinot noir–Brut Nature that is 100% pinot noir, our Rosé, and the cuvée Quattuor made of ancient grapes: arbanne, petit meslier, blanc vrai (or pinot blanc) and chardonnay.
Your wines are characterized by very low amounts of sulfites. Why is that, and what is the impact on the flavors and sensations in your champagnes?
Sulfites have been used in wine for three or four centuries to protect against oxidation. But too much sulfite disturbs those allergic to this substance, like my father and me, for example. In winemaking, sulfites are often overused to avoid any premature oxidation and this excessive use can cause headaches and anesthetizes the palate to the perception of flavors. But making wine without sulfites is risky since the wine may not preserve well. It is better to add some sulfites to protect the wine than obtain a wine of poor quality. Hence, we are not sulfite enemies; we are enemies of its excessive use.
Half of our vines are cultivated using organic methods.
We have the same approach in the vineyard whereby half of our vines are cultivated using organic methods. In the cellar we have been pioneers in these techniques: our wines are not filtrated, not centrifugated, not decolored, and very little sulfites are added, hence receive very little intervention.
We can limit the use of sulfites in champagne because the gas created during the secondary fermentation–although not an antioxidant on its own–limits the entry of oxygen in the bottle. The PH of champagne is also very low and protects the wine, together with relatively high total acidities. If we add a lot of precautions during vinification, with fermentation at low temperatures, we can afford to further lower the amounts of sulfite. We even produce a sulfite-free champagne, a prototype in champagne.
You produce zero dosage and extra brut champagnes, and brut with a maximum dosage of 6-7 g/l. Champagne is by tradition a wine that receives dosage, but the overall trend is to reduce the amount of sugar; why is this?
Today the quality of the wines has dramatically increased, and we can afford to commercialize wines that receive little or no dosage.
Globally the trend is indeed toward less and less dosage. In the past, champagne was consumed mainly at the end of the meal, with dessert, and champagne was associated with sugar and richness, until the end of the 19th century. In the 20th century, this progressively changed and in the 21st century, champagne is associated with purity. It must also be said that heavy dosage allowed correcting wines that were not always well made. Today the quality of the wines has dramatically increased, and we can afford to commercialize them with little or no dosage because of proper structure, finesse, elegance, and freshness. This is why we produce champagnes with little dosage, and Brut Nature with absolutely no added sugar.
Then it is a matter of taste: these champagnes are very clean, refreshing, and truer to the wine and bring out accurate flavors of vine stock, yeast, and Jurassic limestone. When we remove sugar and sulfite, we can perceive the whole portfolio of aromas and flavors. If we want the wine to be more polished, that preserves better and add complexity, a bit of liqueur de dosage is very useful, in small quantities, possibly matured in oak casks. I believe both styles are possible.
What do you aim to convey with your champagnes?
We made the deliberate choice to transcend pinot noir that has been on our peculiar limestone soil for 850 years now. We decided not to disguise the wines by adding very little or no sulfites. Likewise, we do not conduct filtration, leading to very expressive wines. By doing so, our champagnes mature until a specific definition which properly corresponds to our style: the one of my father, mine, and my kids. In a way, it is our family spirit that we convey.
What is your development strategy, also considering the growing competition of quality sparkling wines other than champagne?
Champagne is not meant to supply 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 the Méthode Traditionelle.
At Drappier, we export about two-thirds of our production. We once reached three-quarters, but this was too much, as we want to be relevant in France that remains the No.1 champagne market in the world. Hence, we have continued to expand but faster in France than abroad. Today we export in 104 countries and since we produce quality champagnes, very distinctive, with a marked vinosity, we cannot please everybody. We have found our clientele among those who love wines with a marked identity.
How can one discover his or her champagne favorite style?
There are more than 5,000 champagne producers. It is up to the consumer to taste and discover. Either there are emotions, or there are not.
There are more than 5,000 champagne producers, each one with their style, history, grapes, soil, vinification methods and many other aspects that come 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 subjective, like fashion, car or paintings. Which Picasso conveys to you the most emotions or has more value according to you? What is best, Porsche or 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. Champagne enters your body, talks to you through the music of its thin bubbles, and this music is different from champagne to champagne. It is a love story, or it is not. It is too personal for me to give advice.
What defines champagne to you?
Champagne is first of all a passion, and all my life.
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, “Thank God you have some time for me.” We have three 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 several international celebrities are fans of our champagnes and participate in making the history of champagne.
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 that feeling to want to drink it, again and again, seems infinite. With champagne, you seem to never stop.