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Roederer breaks new ground with Brut Nature

Louis Roederer launched Champagne’s inaugural non-malolactic, zero dosage vintage fizz in London last night – the brand’s first new product in 40 years.

Roederer Brut Nature 2006

Speaking to the drinks business yesterday ahead of the launch, Louis Roederer president Frédéric Rouzaud said that the last time the family-owned Champagne house produced a new cuvée was in 1974, when it first made Cristal Rosé.

Then, as he unveiled the new product – called Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2006 – at the Royal Institute of British Architects, he said, joking, “Each generation likes to create a wine to fulfil a big ego.”

In fact, the idea to create a Champagne with a lower level of sugar came about following the heatwave 2003 vintage, a harvest when Roederer began reducing the dosage on all its cuvées, as well as considering the creation of a product with little, or no added sugar whatsoever.

Having trialled extra-brut cuvées (those with less than 6 g/l of sugar) in 2003, 2004 and 2005, it was not until 2006 that the house decided to make something with zero dosage, marking the birth of Louis Roederer Brut Nature.

The catalyst for this change was both the warm climatic conditions during that vintage, but also an encounter between French designer Philippe Starck and Frédéric Rouzaud.

“I met Philippe Starck in 2006 and he said that he loved Champagne, but he loved zero dosage Champagne, so I opened my ears,” recorded Rouzaud, doubtless thinking of his own experiments in the Roederer cellars.

Philippe Starck wanted the packaging to be as simple as possible.

Rouzaud then told db that he had asked Starck whether he would be interested in creating a label for Roederer, but the designer made it clear that he would only want to be involved in a packaging project if he also had a say in how the wine was made.

“He wanted to design the inside of the bottle, not just the outside,” commented Rouzaud.

Consequently, “we brought him deep inside the Roederer cellar and we started working together on the 2006 vintage,” recalled Rouzaud.

“The Brut Nature is about a specific sunny year and a meeting between Philippe Starck and Roederer,” he summed up.

Explaining further the birth of the wine, Roederer chief winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon said, “Starting with the 2003 vintage on a small scale, the idea was not to do a zero dosage, but to lower the dosage strongly, and we did a number of trials with extra brut.

“But it was really in 2006 when Philippe Starck got in the story that we went much further, and he brought another idea, which we called ‘abstraction’, which meant reinventing winemaking with the philosophy that less is more – so less of everything.”

In reality, the addition to the range has been extremely carefully engineered to ensure it is both in line with the Roederer style – which is known for high-quality, age-worthy, and mainly non-malolactic cuvées with minimal oxygen influence during winemaking – as well as a balanced and soft Champagne: a difficult task when no sugar is added at disgorgement, particularly when the conversion of malic to lactic acid has been blocked.

Indeed, Lecaillon compares the Brut Nature Champagne to a Formula One racing team – it is the very peak of precision winemaking, and a sort of test-bed for potential Roederer production techniques on all its wines, particularly if the climate continues to warm in the famously cool French sparkling wine region.

“We put all our modern thinking of viticulture and winemaking into this, it could be the future of Champagne,” Lecaillon told db.

Among the methods used to ensure the Champagne is round and soft despite the absence of sugar is the harvesting of perfectly ripe grapes from a particular plot in the Marne Valley in a warm, dry “continental” year.

Lecaillon said that the berries, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, were all picked on the same day from a 10-hectare vineyard in Cumières, which is currently managed biodynamically (Lecaillon said that biodynamics brings 1% more alcohol and a lower pH at harvest time compared to conventional viticulture).

“It is a single coteau, and on the south west slopes we have Meunier, on the south Pinot Noir and on the south east Chardonnay… all the grapes are picked together and pressed together, there is no blending,” he stated.

Explaining the decision to harvest the berries at the same time, he said, “The idea is to remove any varietal influence; the coteau is more important.”

Inspiration for the Brut Nature label

The conventional Roederer approach “is to separate everything and do single vineyard winemaking and ageing, and then re-build in a new dimension,” said Lecaillon. In contrast, with the Brut Nature, the aim was to “let the terroir speak.”

Aside from the use of ripe grapes, Lecaillon compensated for the lack of sugar by augmenting the “texture” of the wine from oak ageing – 50% of the wine was aged in 9,000 litre oak casks – as well as reducing the pressure of the Champagne’s sparkle.

While the majority of Champagne is sold with six bar pressure, Roederer’s Brut Nature 2006 comes with around 4.5 bar.

While giving a softer “mousse”, the lower pressure is also important “to put the bubbles behind the wine” according to Lecaillon, who pointed out that historically the wines from Marne Valley vineyards were known as “river wines”, as this part of Champagne was used to make still, not sparkling wines.

Other techniques were also employed to make up for sugar’s role in preventing, or masking oxidative aromas in Champagne.

“Sugar is a preservative and plays a role in the development of Champagne, which is why I like a long post-disgorgement [ageing] time – it is necessary for the wine to digest the sugar and get the full complexity from the sugar,” commented Lecaillon.

As a result, when making the Roederer Champagne without any sugar, he said that oxidation “could be a problem”.

“To anticipate, we have worked in a very reductive way during the winemaking to slow down oxidation. For example, there is hardly any settling, and so there is lots of cloudiness in the wine, and then we aged the wine on total lees for 18 months to give it the strength against oxidation.”

Importantly, however, before this point, Lecaillon practiced a “late” sulphuring 48 hours after pressing to allow any unstable phenolics in the juice to oxidise.

He also told db that the use of oak to age the wine was important in raising the Champagne’s oxygen resistance, along with the higher level of anti-oxidants, such as phenolics and tannins, obtained from the ripe grapes at pressing.

Lecaillon recorded “a lot of colour at pressing” but this becomes “yellow with time on the lees” explaining the extended lees contact necessary for the Brut Nature, which was disgorged in March this year.

Looking ahead, Lecaillon said that Roederer didn’t receive dry and sunny enough vintage conditions in 2007 or 2008 to produce a Brut Nature, but did in 2009 – although “we are not definitely sure yet whether we will release the wine”.

With the current release, 60,000 bottles have been made, and in the UK, the Brut Nature will sell for around £65.

Lecaillon admitted that creating the Brut Nature has encouraged him to continue to drop the dosage on Roederer’s Brut NV, which is now down to 9 g/l, from around 12 g/l in 2002, as well as drop the pressure on all Roederer’s Champagnes from 6 bar to 5.5.

While speaking more generally about Champagne without sugar, he commented, “Too many are making no dosage Champagnes that are not made with that purpose… to make a Brut Nature you need rich, ripe fruit and texture.”

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