New Roederer cuvée marks ‘end of an era’ for Brut NV Champagne
Louis Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon launched a new multi-vintage cuvée yesterday that he said marks the “end of an era for Brut sans année in Champagne”.
Speaking over zoom to a handful of UK press, Lécaillon revealed that Roederer was ditching its best-selling Champagne, Brut Premier NV, as it moves to a new, slightly pricier, multi-vintage entry-point to its range called Collection, which will be released in September this year.
Unlike the producer’s brut non-vintage, which comprises a dominant base wine from its most recent harvest, blended with a series of ‘reserve’ wines from older vintages to create a consistent house style, Collection is a numbered cuvée that will have a slightly different expression each year depending on the blend of wines used in its creation.
At the core of the new cuvée is a ‘réserve perpetuelle’, which is a vast tank holding a blend of older harvests dating back to 2012, which is topped up each year, in the same way that Sherry producers have a solera system – a blend of wines going back decades that’s refreshed annually with wines from the most recent harvest.
Lécaillon said that this new approach to its non-vintage expression would not only provide “more freedom” for the winemaker, but bring the consumer a Champagne that was “more expressive”.
He also said that the change in mindset for Roederer’s best-selling cuvée was driven by a “fight for freshness”, commenting that the huge vat holding a blend of past harvests was a better way to prevent oxidation than storing wines from different vintages separately in smaller tanks.
As for the impending launch, he said that it would be called Collection 242, because the inaugural cuvée was based around the 2017 vintage, which he said was the 242nd harvest since the foundation of Roederer in 1776.
Each release will carry a different number, reflecting the fact that these cuvées, made annually, will have a different make-up and slightly altered character, based not only on the gradually-evolving nature of the réserve perpetuelle, but also the proportion and maturity of oak-aged reserve wines used in the blend, along with the base harvest, which, like the Brut Premier, will come from the youngest vintage.
Roederer is not the first Champagne house to have a numbered multi-vintage cuvée as its core offering, with Jacquesson starting the trend with its 700-series in 2000, beginning with a released numbered 728.
More recent was the decision by Krug in 2015 to highlight the unique nature of each annual blend of its multi-vintage Grande Cuvée with a numbering system, starting with its 160th edition, which hit the shelves in 2016.
While Lécaillon’s approach is similar, the make-up of the new Roederer cuvée is unique, even if other producers employ a réserve perpetuelle – from growers R Pouillon & Fils and Bérêche & Fils to houses such as Jacques Selosse and Henriot, along with coops, notably Palmer.
The reason why Roederer’s Collection stands apart relates to the fact that the réserve perpetuelle is just one part of the blend.
For the Collection 242, there is 34% réserve perpetuelle containing equal parts 2012, 13, 14, 15 and 16 vintages, along with 10% reserve wines aged in oak (2009, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16) – up from 6% in the Brut Premier – and the remaining 56% being wine from the 2017 vintage.
So how does it differ in taste from the Brut Premier NV it replaces?
According to Lécaillon, the Collection 242 has a “more complex bouquet than Brut Premier and it has more spiciness thanks to the réserve perpetuelle.”
Continuing he said, “The Brut Premier is tighter because it is more based on a recent harvest, whereas the Collection has more ample fruit, more ready to drink flavours, although it is fresher too because amazingly the pH is lower than what we had in Brut Premier, and that’s thanks to the réserve perpetuelle, the way we aged the wines, and the selection of soils.”
Commenting on the latter, he noted that Roederer now selects the grapes from its growers based on the underlying soil of each specific vineyard plot, as opposed to by village or grape variety, and that this selection procedure was focused on finding “freshness”.
For its own vineyards, which cover 240 hectares and provide 75% of its needs, he said that organic farming practices produce wines with a lower pH and more dry extract, which he attributed to the fact the vines root more deeply, and yield 20% less than those in conventional farming systems.
Overall, he said that Collection “brings an extra ready to drink universe without touching the freshness, so you get something very alive, and in the end, it is more Roederer than Brut Premier was,” commenting that the producer’s style was about “purity of fruit; finesse, finesse and finesse”.
Collection also has a slightly lower dosage, with 8g/l, compared to 9g/l in the Brut Premier.
As for the price difference, while Brut Premier retails for £48 in the UK, the Collection will sell for £52.
When asked by db why Roederer did not choose to add this cuvée to the range alongside the existing Brut Premier, rather than ditching its best-selling Champagne altogether, Lécaillon said that it was necessary to make the switch to embrace a new approach.
“We want to be clear in our position, and this is another philosophy, another angle, and with this kind of decision, you need to jump fully into the unknown.”
Looking back, Lécaillon said the “trigger” for the change in approach was the brilliant 2002 vintage in Champagne.
“We had ripe and beautiful wines, and when we used these as the base for Brut Premier I had to correct the quality down: the base wine so good from the 2002 harvest that I had to lower the quality by adding less fresh, less expressive reserve wines; it was then that we saw something wrong in idea of blending,” he recalled.
Furthermore, today, due to better viticultural practices, lower yields and higher average temperatures than when Roederer launched Brut Premier in 1986, he said that he is “no longer fighting for ripeness,” when it comes to making a multi-vintage blend.
“Today, you get ripeness from the most recent harvest, so it is a fight for freshness,” he added.
He also remarked on his hopes for the positioning of the Collection versus the Brut Premier.
“I am so frustrated of Brut Premier being just an aperitif wine, and when you have guests, they like it, but nobody talks about it, they are waiting for the next one, the vintage, or Cristal, so Brut Premier is in the shadow of our other wines,” he said.
“By doing Collection with more oak and a lower dosage I reintroduce a multi-vintage into the ‘vintage’ category,” he continued.
So, as he later commented, “This is the end of the era of brut sans année in Champagne; it is a new era: the multi-vintage of the 21st century.”
Although his move means eschewing the simplicity and comfort of the consistent style promise of branded Brut NV, it appears to be a shrewd step for two reasons. Firstly, the greater freedom to blend and alter style, albeit subtly, with each numbered Collection release – while using a core of reductively-aged blended reserve wines – provides an insurance against climatic extremes; a technique to deal with warming temperatures in Champagne.
Secondly, it’s clever, because it puts a distance between his Champagne and much of the competition in terms of quality and profitability – this is both a more complex and higher-priced cuvée than the one Roederer was offering before. Plus, it’s harder to replicate, with even the vat used for the réserve perpetuelle custom-designed to keep this valuable vinous base in pristine shape.
Of course, we’ll have to see how the market responds to the re-positioned, base-level non-vintage offering from Roederer.
But while we wait, such a development does draw attention to why Champagne is the global benchmark for sparkling wine quality despite changing weather patterns: if producers are not adapting practices in the vineyard, they are coming up with creative solutions in the cellar.
Collection 242: the facts
- Grapes: 42% Chardonnay, 36% Pinot Noir, 22% Meunier
- Blend: 34% réserve perpetuelle containing equal parts 2012, 13, 14, 15 and 16 vintages; 10% reserve wines aged in oak (2009, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16), and 56% from the 2017 vintage.
- Malolactic fermentation: 34%
- Dosage: 8 g/l
- Price: £52 (UK RRP)
- Release date: September 2021