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This Storied Champagne House’s Forward-Thinking Cellar Master Could Be Changing the Industry

This Storied Champagne House’s Forward-Thinking Cellar Master Could Be Changing the Industry

19 December 2019

The mansion known as Hôtel Werlé sits quietly on Boulevard Lundy in the heart of Reims, Champagne’s largest city, a 19th-century edifice built in the style of Louis XV, all architraves and wrought iron. It was long the private residence of the family that runs Louis Roederer, one of Champagne’s most prestigious houses; Frédéric Rouzaud, the current CEO, grew up there. Yet if you step through the front door, you’ll come face to face with a life-size statue of a bull by the contemporary artist Karl Lagasse, not unlike the brass iteration on Wall Street, graffiti on its flank and a gold oversize dollar bill pierced on its horn. In this old house, modernity is welcome.

That’s because Rouzaud, while guiding the Champagne house his ancestors acquired in 1833, is not one to dwell on the past; when a favorite tree died in the garden, he preserved it by having it painted in Yves Klein blue. So it made perfect sense that when he sought out an artistic collaboration on a Champagne, it would be with the designer Philippe Starck. The result was Roederer’s Brut Nature, the 2012 vintage of which debuted in November.

On its face, here was a marriage of opposites. Roederer remains an embodiment of old-money discretion; Cristal, its famous top wine, still sports the gilded label and clear glass designed for Czar Alexander II (the glass clear because of Alexander’s fear of being poisoned). Starck is famous for his minimalism in everything from household objects to hotels. He can be overtly political and populist, believing good design is democratic—designing Steve Jobs’ yacht, yes, but also everyday knives and teapots.

Certainly this wasn’t the first such partnership in Champagne, which is no stranger to art and design, having become a luxury good—literally, in that both Dom Pérignon and Krug are owned by LVMH, hence corporate siblings of Christian Dior and now Tiffany & Co. Dom asked Jeff Koons to produce gift boxes resembling his much-replicated Balloon Venus. In 1990, Tattinger worked with Roy Lichtenstein on a label (one of its many collaborations, including with Robert Rauschenberg and the Chinese-French painter Zao Wou-Ki).

But almost always, these were riffs on packaging; the wine remained the same. Roederer’s partnership with Starck, which debuted in 2014, is quite different—the wine itself a radical reinterpretation of Champagne. Starck’s jazzy, casual labels are perhaps the least daring thing about it.

Starck himself was primarily interested in the wine. He drank only what he described as natural wines, usually with no added sulfites, and wanted an effort in that mold. But Champagne is the antithesis of natural—the quintessential “made” wine, with intricate cellar processes that blend vintages and often dozens of different vineyards.

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Roederer’s chef de cave (chief winemaker), saw an opportunity in this—to make Brut Nature as proof that the rules of Champagne could be rewritten, not only by the little guys but also by a prominent name like Roederer.

Founded in 1776, the estate was inherited and renamed by Louis Roederer in 1833.

This has been a theme of Lecaillon’s work over the years. Typically, the role of chef de cave is as much figurehead as anything—a public presence feeding Champagne’s relentless PR machine. But after taking over in 1999, Lecaillon transformed Roederer’s farming and winemaking. The plots used for its better wines are now farmed biodynamically, the organics-and-beyond practice now favored by top winemakers around the world. (Another quiet but important benchmark: The newly released 2012 vintage of Cristal is now made entirely from organic grapes, many of them biodynamically farmed.)

For that matter, the brut nature style is a radical prospect—a specific, rare category within Champagne, one used almost exclusively by the small growers whose wines have become darlings in recent years. Most of us know “brut,” brisk and dry-tasting, but usually finished with between six and 12 grams of added sugar to round out its high-acid edges, a process called dosage. “Extra brut” takes that a step further, with no more than six grams. Brut nature (sometimes called “brut zero”) takes this to its apotheosis: absolutely no sugar can be added. It is wine without makeup, flavors coming purely from the grapes themselves—unheard-of in a region where polishing and blending are considered an art.

Its rarity derives from the need for near-perfect conditions during the vintage, which is why even Roederer doesn’t make one every year—only in 2006, 2009, and now 2012, released after six years of aging. (Next will be the 2015.) The usual line in Champagne has been that you can’t make a vintage wine every year, but the reality is that nine years out of 10 in a decade usually permit a vintage wine. Not so with brut nature. There’s nothing to hide behind, so if the grapes have rot from rain or mildew, or if they don’t ripen perfectly, it’s generally not worth producing one.

That difficulty has in fact made brut nature both appealing and controversial. Traditionalists used to complain that this was a triumph of ideology over taste, the wines sometimes painfully acidic and sour-tasting. But in the past few years, thanks to better farming and a push from global warming, talented Champenois have begun harvesting grapes ripe enough that added sugar is less necessary. Today, brut nature represents a clear declaration you believe Champagne should be a serious wine first, bubbles or no.

Pouring a glass of the 2012 Brut Nature.


19 December 2019
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