Louis Roederer naturally

(Image via Square Mile website) (Photo: )

When you taste the Philippe Starck inspired Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009, you’ll be amazed at the wine’s quality and beauty. You may be less impressed by the label, which features a child-like scrawl by Starck himself.

Yes, it’s expensive at AUD $169 but it’s arguably just as pleasurable as the 2009 Cristal at $379, which makes it seem good value. But the way this wine was inspired, then conceived, then brought to reality is an unusual – perhaps unique – story.

Has anyone in Champagne actually designed a new wine specifically around the warmer seasons that the region now regularly experiences?

That’s how this wine came about.

Starck is a French designer. He and Roederer principal Frédéric Rouzaud decided to collaborate on a new wine. As chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon tells it, Starck doesn’t taste; he drinks.

“A master of wine tastes with his head, a sommelier tastes with his palate, and Starck with his body. He drinks a bottle of Champagne a day.”

So? Doesn’t everybody?

“Starck only drinks organic or biodynamic wines. He wanted to make a minimalist wine, with minimum intervention. Lots of care but minimal intervention,” says Lécaillon. “This is the result. We didn’t know what it would be like. We didn’t know it would be a zero dosage wine. The taste would be a surprise. It would be made in warm years only. It would be made mostly from biodynamically grown grapes. It’s not fully certified: only 80% biodynamic (Roederer is the biggest biodynamic grower in Champagne). It is not possible for all the vineyards to be certified.”

The final blend was made from grapes (66% pinot noir, 34% chardonnay) that were all harvested on the same day – a ‘fruit day’, which is the most auspicious day on the biodynamic calendar, don’t you know.

It’s a ‘field blend’, blended at the press, co-fermented, 30% in oak and 70% in stainless steel. There was no malolactic fermentation, as “there is no need of malolactic in hot years”.

The final wine also has a relatively low gas pressure (4.8 to 5 kg of pressure) and no dosage – riper grapes from hot years don’t need the sweetening of the liqueur de dosage to balance the wine.

Lécaillon explains how he achieved the lovely texture, a challenge in a bone-dry wine.

“The base-wine had a long élévage on full lees – 10 months between fermentation and bottling. The creaminess of the texture comes from the lees contact, and low gas pressure.”

Starck was keen on his wine being as natural as possible, and this led to some clashes.

“The biggest fight I had with him was because he wanted to make a no-sulfite wine. We have reduced the sulfur dioxide by about 10% to between 40 and 50 parts per million, but you cannot go lower or you risk losing freshness.”

Lécaillon said the project began in 2003, one of the hottest years ever in Champagne, and the experiment continued in 2006 (another hot year), 2009 and 2012 – and possibly 2015. The 2006 wine was the first release; 2009 is the second.

Presumably the wine can only be made in hot years because these are years when the manipulation of Champagne can be minimised – at least in the present climate. In the distant future, if global warming continues, they may have to add acid.

“We can make this wine more often than we could have in the past, when there were more colder years,” says Lécaillon.

The grapes come from vines on calcareous clay, not pure chalk, and this is important to the style.

The wine is wonderful to drink: delicate, crisp and powerful, showing some nuttiness from the barrels and lees, with a very mineral rather than fruity aroma and marvellous richness allied with delicacy. The balance is perfect – a rare thing in zero dosage Champagnes.

Oh, and we tasted it on a ‘root day’, according to the biodynamic calendar. It didn’t seem to be suffering.

As for the label design, I can only suggest Starck shouldn’t give up his day job. Oh, wait: it is his day job.

*First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, April-May 2017.

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