Made by Louis Roederer and Philippe Starck
BY ANJA FAHS
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2017)
The year 2006 was a surprise in various ways. From January to April, temperatures remained very low, the spring was long in coming, and when it did arrive, it rained for weeks. The grapevines in Terroir de Cumières, in the Champagne region, experienced considerable heat in July, followed by a cool August and then heat again in September. At harvest time, though, it turned out that the contrasting changes in weather, combined with lots of sun at the right time, had produced very outstanding and promising grapes.
The Louis Roederer winery then used these grapes to create a new type of wine: Brut Nature 2006, the “first-born”. It was created from the idea of opening up new horizons by referring back to knowledge of the terroir, the winemaking, the wines and the history of the Roederer company, thereby reinventing champagne. And this occurred at the very same time in which Louis Roederer was considering partnering with another innovative spirit: designer Philippe Starck. “I’ve always admired the creativity of Philippe Starck as discovered in the restaurants and hotels he has designed”, says Frédéric Rouzaud, who is in charge of Louis Roederer in the seventh generation of the family business. “I’m always delighted with his style, his respect for the place, and for the great freedom of his designs. When I met him for the first time, I still did not know what I wanted. But I wanted to do something with him. When he then told me that he drinks only undosed champagne, I came up with the idea for the project we’ve been working on since 2013 – a different kind of wine, a Louis Roederer cuvée based on the authenticity of the wine-growing region. So the collaboration came about quite on its own.”
The Cumières wine-growing region produces pinot noirs of great vinosity, intense and with slight undertones of spiciness. This excellent maturity quite naturally led to foregoing dosage. In addition to the clay-limestone soil, the area also enjoys the light reflected by the River Marne. This unique location produces early and sweet wines. These used to be referred to as “river wines”. These white wines with a slight occasional hint of burgundy made the area famous long before people began exclusively growing champagne here.
The grapes of the wine are pressed and fermented by plots. Oenologists regularly taste the wine over a period of months. This gives them a broad aromatic palette and a wealth of choices for the assemblage, which is supervised by Louis Roederer's cellarer Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. Together with Philippe Starck, they decided to find their inspiration in the river wines, creating a very land-based, dry champagne without any frills. “In the beginning, the aim was to design a bottle. And I responded that I cannot design a bottle if I’m not a bit responsible for the content”, Philippe Starck explains. He wanted to participate in the development of a special, true, “honest” cuvée. “I’ve already been approached by other champagne companies”, he says. “But I’ve turned down all the offers thus far. I didn’t like the idea of selling a bottle with my name on it, but without any Starck inside. No matter what it’s about, you should work not just on the outside, but penetrate into the interior. If I had agreed simply to design a bottle, I would not have been able to approach the truth of the topic. I wanted to participate in the development of the cuvée, so that its bottle can be an expression of an honest approach, a genuine and complete cooperation, and so that a coherence exists between design and content.”
In 2006, the pinot noirs of the Cumières growing area achieved outstanding maturity, depth and consistency. These grapes are the heart of the new wine by Philippe Starck: Cuvée Brut Nature 2006. “In the beginning, there were long conversations. For hours on end, I described the champagne of my dreams, naturally undosed, drew up character sketches, made comparisons”, says Philippe Starck as he describes his involvement in developing the cuvée. “I told this story from a very wide array of vantages, in very precise words that evoke expressive images. Over the course of our tastings, the cellarer and his team implemented these words on which the concept rested, this abstraction, in the form of a wine. What a stroke of luck that Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon speaks two languages: the language of words and the language of wine.”
This was something completely new for Louis Roederer, too. Frédéric Rouzaud had not previously seen such freedom of design applied to a champagne. “Philippe Starck let us interpret his words, so thanks to his elucidation we were able to progress further than ever before. The more precisely he described his dream, his vision, the more precisely we were able to design the champagne. I remember how he spoke about a wine ‘to the bone’, plain, honest – these words made an impression on me.”
The first tasting was a great experience for all parties concerned. “It was amazing”, Starck describes. “The winemaker had translated the words into champagne, taste, aromas, liquid and bubbles. During the second round of tasting, I was able to order my thoughts more precisely, even if there was virtually nothing to correct, except for a few areas of fine-tuning. When we tasted the final result, it was like a shock: there it was. The champagne whose hologram had emerged before my mind’s eye.”
For Louis Roederer, this was a confirmation that the path on which the company had embarked some time ago – of seeking everyday inspiration from creative research – was the right path to take. “Artists enrich our wines”, says Frédéric Rouzaud. “Brut Nature 2006 is the perfect illustration of this. This champagne is the expression of an encounter: between a wine-growing region and an outstanding year, between our company and Philippe Starck, a great creator, a free man.”
For his design of the bottle, the designer jettisoned all elements of the superfluous. Brut Nature 2006 is topped with a cork closure with no colour, and even the tin capsule is free of lettering. The elegant grey conveys the truthfulness of the cuvée. A Japanese-inspired, water-resistant paper that can be printed and embossed was used for the label, because the most important words should appear in colour, with the others simply hinted at through embossing. A sentence was jointly composed that simply tells the story: “This champagne is a Brut Nature Millésime, created in 2006 by Louis Roederer and Philippe Starck in Reims, France.”
Now that a first opus had been created, the two partners recently resumed their dialogue and issued a second vintage champagne, Brut Nature 2009. “The first adventure was simply fabulous. Together with Roederer, we invented a diagonal, a unique and dynamic language the words of which went over into the cultivation of the soil. The outcome is a dynamic champagne that bears a completely new and wonderfully precise handwriting. For the creation of Brut Nature 2009, we relied on constant parameters, again setting out from idea and word in order to find a rejuvenated, elegant, vertical and crisp champagne casually in which a balanced terroir expresses itself”, notes Philippe Starck with pleasure about the second stroke of genius.
Cuvée Brut Nature 2009 is a champagne without dosage, with fine perlage: no frills, unpretentious and with salty freshness. “We came up with the idea of distilling a tangy cuvée from the freshness of loamy soil, in a year rich with sun”, cellarer Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon explains. The black terroir of Cumières, its clay soils on sloping vineyards with southern exposure, throw back the light of the sun with all its strength. Ten hectares are raked and ridged by hand the way they were in the old days, using the principles of biodynamics, because this vineyard enjoys custom cultivation. A wine-growing method as demanding as this places the focus on the development of the plant. It was introduced in the millennium year 2000, and since then it is the approach of choice in 150 of the 410 plots of the Louis Roederer vineyards. “2009 was a wonderful year. It brought us perfect, very homogeneous, crisp and fresh grapes. In hot years, we express our Burgundian side: The terroir manifests itself wonderfully; the freshness unfolds very gently”, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon explains. Thanks to the attentive care of the vines, they yielded grapes with an ideal combination of physiological, phenolic and aromatic maturity.
Brut Nature 2009 is a champagne that carries the soil within itself, together with the enchanting aromas of ripe fruit. Following the autumnal tones of Brut Nature 2006, the 2009 vintage however shines with vernal freshness. This bottle, too, is deliberately kept simple by Philippe Starck once again, because a champagne created with as much regard for purity, verticality, history, modernity and honesty as Brut Nature 2009 has no need to hide.
Starck designed the label of Brut Nature 2009 in the sense of that gentleman “who is so proud of his champagne. He draws calligraphic lettering on white sheets of paper, a piece of newspaper found by accident or a sheet of watercolour paper belonging to his daughter. Then he takes the felt-tip pen in hand and underlines the important words as if a matter of course. This champagne gets by without any contrived adornments of any kind. Its beauty is seen by the heart only if nothing superfluous needs to be removed. The only thing we remove from this beauty is the cork – in order to drink it.”
Picture credit © Champagne Louis Roederer