At the Scala Wine tasting at 67 Pall Mall last week, Louis Roederer’s esteemed chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, hosted a fascinating tasting in order to demonstrate how the impacts of climate change are transferring from the vineyard to the glass.
The tasting was titled ‘Fighting for Freshness’ as it is now well known that the warming climate is increasing the ripeness of grapes in this marginal region, and so altering the style of the wine that the consumer ultimately receives.
Jean-Baptiste: “Freshness is the DNA of Champagne!”
This focus on freshness is certainly a key characteristic of many regions but for Champagne, it is a defining issue. This was reiterated in an earlier interview on this site with Krug CEO Margareth Henriquez who emphasised the enormous lengths undertaken to not just sustain but to increase freshness.
Because we somewhat simplistically associate the freshness in the wine with the higher levels of acidity, Jean-Baptiste (J-B) emphasises that to the taster it is more than this. It is a combination of “high acidity, but with more precision, purity, length… salinity, sapidity… all contribute to freshness.”
Is it just a case of dosage adjustment?
A question I invariably ask out of interest at sparkling wine tastings is “what’s the dosage?”, mainly because there is an undeniable trend towards lower dosage wines. There is also the obvious association between this lowering of added sugar and the ripening of the grapes. The sensations in the mouth can be enormously impressive and occasionally shockingly electric.
I noticed that J-B batted away questions from the room asking for the dosage of the wines we were tasting, sounding almost vague with the answer, preferring to comment that the dosage is adjusted to achieve the right balance and that is the key.
A bit later he did state that over the last 30 years dosage has generally come down in brut wines from 12g/l to 7-8g/l. Although there is not much new in this knowledge, it does demonstrate that climate warming creates the feedback of adjusting the balance levels, and over certain thresholds, emergent fuller styles of Champagne may well be on the way.
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In order to dispel any notion that dosage is the ultimate governor of balance, the tasting began with Louis Roederer’s Brut Nature 2009, which bursts onto the palate with a light creamy texture, fresh cut apple and clean long finish. There is dryness from the low dosage but it is offset by the ageing that gives a touch of autolytic roundness to the flavour and impression.
I am personally ambivalent about very low dosage sparkling wines as they can give a bit of shock. That said, they do also provide good reference points to tasters exploring the boundaries of freshness and balance.
Impact of organics and biodynamic processes
The conversion to organic and biodynamic winemaking is a hot topic everywhere and winemakers stating they are either is certainly resonating with consumers.
Champagne writer and author Michael Edwards said afterwards, “Jean-Baptiste is a great student of champagne vintages and harvests since the Roederer family planted their first vines in the 1840’s. Their story today is as much looking back to the excellent vintages of the 49s and 50s (47, 49, 52, 55, & 59) - a time when the best Champenois houses and growers were organic before it ever became fashionable.”
It has been the drive for quantity that has made the use of chemicals so ubiquitous and necessary but now the winds are blowing in a new direction. Overuse of chemicals is killing soils and reducing biodiversity. This is not just something seen in wine but also across all agriculture.
Responding to a combination of changing consumer demands and improvements in the actual wine produced from vines growing in a biodiverse environment, producers are striving to bring life back into the fields.
Many producers in Champagne are radically reducing the use of chemicals and working with newly developed techniques to encourage biodiversity and resilience in the vineyard. Roederer uses organic and biodynamic processes across the board despite only having biodynamic certification for 2 of their wines.
But do these processes help in the fight against climate change? It is a loaded question but one J-B answers assuredly saying, “There is a new balance of ripeness and freshness but with lower pH. and the technique is adapted for vintage variation.” As with the dosage, there is no fixed dogma when one goes toe to toe with nature.
We also tasted the Louis Roederer Blanc De Blancs 2010 which I thought was particularly delicious. During the period of 1930-60, this wine was only created for family consumption. It had a lower pressure of 4bar, like a crémant, giving it a creamier mousse than typical champagne. The acidity here is so focused that it holds the baked apple and savoury flavours together on the palate like a sensitive parcel of pleasure. A dry finish with a touch of mineral salinity. According to J-B, "2010 was a Chardonnay vintage". Very enjoyable indeed.
The last wine we tasted was the Cristal 2008 which has a great concentration of pear and a super fine/precise acidity, full of life and energy. The parcels of vineyard that provide these grapes are the chalkiest Roederer have with vines up to 65 years of age to add to the concentration of flavours.
The combination of structure and round easy fruit that stays on the palate adds to the seductive quality of the wine. J-B calls it “discreet power” and he is spot on.
The tasting draws to an end with our thoughtful host saying, "The excellence comes from the soils and climate, not the winemaking. With climate change and farming practices changing, it means that winemaking needs to be reinvented.”
The irony today is that Champagne is in a golden age, producing many outstanding wines that benefit from a very slight increase in temperatures. But this golden age should be seen through a window of fast-moving change. With the climate flux just beginning and our collective societal efforts to reduce or stop emitting CO2 failing, there is currently no countervailing force to halt or reverse rising temperatures. Jean-Baptiste himself corrected a fellow taster who used the term climate change, saying: "I will call it a climate crisis because calling it climate change is too nice".
It reminds me of a line in Hemingway's book, 'The Sun Also Rises'. When the bankrupt Brit is asked how he ended up that way, he replied, "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."
Nick Breeze is on Twitter and Instagram as @NickGBreeze
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