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Why the CEO of a Champagne House Took of the Challenge of Creating a Zero-Alcohol £100-a-bottle Sparkling Wine

Maggie Frèrejean-Taittinger, co-founder of French Bloom, and husband Rodolphe Frèrejean-Taittinger (left) who has overseen the winemaking of La Cuvée in his time off from being CEO and co-owner of Champagne house Frèrejean Frères

Would I have written about a non-alcoholic sparkling wine if it hadn’t come with a price tag in excess of £100 a bottle and the name Taittinger hovering in the background? Probably not, although it does break new ground beyond the question of price and the Champagne connection.

For a start, French Bloom La Cuvée is a single-vintage Blanc de Blancs – an all-Chardonnay 2022. And the quest itself was different. The goal was to make a complex alcohol-free wine, not just for teetotallers but one that would be enjoyed by lovers of aged Champagne, people like co-founder Maggie Frèrejean-Taittinger and her husband Rodolphe Frèrejean-Taittinger, who share a love of aged Champagnes going back 15 or 20 years, and even going back to the 1990s and 1980s.

The idea for La Cuvée came to Maggie five years ago when she became pregnant with their twins while in charge of international development for the Michelin Guide. Suddenly she found herself almost sidelined at events and dinners by the lack of a sophisticated non-alcoholic wine.

Rodolphe, who has overseen the winemaking for La Cuvée since inception, is a first cousin of the Taittinger family on his mother’s side and CEO of the Champagne house Frèrejean Frères, which he and his two brothers founded in 2005 with, at its heart, some prime Côte des Blancs vineyards in Avize that they had inherited.

It was when visiting Champagne in 2022 to write a review of the house for The World of Fine Wine that I first heard about French Bloom from Rodolphe. To be honest, I was surprised to find the head of a Champagne house so keenly embedded in such a project.

At that stage there were two French Bloom non-alcoholic sparkling wines, Le Blanc and Le Rosé, both non-vintage and currently costing around £29–£33. La Cuvée was in development. It took four years and “cost us millions of euros,” says Rodolphe.

"When you dealcoholise a wine, there’s no nose, no texture, no length and you lose 60% of the aromas and about 20% of the wine"

That in part explains the price (£109, Harrods). But there’s also "a price for uniqueness," says Rodolphe. “We are pioneers. There’s a really big market, a really big demand. You pay a price for rarity.”

They produced only 17,000 bottles of the 2022 (out of 400,000 total French Bloom) and Maggie says they are committed to making it only in the best years. But they are nonetheless going to increase production.

So, how do you set about making a non-alcoholic vintage sparkling wine that Champagne drinkers will want to drink? You go back to scratch and rethink, says Rodolphe. “The mistake is to think you can just take a wine, however great, like Pétrus, and think you can de-alcoholise it. When you dealcoholise a wine, there’s no nose, no texture, no length.” Apparently, you lose 60% of the aromas and about 20% of the wine (the loss of wine adding to the production costs).

The mention of Château Pétrus is no coincidence. J-P Moueix has been a partner since the beginning, as has Rémy Martin Cognac. Again, no coincidence. What Rodolphe calls the main idea came from a Cognac cellar master, and Rodolphe and his brother Guillaume are behind the revival of the historic boutique Cognac house of Coutanseaux Aîné.

When making Cognac, he says, you start with a very neutral wine that is made to be distilled. With wine that is to be de-alcoholised, you’re starting from the opposite pole. “You have to exaggerate every parameter, create a base wine that’s overly oaky, that you over acidify, and we do it without sulphites.” It tastes no nicer than it sounds, apparently.

There were just 17,000 bottles of this first vintage of French Bloom La Cuvée Blanc de Blancs, but production is set to increase

Another difficulty is that unlike Champagne, which you can age in the bottle, you can’t do that with dealcoholised wine: it doesn’t have either the alcohol or the acidity. Unsexy as it sounds, there’s a shelf-life, says Maggie.

One of the errors they made along the way was dealcoholising the wine then ageing it in barrel. It simply didn’t work. They were not satisfied with the 2020 or 2021, but finally, in 2022, they got what they were looking for: “good aroma, texture and length,” in Rodolphe's words.

They did it by sourcing organic Chardonnay grapes in Limoux in the south of France, where the wines have what Rodolphe calls “more shoulders and backbone” than those of Champagne and the wines from other French regions they tried. But Limoux Chardonnay doesn’t have Champagne’s acidity, so they harvest early and acidify with tartaric acid.

Vinification is partly in French oak barrels, a proportion new, and partly in stainless steel and it lasts six to eight months. At the end, they have what Rodolphe describes as “a really strong wine that really isn’t drinkable.” Using low temperature vacuum distillation in three stages, they reduce the alcohol from 13% to less than 0.5%. They then extract some of the aromas from the distillate and reintegrate them.

The wine is bottled immediately afterwards with a gasification. It’s very challenging, says Rodolphe, who adds that they have been “working on finer bubbles.” The last step is pasteurisation to get two to three years’ shelf life.

It can’t be said that any of it sounds very sexy, but there’s no question that French Bloom La Cuvée 2022 breaks new ground in the no-low wine category – both in what it set out to do and in how it does it.

Does it succeed in terms of taste?

I can’t speak for others, but it has a market and its fans: Harrods is the exclusive UK retailer (£109); the Best Sommelier of the World 2023, Raimonds Tomsons, has praised its “fine complexity and length”; and the Michelin Guide, Maggie’s former employer, has made French Bloom its preferred alcohol-free drinks partner.

I can speak for myself, however. It’s more complex than the other alcohol-free wines I’ve tasted, both still and sparkling. The colour is deep gold colour, the bubbles are fine and there are powerful aromas of dried apricot with some bruised apple, then notes of malt, honey and spice. The palate is dry (unlike most dealcoholised wine), quite light and airy with marked citrusy acidity and with mature-tasting notes of malt, chocolate and honey. But there’s a lingering bruised-apple oxidative note that I don’t like.

Does it taste like aged vintage Champagne? No, not to me – and not with food or without. But Maggie and Rodolphe Frèrejean-Taittinger don't claim that it tastes like Champagne. They set out to create a complex, alcohol-free sparkling wine that lovers of aged Champagne would enjoy. Sales and anecdote suggest that some of them do – including with food, which Maggie, in particular, hoped for.

It doesn’t appeal to me but I’m not their market. No and low alcohol is here to stay and French Bloom La Cuvée takes it a step forward. And I can stick to Frèrejean Frères Champagnes with great pleasure.

My profile of Champagne Frèrejean Frères in The World of Fine Wine.


han gu
han gu

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