Created in 2005 and now led by 36-year old CEO Rodolphe Frerejean Taittinger, Frerejean Frères is one of the youngest houses in Champagne – allowing it to break free from convention. The company ethos sits somewhere between that of a typical maison and that of a grower as Victor Smart discovered when he visits for its inaugural maison cellar dinner. Smart meets the Frerejean Frères team and samples the wines including Cuvée des Hussards 2012 and VV26 Grand Cru, a blend of 2008, 2009 and 2016 harvests from vines dating back to 1926.
“We take a fresh approach to Champagne, that respects traditional methods, but leaves room for innovation. We are not a big orchestra but rather a small jazz band,” says Frerejean Taittinger.
The October sunshine is slanting across the valley of Champagne and a cold nip appears in the air as evening draws in. But out in the company’s vineyard on the Côte des Blancs, Didier Pierson, winemaker at Frerejean Frères, seems to be inwardly beaming with happiness. The reason simply is the sheer quality of this year’s new harvest.
“This year was an extraordinary year – one of the best I have seen,” he declares. The vines were very healthy all year thanks to the weather. The summer was dry and full of sun. Worries about climate change, mildew and botrytis could all be set aside, for the moment at least.
It is, of course, too early to assume that this will be an epic vintage, counsels Pierson. We won’t know until January whether this is one of those irksome years which disappoints after the fermentation. But you can see that the fifth-generation winemaker is daring to dream that 2022 will indeed be a truly wonderful.
A fresh approach
Pierson has been with the Frerejean Frères maison based in Avize since the beginning. This is not so long ago. The backstory is that when the Taittinger family sold off its historic Champagne business about twenty years ago, they discovered the itch to brew bubbles had not deserted them. One side of the family bought back the original Champagne business while the other set up a quite new maison. The latter was Frerejean Frères, created in 2005 and now led by 36-year old CEO Rodolphe Frerejean Taittinger.
Those hoping for a dramatic dynastic struggle between the two will be disappointed. Frerejean Frères is positioned very much as a niche brand, small but near the top of the market. As has been remarked, its company ethos sits somewhere between that of a typical maison and that of a grower. And it does several things unconventionally. It does not use one of the traditional Champagne grapes, Meunier, for example. And it ages even its non-vintage wine for a minimum of five years, a move unlikely to please the accountants.
Frerejean Taittinger comments: “We take a fresh approach to Champagne, that respects traditional methods, but leaves room for innovation. We are not a big orchestra but rather a small jazz band.”
Where the firm is on trend is in trying to acquire new vineyards. At the moment it owns a mere five hectares. So it’s joined the scramble to buy up the limited land still available within the region. Interestingly, Frerejean Frères also hopes to go organic, something that would fit neatly with its ethos of respect for the terroir. But only three per cent of Champagne output currently meets the organic criteria and the firm isn’t expecting to get there for another eight years.
Our trip is a full Champagne immersion. We’ve been savouring Frerejean Frères since the Euorstar pulled out of St Pancras. The new Loisium hotel, where we are staying, boasts integral ice buckets for bubbly in the bedrooms plus a “view on the sea of vines.” And our first formal tasting is in the vineyard in the Côte des Blancs before we adjourn for dinner in the cellar of the maison.
So how were the wines tasting?
We kick off with the least expensive cuvée, the Brut Premier Cru NV (£39 retail a bottle). Made from half Chardonnay and half Pinot Nor, this is elegant and balanced. But the Ultra Brut Premier Cru costing £6 a bottle more has appreciably more finesse. The Blanc de Blancs (£65 a bottle) is a further step up and begins to show the house style better. With reserve wines from more than a decade ago, this has a balanced intensity and a lovely minerality.
As we go vintage, it’s a big jump pricewise up to the firm’s Cuvée des Hussards 2012 (£120 a bottle). This starts to show in terms of quality with a notable precision. And for those feeling flush with cash, there’s a batch of this wine that has been matured for two years at 60 metres under the sea on sale at Harrods for £850 a bottle.
But there’s no need to go to quite that price point. The VV26 Grand Cru (£105 a bottle), 100 per cent Chardonnay from the villages of Avize, Cramant and Oger, shows off the Frerejean Frères style at its most advanced. It’s a selection from old, low-yielding vineyards some of them dating back to 1926 (hence “Vieille Vignes ‘26”). A blend of 2008, 2009 and 2016 harvests, this is limited to just under 10,000 bottles.
Prolonged ageing brings some remarkable complexity and length. In fact, as Rodolphe Frerejean Taittinger remarks, the wine morphs from being a classic Champagne to something more like a top white Burgundy. A hybrid which is simultaneously faintly disconcerting and a true marvel.