Food & Drink The £109 vintage sparkling wine... that's alcohol free

The £109 vintage sparkling wine… that's alcohol free


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In the world of alcohol-free, which I’ve explored extensively both as The Telegraph’s drinks writer and as a judge in the no/low section of the Sommelier Edit Awards, it’s rare enough to hear de-alcoholised wine described as “fine” in the sense of “not bad”. Hearing it used to mean “fine” as in “fine wine” is, for me, a first. Never mind, for the moment, the price. Perhaps the more interesting question is whether French Bloom could really have succeeded in creating what previously seemed impossible.

The brain behind French Bloom is Maggie Frerejean-Taittinger, an effortlessly soignée American from Chicago, who is married to Rodolphe Frerejean-Taittinger, a scion of the Taittinger champagne family who founded his own champagne house, Frerejean Frères, in 2005 in Avize in the Côte des Blancs area of Champagne.

The idea took seed in 2019 when Maggie was pregnant with twin boys. Living in Paris but travelling extensively for her then-role managing the international development of the Michelin Guide, she was eating out “Non-stop! For me it’s so key that what you drink should complement the beautiful meal you have in front of you. And as a wine and champagne lover, I found myself feeling a little bit excluded from the dinners and from social events with family and friends. I felt like I wasn’t part of the ‘cheers’ moment.”

Maggie Frerejean-Taittinger

She expressed her frustration to the French model Constance Jablonski, a friend who said she was finding it hard to choose an appropriate drink for all the networking occasions within the fashion industry. The pair decided to do something about it, founding French Bloom and raising €13 million (£11.1 million) from investors including Jean-François Moueix of Pétrus, the fabled Bordeaux château. Maggie’s husband Rodolphe guides the winemaking.

Was it hard to persuade a man whose pedigree is steeped in champagne to be involved? “Rodolphe was immediately intrigued by the idea of crafting complex alcohol-free sparkling wines, loving the challenge it presented,” says Maggie.

No/low is a fast-growing and hugely innovative sector of the drinks market, catering to a population that increasingly sees high alcohol consumption as a problem and not a pleasure. 12.5 per cent of adults in the UK are already teetotal and, according to the organisers of Dry January, of those who do drink, 30 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women would like to drink less. A drinking approach that you might call flexitarian – sometimes on, sometimes off, sometimes mixing, but generally always less alcohol – is increasingly common.

In the fine dining arena, demand for sophisticated no/low options is “huge” says Christopher Delalonde, a master sommelier and the head of wine at Tao Group Hospitality UK whose restaurants include Hakkasan in Mayfair. Delalonde already lists French Bloom’s first two releases, Le Blanc 0.0% and Le Rosé 0.0% (which retail at around £32-35) and says their “fresh” flavours appeal to non-drinkers.

French Bloom La Cuvée Blanc de Blancs 2022 is something different, however. The aim, says Maggie, was “to create something that resembles a vintage sparkling wine at a point of maturity [the French would call] ‘plénitude’ – for us typically 12 to 20 years old”. Behind it are four years of research and development and extensive trials involving grapes from six different French wine regions, including Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Loire and Champagne.

“The big trap [with alcohol-free wine] is to believe that simply using classic wine and removing the alcohol is enough. No that’s not enough at all,” says Rodolphe. For La Cuvée, a limited production of 17,000 bottles, he uses organic chardonnay grapes grown on hilltop sites in the Languedoc. Because the dealcoholisation process strips away flavour and texture along with the alcohol, it is necessary, he says, to “overplay” some of the flavours, create a wine with “shoulders” so that there is enough left after the manipulation. Thus part of the wine is aged in new French oak before being dealcoholised using a vacuum distillation process.

La Cuvée Blanc de Blancs

It isn’t easy to assess such a pioneering wine, particularly when it comes with a £109 weight of expectation, so in the interests of getting a rounded picture, I took a bottle to a trade tasting and tried it out on a bunch of sommeliers, trade buyers and Joe Wadsack: a former BBC Food & Drink presenter and my go-to wine wingman.

La Cuvée is quite a deep gold colour, with a fine mousse (sparkle) and a marked butterscotch and white chocolate nose. “Like Fortnum & Mason stuffed prunes and flat Bolly!” said Wadsack. It’s far more complex than any other dealcoholised wine I’ve tasted and far more convincing. Those who tried it completely blind – not knowing it was 0.0% – did spot the absence of alcohol. Pretty much every taster said the wine it most closely resembled was a mature vintage champagne. Most had some positive comments; one or two wrinkled their noses: “A mature champagne that has been poorly cellared and oxidised.” Compared to everything else in alcohol-free wine that I’ve tasted, I was impressed and feel that, in taste terms, La Cuvée does move the whole enterprise forward. Joe said he was “astonished”. One flavour caveat: even when you’re talking about the real thing, the taste of mature champagne is not for everyone and does tend to be acquired.

So, to that price tag. Is it worth £109? Look, is a bottle of anything worth £109? I certainly don’t have the budget to drop three figures on a bottle of wine, alcoholic or otherwise. This stuff isn’t for me, it’s for the 0.01 per cent who fly between NYC and London eating out, catching a cab back to their hotel and getting up at 5am to work out before their 7am breakfast meeting. Does it deliver as much pleasure as a good £100 bottle of actual wine? No. But since it’s in a class of its own that’s not really the point. Perhaps if people take to it, then it will pave the way for less expensive versions. But also, perhaps it’s a little bit vulgar to imagine that high prices are only OK for fine wine that’s also going to get you drunk.


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