Press

July 19, 2018

Champagne Louis Roederer

How Climate Change Has Altered the Way Cristal Champagne Is Made

With a visionary in charge, Louis Roederer has walked the line between a big Champagne house and a grower-producer.

REIMS, France — Back in 1996, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, a young assistant at Louis Roederer Champagne, took on the daunting task of forecasting the next 30 years for the venerable house.

How would the world change for Champagne? And what should Roederer do to adapt to those changes?

The project required a far-reaching understanding of science, politics and wine, and it meant looking both to the future and the past. Although few foresaw it at the time, Champagne was on the brink of a revolution that would transform how the rest of the world looked at the region and its wines, and how Champagne viewed itself.

Mr. Lécaillon was hardly an obvious candidate to take on this study. Just 30 years old at the time, he had joined Roederer in 1989 with degrees in agronomy and oenology. He had seen wine operations in other parts of the world, working on Roederer projects in California and Tasmania.

But he had been marked as a future chef de cave, or head of the winemaking team, and had worked closely with Jean-Claude Rouzaud, then the head of Roederer, whose family has owned the house since Louis Roederer gave it his name in 1833.

Mr. Lécaillon produced a forecast that anticipated the wide-ranging effects of global warming. It asserted that it was imperative for Roederer to emphasize the sense of place in the wines, while carving out clearer identities for each cuvée.

As it turned out, he was remarkably prescient, not only about the increased importance of climate change but also about how a big Champagne house would need to adapt to the changes about to sweep over the region.

Today, Louis Roederer is arguably the greatest large-scale producer in Champagne. Each of its wines — from the nonvintage Brut Premier to the prestigious Cristal — is at the top of its form, and each is among the best wines of its kind in Champagne.

For discerning consumers, who over the last 15 years have turned their attention from Champagne’s big houses to focus on the grower-producers — small farmers who make their own wine — this might seem surprising. The big houses have been dismissed by many as stodgy and dull, more interested in marketing products than producing great wine.

While some big houses have certainly been coasting for a long time, or have taken a cautious approach, Roederer is not among them. Led by Mr. Lécaillon, Roederer is a progressive leader in Champagne, as if it had seen the future and positioned itself perfectly.

Roederer has blurred the line between big house and grower-producer. It now grows more than 70 percent of its grapes in its estate vineyards, mostly farmed organically or biodynamically. Though the house still purchases grapes for its nonvintage Brut Premier, all its vintage Champagnes are entirely estate wines.

Champagne has come a long way since the mid-1990s, when the big houses unquestionably ruled. Many consumers think about it completely differently now, as a wine rather than as festive bubbles divorced from vines and earth.

Back then, the focus of Champagne was the cellar. Few people talked about the vineyards, and almost nobody in the region wanted to speak about terroir. The big houses preferred it that way.

The shoddy viticulture and the rampant mediocrity of mass-market Champagnes could be ignored by talking up the skill of the master blender, who could mix a little of this and a little of that to create a house style that was repeated year after year, regardless of vintage conditions or vineyards.

Tuxedos and evening gowns were the images of Champagne, not the dirt-encrusted boots of the vigneron.

“We always knew terroir, but we didn’t use to speak of it,” Mr. Lécaillon said this month as we walked through a biodynamically farmed vineyard in Avize in the Côte de Blancs, used for Roederer’s vintage blanc de blancs. “Thirty years ago, the subject was house style. Today, that’s not the question. Everybody wants to talk about terroir.”

Terroir and farming are of prime concern to Mr. Lécaillon, who took over as chef de cave in 1999 on the condition that he be put in charge of the vineyards as well. Responding to global warming and increasing the sense of place in the wines required some radical changes.

He wanted the vines to have a much deeper root system that plunged into the bedrock of chalky limestone and clay; he believed that would help to protect against heat and drought while better expressing the character of the vineyard. To accomplish this, he eliminated the use of herbicides and fertilizers, developed techniques for training the roots downward and began trials for both organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Biodynamic viticulture — a variation of organic agriculture developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner — was gaining popularity in the 1990s among vignerons, particularly in Burgundy, where renowned producers like Domaine Laflaive and others swore by it.

Mr. Lécaillon adapted the techniques for Roederer and for years ran experiments farming some blocks biodynamically and some organically. Each year, Mr. Lécaillon and his team tasted the results blind, then compared.

“After four or five years we were 100 percent able to identify the wines from biodynamic soils,” he said. “More intensity, more clarity of fruit, a velvety texture and a link between fruit and acidity.

“It’s a very intelligent way of farming,” he said. “I don’t understand Steiner at all, but I see the results.”

Nonetheless, he says that some years his team preferred the wines farmed organically. He said organic farming produced fleshier wines, while biodynamics gave “more pixels.”

Now, Roederer has more than 250 acres that are either biodynamic or organic, depending on the vintage. Each vineyard block, 410 in total, is vinified separately and can then be blended as desired.

“I would say biodynamic is more suited to warmer years, and organic to cooler years,” he said. “You need both because you never know.”

The relentless experimentation and thoughtfulness extends into all aspects of farming and winemaking. He has adapted new, gentler methods of pruning vines as a means of preventing esca, a devastating vine disease that attacks through pruning wounds. And he has researched ways to extend the life of the vines, which he believes can only begin to express the qualities of the terroir at around 20 years of age.

At the same time, he is undaunted by milder afflictions, like yellow-leaf virus, which can affect the vigor of the vines. Some diseases, he says, must be accepted.

“A perfect world is an idea of the 1970s,” he said. “It doesn’t exist, and it’s super boring. When you see no disease, you don’t know your enemy, and you don’t learn.” What he seeks instead, he said, is “perfect imperfection.”

Even the details of producing compost for the Roederer vineyards fascinate him, and he will launch into a disquisition on the differences between horse and cow manure. (Horse manure ferments at a higher temperature.) “Composting is an art, not a standard recipe,” he said.

In addition to his responsibilities at the Roederer Champagne house, Mr. Lécaillon also oversees operations at other properties owned by the Louis Roederer Group, including Roederer Estate in California, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac, Ramos Pinto in Portugal and Domaines Ott in Provence, among others.

The myriad holdings, in different soils and climates, act for him, he said, as “a kind of a super think tank for the future of viticulture.”

“We know how to make great sparkling wine in California,” he said. “So I’m not afraid of climate change.”

It all would not be worth much, of course, if the quality of the wines did not bear out his efforts. But they do.

The nonvintage Brut Premier, which accounts for about 70 percent of the production, is among the best of its kind, a wine both of freshness and depth. It’s the least expensive of the Roederer lineup, at $30 to $50 a bottle.

“A perfect world is an idea of the 1970s,” he said. “It doesn’t exist, and it’s super boring. When you see no disease, you don’t know your enemy, and you don’t learn.” What he seeks instead, he said, is “perfect imperfection.”

Even the details of producing compost for the Roederer vineyards fascinate him, and he will launch into a disquisition on the differences between horse and cow manure. (Horse manure ferments at a higher temperature.) “Composting is an art, not a standard recipe,” he said.

In addition to his responsibilities at the Roederer Champagne house, Mr. Lécaillon also oversees operations at other properties owned by the Louis Roederer Group, including Roederer Estate in California, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Pauillac, Ramos Pinto in Portugal and Domaines Ott in Provence, among others.

The myriad holdings, in different soils and climates, act for him, he said, as “a kind of a super think tank for the future of viticulture.”

“We know how to make great sparkling wine in California,” he said. “So I’m not afraid of climate change.”

It all would not be worth much, of course, if the quality of the wines did not bear out his efforts. But they do.

The nonvintage Brut Premier, which accounts for about 70 percent of the production, is among the best of its kind, a wine both of freshness and depth. It’s the least expensive of the Roederer lineup, at $30 to $50 a bottle.

“Having done the work we have done, which is kind of disruptive,” he said, “the whole Roederer team is now empowered in the idea of experimenting, trialing and questioning all the time.”

 

Link: www.nytimes.com/2018/07/19/dining/drinks/champagne-louis-roederer-cristal.html