According to Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, cellar master for the Louis Roederer Champagne House in Reims, France, the golden age of Champagne was the period of the 1940s through the 1970s. On a warm spring afternoon, Lecaillon presided over a tasting of the Roederer range, which includes the luxury brand Cristal, in a small room above the cavernous cellars, sipping (mostly nosing, actually) from generous pours with a distant look in his eyes. “People were so happy after the horrors of World War II were over, and happy people make good wine,” he explained. “In the 1970s, it became more about business.” Lecaillon, who has been with Roederer since 1989, has tried to make winemaking about much more than the bottom line, while also working hard to implement biodynamic practices over the past two decades.
“By far, there is no [Champagne] house doing what we do,” when it comes to biodynamic winemaking, says Lecaillon. “Not yet. I started [the process] 18 years ago, and people thought we were completely crazy. Now we are seen as a trailblazer.” The numbers are impressive. The entire Roederer estate is certified “Sustainable Viticulture in Champagne” and “High Environmental Value” by the French government and the Comite Champagne organization, which certifies the excellence and authenticity of all spirits from the Champagne region. Half of the estate is certified organic (or will be soon) and biodynamic, including the 46 plots devoted to growing grapes for Cristal, the house’s premiere brand. “In the end, nature does things properly,” said Lecaillon, noting that both the quality of the wine and the environment will be improved by this philosophy. He also says that while climate change is having an effect on winemaking, he believes the industry will be able to adapt, though clearly there will be challenges along the way.
Louis Roederer has been a family-run business since it was founded in 1776. It was initially called Dubois Pere & Fils, but when Louis Roederer inherited the company in 1833 he renamed it after himself. Seventh generation family member Frederic Rouzaud helms the company today, having taken over from his father in 2006. “We are a family affair,” says Lecaillon. “We think long-term, we think in terms of terroir. We are linked to the soil by our family ownership.” Both Rouzaud and Lecaillon describe the company’s philosophy as being product rather than market-driven, due in part to the fact that it is independently owned. This long-term vision is essential, as Lecaillon must always be thinking about the next generation when planting vines that might not yield grapes that can be used for several decades.
Over half of the Roederer vineyards are Grand Cru, the top classification of grapes in the region. These are handpicked during harvest season when they are as ripe as possible, then pressed and fermented by individual vineyard to allow each batch to develop its own distinctive identity. Lecaillon says that the Champagne terroir is a combination of factors, including soil, exposure, climate, and, last but not least, the human touch. The entire Roederer range is meticulously crafted, from harvest to fermentation to blending, but Cristal certainly gets the most attention, especially in America. One bottle can be the result of 50 years of work, which explains why it comes with such a high price tag. A vine that provides the grapes for Cristal can be up to 42 years old, and the champagne is then aged for another eight years before it is ready. Spend some time nosing and tasting one of the vintages, like the new Cristal 2008, and all this work and attention slowly comes into focus. Yes, this is an exorbitantly priced bottle of Champagne ($55-489 per bottle), but it’s also often exquisite.
The cool cellars below the Roederer winemaking facilities are massive, winding along underground for many kilometers. The atmosphere is dark and moody, with over 800,000 liters of reserve wine aging at any given moment, along with countless bottles fermenting in racks. Lecaillon walks past a row of darkened casks with carvings that show the winemaking process from start to finish, then picks up a dusty bottle. “There are 47 million potential bubbles in one bottle,” he marvels, the result of the interaction between yeast and sugar. According to Lecaillon, yeast is perhaps the most important ingredient in the winemaking process. “Before we have tasted the wine, there are millions of yeast that have tasted it,” he says. “So let’s listen to them.”
“It’s such an act of love, so our approach is for the Champagne to be used in celebration,” continued Rouzaud. “It’s a joyful spirit, and that’s the spirit in which we love to see it shared onscreen.” This all might sound a little precious, but Roederer would argue that its product is as well.
Perceptions about Champagne are slowly changing, something that Lecaillon welcomes and encourages. While it’s often thought of as a drink for special occasions, people are coming around to the concept of pairing Champagne with food and enjoying it anytime, not just on birthdays or New Year’s Eve. “We need to explain in a relaxed way, not too intellectual or formal, that we can pair Champagne with different things,” says Lecaillon. At the same time, Roederer, and especially Cristal, have to constantly live up to its luxury reputation. “You have to challenge yourself every day,” says Lecaillon. “We have to be at the level of the terroir we have, and we have to make a wine at the level of our reputation. I think we do succeed in that, especially with Cristal.”