Champagne Louis Roederer: Craftmanship and Top-Class Winemaking
The Japanese version is published for my wine column at Forbes Japan here.
Champagne is a “craft” built upon from a long history. Champenois people created wines with bubbles, refined these wines over time and now, and established Champagne as an unparalleled region for producing sparkling wine.
Champagne has come to be associated with an image of luxury and is recognized as a wine for celebrations and special occasions. While sparkling wines are now being made all over the world, Champagne still retains its position as the top region for producing sparkling wine. This is due to the dedication and efforts of its producers as well as the visionary producers who are leading the development of the region as a whole.
One of these visionary producers is Champagne maison, Louis Roederer. Famous for its prestige cuvée, Cristal, it exemplifies “Innovation, passion, craftmanship and leadership”, i.e., sincere winemaking, pursuit of the ultimate result, and two figures leading the maison.
CEO Frédéric Rouzaud (left) and Cellar Master, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon (right)
Family, Tradition and History
Louis Roederer, founded in 1776, is one of the oldest Champagne maisons. Its name was engraved in world history such that the maison used to make wines for Russian emperors.
While many Champagne maisons are now owned by large corporations, Louis Roederer is one of the few that is still family-owned. Frédéric Rouzaud, the seventh generation of the family-owners, has served as CEO since 2006 and manages the whole company. According to him, “To make top-quality wine expressing the sense of place in Champagne is the spirits inherited from generation to generation in my family”.
Frédéric expands on this, saying that, for Louis Roederer “Being a family-owned private company is advantageous”. The advantages include having long-term strategies, flexible decision making based on its own belief, and focusing on quality, rather than short-term marketing. These are the key drivers of Louis Roederer that have enabled it to be a top producer for such a long time.
In the 1970s, during the time of Frédéric’s father, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, Louis Roederer started to invest in wineries and vineyards outside of Champagne. Now they own and make wines in many places, including California, Porto, the south of France, and Bordeaux. While mergers and acquisitions have taken place frequently in the wine industry in recent years, Louis Roederer is also active but only focuses on a target that they can share the visions and values with.
The range of wines that Louis Roederer produces all over the world
Leadership in Viticulture
Louis Roederer’s origins and values lie in vineyards. Winemaking of the highest quality starts with grape-growing and this includes the work on the soils that grow the vines. Furthermore, precise winemaking techniques are vitally important. Another leader of Louis Roederer is Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Cellar Master, responsible for the entire process of winemaking from vineyards to bottles.
At Champagne maisons, the Cellar Master is usually only in charge of winemaking. It is for a historical reason that in the Champagne region, grape-growing and winemaking have been separated.
Approximately 90% of the vineyards are owned by grape growers and maisons’ vineyard holding is limited to 10% as a whole. On the other hand, maisons and cooperatives account for the majority of champagne production (around 80%). This means that major maisons produce wines not only with grapes from their own vineyards but also with grapes purchased from growers.
Jean-Baptiste believes that viticulture/grape-growing is the first thing that he needs to work on to produce the best quality champagne. When the former CEO, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, offered him a position of Cellar Master back in 1999, he accepted with the condition that he would be in charge of winemaking as well as viticulture. This was unusual at a Champagne maison.
In fact, the key to the high quality of Louis Roederer’s wine lies in its own vineyards which are as large as 240 hectares over the Champagne region. These cover around two-thirds of its total production, which is a very high percentage for a Champagne maison. Most of the vineyards of Louis Roederer are located in Grand Cru or Premier Cru villages that have great terroirs. These vineyards are the legacy succeeded from the visionary predecessors of Louis Roederer. Jean-Baptiste decided to make fundamental improvements to these treasures.
In the 1970s to 1980s, a wave of mass production came to the Champagne region and many farmers started using chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides. Productive winemaking from high-yielding grapes prevailed. This contributed to the growth and expansion of the champagne market in the world, but at the same time, something was lost.
160 oak casks have stored reserve wines in the Cellar; the oldest wine is over 100 years old.
Louis Roederer was among the first to have started to work on the improvement of the vineyards. Now it is the leader in the viticulture as well as the largest organic and biodynamic producer in the Champagne region.
For Jean-Baptiste, a trigger came in the vintage of 1996. Although this was a year with great weather conditions, he thought something was wrong because the wines were not as good as he expected them to be. He felt something had to be done, but the Champagne region has a cool and wet climate and it is not easy to practice organic or biodynamic farming. At that time, only a few people practiced these types of farming, which require time and commitment, and not many people believed what he was trying to achieve.
Now that more than twenty years have passed, people’s minds have changed and his foresight has reaped benefits. More and more producers are now focusing on vineyards and working on sustainable viticulture. Furthermore, there is an increased interest among producers in making wines that express their terroir.
When I visited the Champagne region, one of the prominent organic producers told me that, “The work done by an influential producer like Louis Roederer has made a huge impact on the region. Other maisons have started to follow.”
One of Louis Roederer's objectives in adopting sustainable farming is to express the characteristics of their vineyards with the best terroirs, and reflect those in the wines. Just as importantly, Jean-Baptiste himself has identified a positive outcome of what he and his team have worked on – better quality grapes are being harvested. Since they started organic and biodynamic farming, he feels the changes such that vines have rooted deeper in the soils, and – while yield has been lowered – the grapes have more concentrated flavors.
Young vines are gently ploughed by horses.
Cristal: An Exquisite Work of Art
Louis Roederer’s Cristal is a beautiful prestige cuvée in a clear bottle filled with golden liquid and a labelled with a golden label. It was created at the request of Russian Emperor, Alexandre II, in 1876 and was called “Cristal” because it was bottled in a clear, flat-bottomed bottle.
Cristal is a champagne that has been passed down from generation to generation in the Rouzaud family. Frédéric, the current CEO explains that, “It is the expression of the Champagne’s best terroir that Louis Roederer owns. It is the product of a miracle.”
Grapes for Cristal are selected and harvested from among the expanse of Louis Roederer's vineyards that produce the best-quality grapes. They are the finest vineyards in the Champagne region, with the best conditions in terms of soil, slope, sun exposure, and so on. They also have chalky soils, distinctive to the Champagne region. As a result, they produce wines that can age for a long period. The vines’ age is as old as 45 years on average and the oldest vine is over 70 years old.
At harvest time this year, I visited with Jean-Baptiste “La Villers”, a biodynamically-farmed vineyard in Grand Cru Ay village. It is a south-facing, mid-sloped vineyard, which is ideal for vine-growing. Until last year, grapes from this vineyard were not used for Cristal because the vines were still considered to be young. After twenty years of growth, the wines from this vineyard are going to be an essential part of Cristal Rosé for the first time this year.
Close to La Villers, there is a vineyard for Cristal that was recently replanted. These young vines have to wait for the next few decades until they can be used for Cristal. As Jean-Baptiste said, “They are gifts for the next generation.”
For him, making Cristal is “to create a work from scratch, from a white paper” each time. It is never the same and every year offers another challenge and a new creation. His goal is “to interpret the characteristics of the harvest year and the sense of place, while maintaining the consistent style of Cristal, and ultimately to show the purity and finesse that are the essence of Cristal.”
To achieve this aim, all grapes for Cristal have been biodynamically grown since 2012. Cristal Rosé, achieved this even earlier, in 2007.
La Villers vineyard in Ay
Champagne with Long-term Potential for Aging
Champagne-making requires a number of processes. Each process is essential and the accumulation of every decision at every stage contributes to the final product. For a quality producer, attention to detail is the only way to make the final work close to perfection. In particular, the blending process of Cristal, which takes at least several weeks, requires honed and heightened skills, focus, sensitivity and emotion. Naturally, in a vintage year that does not satisfy the finest quality, Cristal is not created.
The year 2018 became special for Louis Roederer, as it released three shades or nuances, i.e., versions of Cristal; the most-current 2008 vintage, a re-release of the great 2002 vintage, and Vinothéque 1996 which went through an optimal and customized maturation process for twenty-one years in Louis Roederer’s cellars. This shows Cristal at different stages of maturation as well as Cristal that is blooming after being aged over time.
1979 Cristal and 1978 Cristal Rosé: even after 40 years have passed, Cristal never loses freshness and bright fruits.
In fact, Cristal is designed to age and evolve for a long period. Therefore, although being released after almost ten years, it might still be sometimes shy and hide its full potential.
If you have a chance to open a bottle of Cristal, I would suggest using a regular wine glass rather than a flute glass and savoring it slowly over a long time. Over time, different layers of flavor will emerge, from fresh fruits, brioche and bread, to slightly aged flavors of white chocolate and caramel.
Also, in addition to the aroma and flavors, you might want to focus on the concentration of flavors, the delicate and caressing mouthfeel, the seamless and silky textures and the long-lasting finish.
Russian Emperor, Alexandre II, who first ordered Cristal in the 19th century
The future of Louis Roederer
The efforts and dedication resulting from two leaders’ visions, along with the day-to-day work in vineyards and winemaking, have been bearing fruit at Louis Roederer.
The environment has been changing and this has consequences for winemaking. For example, climate change is expected to be the direct impact on wine-growing in the near future. Consumer’s preference is always varying and producers may need to respond to it.
Given these changes, Louis Roederer has been working on addressing the new challenges for the future.
For example, in response to a possible climate change, they have worked on new experiments in viticulture, such as new trellising. Their experiences of making wines in a warm wine region such as California are of help for them to understand the grape growing and winemaking in the event that Champagne becomes warmer in the future. They have been working on Coteaux Champenois, still wines from specific plots of the vineyards that reflect the characters of Champagne, in pursuit of the possibility of not only sparkling wines but also wines without bubbles.
Moreover, while the majority of the Louis Roederer’s vineyards are already organically or biodynamically farmed, they have gone one step further by engaging in the organic certification process for their own vineyards in order to show clearer, more persuading and transparent visions.
In 2014, Louis Roederer first released “Brut Nature 2006”, an innovative product with zero dosage (with no added sugar) in collaboration with designer Philippe Starck. They are preparing another new idea with Brut Nature 2012 to be released in 2019.
The two leaders of Louis Roederer are continuing to make innovations in order to make better wines. They may not see the results of the projects that they are currently working on, however, as they will not come to bear fruit until the next generation. For Frédéric, “All the decisions are made for the next generations of twenty or thirty years to come”.
With these all in mind, it is evident that champagne like Cristal that we enjoy now is the result of a craft that has been developed and passed on from past craftsmen to current ones over time.