Eric Rodez is a busy man. An eighth generation vigneron, cellar master, husband, father, grandfather and winemaker extraordinaire, he is also Mayor of Ambonnay, and admits to taking a maximum of “10 to 12 days’ holiday” per year. Short in stature and intense in nature, his hardworking character may well be the reason his distinctively bespectacled appearance is so well-known around the Champagne circuit, where he is considered one of the very best grower champagne producers in the appellation.
His eponymous winery is located in the south-east of Grand Cru-rated Ambonnay, a neomodern property with an artistic giant bulldog installed in the front garden, which both somehow seem to reflect the character of the man himself – highly individual and utterly at odds with their quaint surroundings.
It turns out Eric has been an outsider from the beginning, choosing to study in Burgundy rather than Reims (“the Burgundians taught me to maximise the quality, not quantity, of wine”), only coming back to Champagne to start his first job with Henri Krug – not a bad mentor for an aspiring young winemaker.
He eventually returned to the family domain in 1982, determined to make quality champagne, in contradiction with the rising trend of increasing yields. “My dream is not money in the bank, it is pleasure for the consumer,” Eric told us, something which would sound more like savvy business chat than genuine passion had he not just rattled off the increasing yield averages for each of the previous six decades with ease (1950s – 5,000 kg/ha; 1960s – 6,400kg/ha; 1970s – 8,000kg/ha; 1980s – 10,000kg/ha; 1990s – 12,000kg/ha; 2000s – 14,000kg/ha). “The dream for the majority of people is money in the bank. We need more regulation for the grape yields.”
Despite his first year in charge being the notoriously challenging 1984 vintage – which he described as a “tsunami experience” – Eric persisted. And thank goodness he did. Today, Eric is a leading artisan of his trade. He speaks of Champagne with a philharmonic vocabulary; winemaking is all symphonies, melodies and harmonies. He brims with comparisons between music and wine and the emotions they inspire – something he no doubt developed early in his career under Krug’s mentorship.
That said, Eric is not to be dismissed as another zany old wine eccentric. He is fundamentally concerned with the science of winemaking and shared with us the five dimensions that he feels most shape the style and character of Champagne:
1) Cépage – The grape varieties of course play a major role. Although Eric blends just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (“Pinot Meunier doesn’t age well”), he is also experimenting with long forgotten Arbane and Petit Meslier vines, as their higher acidity is more resistant to the changing climate.
2) Location – Soil characteristics have a huge effect. The 55-60cm of topsoil that sits above the chalk in Ambonnay plays a significant role in giving the Rodez champagnes their characteristic body and complexity. By comparison, the Côte des Blancs has just 35-40cm of topsoil, giving wines from this southern region a more chalky character.
3) Specific vineyard location – The position of each parcel within the vineyard; where they sit on the slope, and in which cardinal direction they face, are key determinants of grape quality. Most of the vineyards in Ambonnay are south to south-east facing whereas most of the Côte des Blancs is north-east facing. Of the nearly 400 hectares planted in Ambonnay, the most prized are the mid-to-high slopes where the hillsides rise up several hundred metres affording spectacular views over the surrounding communes. Vine age also plays a fundamental role.
4) Vinifcation – Subtleties and nuances in style are created using different tank shapes and materials, such as enamel, stainless steel, oak cask, and concrete eggs. Over the years, Eric has been doing more vinification in oak barrels and less in steel tanks. His preference is for two-year-old barrels from Burgundy and he stores prospective reserve wine from the current vintage in barrels for continuity into the next year.
5) Fermentation – Whether malolactic fermentation is permitted or blocked can enhance or diminish the structure, finesse, minerality and acidity of the champagne. Eric blocks malolactic fermentation more frequently now that he is using more oak barrels.
|Eric Rodez Cuvée des Crayères NV | 16.5/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Base Vintage: 2014 | Reserve Wine: 69% | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: June 2018 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Bottle opened two days ago. Bright lemon notes with ripe red apples and smoky toasty notes from the barrel. On the palate, other fruits like grapefruit and peach come forward and the mid-palate really fills with the lees character on the tongue. Freshness of ripe pineapple then lifts it up at the end.
|Eric Rodez Blanc de Blancs NV | 17/20
100% CH | Base Vintage: 2013 | Reserve Wine: 75% | Dosage: 4 g/l
Initially you get the obvious toasty notes from the barrel fermentation and the terroir with a nice chalky character. Then you see pineapple, grapefruit, lemon richness and roundness from the oak and a great lift at the end with salinity.
|Eric Rodez Blanc de Noirs NV | 17.5/20
100% PN | Base Vintage: 2013 | Reserve Wine: 86% | Dosage: 4 g/l
The red fruits really jump out with layers of chalkiness and fruits like redcurrants and peaches. Rich texture from the lees ageing; doesn’t seem as low a dosage as 4 g/l. Long and fresh finish. Great example of Pinot Noir from Ambonnay.
|Eric Rodez Dosage Zéro NV | 17.5+/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Base Vintage: 2012 | Reserve Wine: 68% | Dosage: 0 g/l
A lot of red fruits with some dark cherry and blackcurrant. On the palate the rich lees texture helps balance the fresh acidity, then you see other fruit characteristics like peaches all finishing very fresh. A hint of minerality at the end. Does leave you feeling a little dosage would make it more drinkable.
|Eric Rodez Rosé NV | 16.5+/20
75% PN, 25% CH | Base Vintage: 2014 | Reserve Wine: 57% | Dosage: 4 g/l
Light delicate colour with an abundance of red fruits like raspberry and strawberry. A soft and round texture that belies the 4 g/l dosage. Great length then lifts up at the end with salinity. Going back it has almost a meaty character.
|Eric Rodez Cuvée des Grands Vintages NV | 18.5/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Base Vintage: 2010 | Reserve Wine: 77% | Dosage: 2.5 g/l
The ripe fruits jump out of the glass with peaches, apricots and lemon ripeness. More vinous than the other champagnes and it has power and freshness and the oak, while prominent, seems balanced. Finishes with a mineral crisp lift at the end.
For a man who has been making wine for over three decades, Eric is refreshingly inventive. “It is very important to open the windows to opportunity. [This is] difficult for French people… we do not experiment, which makes progress hard.” A zealous advocate of organic and biodynamic viticulture, Eric is one Frenchman who has no such difficulty innovating.
Since 2006, he has been using aromatherapy in the vineyards, a practice which he learnt from his grandmother. His specific blend of essential oils was difficult to ascertain (something like essential oil of orange + soap + water), however the goal is simple: the aromatherapy forms a film/layer that protects the leaves from mildew, thereby reducing the need for copper. “I am organic and biodynamic certified, however it is impossible to totally get rid of copper and sulphur.” In organic viticulture, copper is used to treat mildew and sulphur to treat oïdium (powdery mildew), yet copper is toxic for the soil and sulphur is toxic for the wine. “Using oils reduces the need for copper.”
As Eric drove us out to the vineyards in his rickety old vigneron’s van, he explained more about his holdings. Champagne Rodez own 6.12 hectares of vineyard in Ambonnay, divided into 35 separate parcels. Where Ambonnay as a whole is 83% Pinot Noir and 17% Chardonnay, the Champagne Rodez vineyard split is 68% Pinot Noir and 32% Chardonnay.
Eric sells 1 hectare of his grapes to the big houses – and not solely for cash flow requirements. He is astutely aware of the competition from other appellations (Prosecco and Cava were, again quite refreshingly, directly mentioned) and acknowledged that the bigger houses do the leg work of promoting the ‘Champagne’ brand, so need high quality grapes to maintain its prestige status as the best sparkling wine.
The Champagne Rodez range consists of ‘author’ champagnes, terroir champagnes and single vineyard champagnes. The author champagnes (tasting notes above) are non-vintages and are all about blending. Where other producers will typically use just 20% reserve wines in their non-vintages, Eric uses, on average, an astonishing 70% reserve wine. The terroir and single vineyard champagnes are interfered with as little as possible in order to respect and preserve the expression of individual vintages and terroirs.
The majority of the range are Extra Brut – the highest we tasted was 4 g/l – however they are labelled as Brut, for two reasons. The first is because Eric cannot be certain the next vintage will be Extra Brut and the second is because he does not want to seem fashionable. “I do not use dosage for the fashion, but for the necessity.” Each bottle has a QR code which can be used to ascertain more information about the champagne.
As we drove along the bumpy roads back to the winery, Eric’s work ethic again came to the fore. “For me, it is very important to observe 3-4 single vineyards every day,” he said. One cannot help but think it won’t be long before the torch is passed to his successor, however. Eric, who confessed he is finding it harder every year, will be stepping down as Mayor in 2020, having served in the position for 31 years. “Now, I have no energy. It’s very, very difficult.” Fortunately, his 36-year-old son Mickael, who currently looks after the vineyards, is in prime position to take over.
|Eric Rodez Les Beurys 2012 | 18/20
100% PN | Dosage: 2 g/l
Rich gold colour. Lots of berry and peaches and has a roundness to the texture. Very elegant with bundles of lees texture, fresh acidity, hints of oak and minerality. Very good.
|Eric Rodez Les Genettes 2012 | 18.5+/20
100% CH | Dosage: 2.2 g/l
Initially you see the oak, the richness of apples and grapefruit and a roundness from the lees agring adding great texture. Has a distinct mineral and chalky character with a great finish that goes on and one. Fresh, bold and elegant.
|Eric Rodez Empreinte Noire 2007 | 18.5/20
100% PN | Dosage: 2.5 g/l
Has a chocolate richness on the nose with dark fruits like cherry and dried raspberry. Also has lots of tropical hints from pineapple with a long spicy ending. Quite a full-on champagne; rich and well textured.