Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon – cellar master at Louis Roederer, president of the technical commission of the Comité Champagne (CIVC), and the region’s unofficial frontman – was in London last week presenting the first masterclass of the fourth annual ‘New Wave Champagne’ event at 67 Pall Mall. Lécaillon discussed the ‘fight for freshness’ and the challenges facing winemakers in the region as they battle to cope with riper grapes and higher alcohol levels.
To illustrate his points and introduce the different techniques that can be utilised to maintain freshness in a warming climate, Lécaillon shared five different styles of Louis Roederer champagne (zero dosage, brut vintage, rosé, blanc de blancs, and prestige cuvée), which were all produced from grapes picked at a high level of ripeness, yet all still exhibit sublime freshness.
Lécaillon first provided an historical context for the present-day ‘fight for freshness’, describing how Champagne has changed over the last century, and particularly during the previous 20 years. At the turn of the twentieth century, grapes were picked at a potential alcohol of 11% and a low acidity of 5.5g/l (expressed as sulphuric acid), a trend which continued throughout the first half of the century. However, during the 60s, 70s and 80s, it became fashionable to pick unripe grapes, a choice which, due to the reality of what Lécaillon termed the “climate crisis”, is no longer possible.
The warming climate has necessitated a complete change of focus in Champagne, already a difficult region in which to produce wine. Champagne is situated on the 49th parallel, making it the northernmost wine-producing region of France. These northern climes are at the very edge of where viticulture is possible; Champagne’s average annual temperature of 10°C is the very minimum at which grapes will ripen and indeed they only do so thanks to the warming influence of the Atlantic Ocean and the Marne River. Spring frosts, which damage and kill young vines; fluctuating temperates at flowering, which can affect the fruit set; and hail, which can destroy crops, are just some of the climatic challenges facing the Champenois.
“I think freshness is the DNA of Champagne… it is not acidity, it is more. Freshness combines precision of fruit, salinity, sapidity, length and elegance.”
Lécaillon believes that Champagne, more than any other winemaking appellation, transformed its climatic adversities into virtues. Winemaking processes unique to Champagne developed out of requirement: second fermentation imparted further alcohol; extended lees ageing gave the wines extra body; and the addition of dosage helped tame the acidity.
Now, according to Lecaillon, these fundamental techniques offer a way of “preserving what nature has given us”. Each element of Champagne production – high acid, low pH, bottling in spring, lees ageing, the use of CO2 and SO2 – is there to protect against oxygen and preserve freshness, or, in Lécaillon’s words: “Champagne winemaking is the art of reductive winemaking, designed to protect the identity of the wine.”
Thus, as the climate changes, so too must Champagne production. “We are now back at ripeness, like we were in the past. When you have ripe grapes, you have to up your game when it comes to fighting for freshness.” For Lécaillon, this has meant a return to the soil and to craftsmanship. “Twenty years ago, champagne was made in the cellar. Now, it is made in the vineyards.”
Louis Roederer are renown for their organic and biodynamic vineyard practices, far outstripping the rest of the field with 125 hectares of biodynamically certified land. They stopped using herbicides twenty years ago, till the land as little as possible, have a high density of cover crops, and remove any competitive flora that takes nutrients away from the vines – all techniques that help preserve freshness.
This hyper-technical focus is classic Lécaillon. A quintessential scientist and climate observer, his deep historical knowledge of the region and position as president of the CIVC’s technical commission lends inarguable credibility to his words. Lécaillon is a man whose opinion should be heard, and, fortunately, the future that he predicts for Champagne is promising. “The fight for freshness opens up new fields. I think freshness is the DNA of Champagne… it is not acidity, it is more. Freshness combines precision of fruit, salinity, sapidity, length and elegance.”
The Achievement of Freshness in Louis Roederer Champagnes
The first of Lécaillon’s examples is Champagne as nature truly intended. Brut Nature 2009 is a field blend (meaning all three grapes varieties are grown on the same parcel of vineyard, are harvested together, pressed together, and fermented together) originating from the special “deep, dark clay” (which produces bigger, larger and fruitier wines than chalk) of Cumières.
Being a zero dosage cuvée, Brut Nature is only possible to produce in very dry, ripe years. So far, 2006 and 2009 have been released, while 2012 (launching later this year), 2015 and 2018 are in the pipeline.
The vineyard is farmed biodynamically and the grapes were picked very ripe in 2009 – between 11.6% and 11.7% potential alcohol – and, of course, all on the same day, as it was done 100 years ago. By pushing the ripeness so far, Brut Nature “reinforces the reductive power of Chardonnay”, an idea Lécaillon drew from his Californian winemaking experience in the late 1980s, which kickstarted his understanding of the importance of ripeness.
Malolactic fermentation is not blocked, but not encouraged either. “We don’t look for ML, but if it happens it happens. We don’t want to use too much sulphur because of the downside of aggressive malic acid that results.” Indeed, there is also very little sulphur addition at harvest and the wines are partially aged in oak which helps anti-oxidation. The champagne is further protected from oxidation at bottling through the process of jetting.
Apposite of its name, Brut Nature is a pure representation of the land and shows that, with rich soil, a field blend, and warm and dry weather, an incredibly fresh champagne can be produced without dosage. “We wanted it [Brut Nature] to be as simple and pure as possible.”
|Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009 | 17/20
66% PN, 33% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 2016 | Dosage: 0 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Loads of fresh apple, pear and some of that peach stone and almond character. Great ripeness and some tropical notes like ripe lemon, pineapple and redcurrants.
Next we tasted the latest vintage release: Brut Vintage 2012, sourced entirely from the chalk soils of two villages: 20-30% Chardonnay from an east-facing plot in Chouilly and 70-80% Pinot Noir from two north and north-east facing vineyards in Verzy. The latter two were the first vineyards bought by Roederer back in 1841 and, although describing them as “very austere, almost too fresh”, Lécaillon respects the founders preference for this style of grape.
As such, the ‘fight for freshness’ in this examples is about the balancing the freshness of the Pinot Noir. Lécaillon explained: “We use Chardonnay to add a smile to this austere wine.” That said, Lécaillon has been edging towards a Blanc de Noirs with his Brut Vintage champagne, and thought it might be possible in 2018. “In the end, we added 20% Chardonnay for the richness.”
|Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012 | 18/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: 2018 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
Lots of ripe fruits: pear, apple and tropical hints like pineapple and redcurrants. Wow, very ripe on the palate with a full mouthfeel, great length and some nice raspberry and red fruits.
Our third example was Rosé 2013, containing 60-70% fruit sourced from south-facing Pinot Noir plots on the Marne Valley side of Cumières, and 30-40% Chardonnay from a north-facing vineyard in Chouilly. This time, Chardonnay was added to enhance the overripe Pinot Noir, which “needed the freshness”. As with the other blends, freshness is the focus for the Rosé; if some parcels are a little too ripe, Lécaillon adds a fresher Chardonnay from the cooler northern slopes.
The seductive salmon pink colour is achieved using the same infusion technique developed for the first Cristal Rosé in 1974. The Pinot Noir grapes are first picked at a high ripeness (at least 11.5%, sometimes up to 12%), they are de-stemmed but not crushed, and then cold soaked for 8-10 days under cover of CO2. Nothing is actively done to extract in this non-invasive method, which Lécaillon likened to making tea: “It’s just an infusion.”
As soon as spontaneous fermentation begins, the wine is pressed and Chardonnay is added, to start “fermenting as a rosé wine”. The point of this hands-off yet very precise winemaking is to achieve expression. “We want the velvety, silky roundedness of tannins and the freshness and salinity of Chardonnay from chalk.”
Again, the emphasis here is on the vineyards. The process of viticulture is much different for Pinot Noir grapes destined for Louis Roederer Rosé than it is for Pinot Noir grapes destined for Louis Roederer Brut Vintage. The pruning, farming, canopy; everything is adapted to fit the end product. Crucially, yield is calculated per vine rather than per hectare, and the vineyards are planted extremely densely, between 10,000 and 12,000 vines/ha. “The ideal is to have 6-7 bunches per vine… giving more concentration and phenolic ripeness.”
|Louis Roederer Rosé 2013 | 17.5/20
65% PN, 35% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Dosage: 9 g/l
Lovely ripe strawberry and cherry flavour with a chalky character and some hints of smokiness. Soft texture, round and fresh with hints of salinity and iodine. Beautiful and elegant.
Our next style of champagne, Blanc de Blancs 2010, showcased the pure power of Côte des Blancs chalk. Although Roederer have long been producing a Blanc de Blancs, from 1930 to 1960 it was reserved exclusively for family consumption (it even had a deer on the cork as it was traditionally only drank after hunting excursions). Originally named Cramant, after the village from which the grapes were harvested, the blend has included wines from Le Mesnil, Cramant and Avize over the years. In 2009, Lécaillon decided to return to the original idea and express a single village to give the champagne more identity.
Thus, the 2010 expression originated from four parcels in Grand Cru rated Avize – two located on the ripe mid-slope, one bordering Cramant, one bordering Oger – and Lécaillon pushed the Chardonnay ripeness as far as possible, picking at 12% potential alcohol. Absolutely no sulphur is added to the juice, preserving the chalkiness. When complete, the Blanc de Blancs blend is bottled at a lower pressure of just four atmospheres, as the soft and creamy Chardonnay is more sensitive to CO2: “Full pressure would be too aggressive.”
Alas, aggressive it is most certainly not. Graceful and elegant, yet retaining all the liveliness of a higher pressure bottling (Chardonnay shows more energetic bubbles than Blanc de Noirs), Roederer’s Blanc de Blancs is an ode to chalk. So far withstanding the effects of a warming climate, the chalky soil of the Côte des Blancs, with its characteristically high water retention and slow mineralisation of nutrients, continue to produce grapes of considerable freshness.
|Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs 2010 | 18/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Dosage: 9 g/l
Lots of creamy ripe fruits, pineapple and creaminess. Can feel the softness of the bubbles. Loads of ripe apples and very generous fruit and lift at the end from the salinity. Very refined.
Our final example, Cristal 2008, illustrated the positive impact of old vines and their deep roots. The Cristal estate comprises 45 unique parcels, carefully selected for the age of their vines, their ideal mid-slope location in the vineyard, and their nutrient-dense, chalky soils. There is only around 40-60cm of topsoil in the Cristal plots, meaning the roots are deeply embedded in chalk, where the environment is fresh and moist. “Having these deep-rooted vines means we can get reasonable yields with concentrated aromas and concentrated organic acids,” Lécaillon told us.
Time is therefore a crucial factor in Cristal production: it takes around 20 years for the roots of vines to get into the bedrock. Indeed, the youngest vine that produced grapes for Cristal 2008 is 21 years old, the oldest is 65 years, and the average age is an astonishing 45 years.
Cristal always has this same outstanding profile of roots; they follow the fissures in the chalk and bleed red (which is a sign of especially low pH). Even in warmer years, the chalk remains cool, allowing the attainment of freshness. That said, all the elements came together like never before with Cristal 2008, which Lécaillon described as having “elegance, finesse, length, lightness, salinity… and something difficult to catch.”
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2008 | 19.5/20
60% CH, 40% PN | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: 2018 | Dosage: 8 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
The chalk comes out strong. More powerful fruit is starting to out now, it seems to have more richness than launch. JB says the fruit tends to come out around now, then after 4 years shuts down and often comes back.
Fighting for Freshness in the Future
Lécaillon began his masterclass by stating: “We used to struggle for ripeness. Now we fight for freshness.” The reality of this changing battle was made evident last year: for the first time ever, the CIVC decided not to set minimum ripeness levels. However, Lécaillon has demonstrated what is possible, presenting five wonderfully bright and fresh champagnes, all produced from grapes harvested at higher than conventional ripeness levels.
He believes that soil is at the heart of overcoming the warming climate and the key is to “make it speak again”. Understanding the land better is at the core of Lécaillon’s research and though he leads the way in Champagne – having been comparing organic and biodynamic farming methods for 20 years already – admits there is much more to learn. Esoteric by nature, biodynamics is oft misunderstood, and there are things that quite clearly work in the vineyard that Lécaillon acknowledges he does not understand. “The dream, of course, would be a Champagne permaculture.”
With the climate continuing to warm, biodynamic farming is more important than ever. Lécaillon has shown that biodynamic vineyards produce lower pH levels and fresher and fruitier fruit, especially in the hot years. This discovery has led him to push for biodynamic practices in the drier and warmer summers, while going more organic in the cooler years. “I want to keep a balance of both to see how they perform over many years. Sometimes you have to let time speak.”
Ultimately, his message is not to be afraid of ripeness – it simply changes the focus. Asked if there was a maximum ripeness level which he would not go above, Lécaillon said that the Pinot Noir cannot be pushed much further, as it is more susceptible to botrytis and is more appealing to birds and insects. Chardonnay on the other hand, is a question of style. Lécaillon believes you can push the white grapes from the chalky Côte des Blancs as high as 12.5% or 12.8%, however the popular Montagne de Reims Chardonnay villages, such as Villers-Marmery, might be too tropical at these numbers.
“Looking back, the wines from the 40s and 50s when ripeness was high are all looking great now. We just have to manage the ripeness at picking, pressing and fermentation.”