We visited Louis Roederer with Essi Avellan MW on the third and final day of our Champagne visit to taste the 2016 Vins Clairs with Chef de Cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. After allowing us sufficient time to revel in Roederer’s time machine, Lécaillon greeted us with his characteristic warmth and quick wit. It was late on Friday afternoon and where other winemakers had carefully pre-selected a range of base wines for us to taste in an informal but seated arrangement in a laboratory-clean tasting room – this was not Lécaillon’s style. Handing us a glass each and advising us to don our coats, he led us to the winery where we were to draw samples straight from the tanks.
Lécaillon began by explaining that Roederer do things slightly different from other Champagne houses. Every Louis Roederer vintage originates exclusively from their own vines and specific parcels are selected for their capacity to produce distinctive wines – essentially parcels are sorted by the cuvée they will be used in (for example, exclusive ‘Cristal estates’). Wine from each individual vineyard is then tasted many times separately, in order to create a single estate wine better than each parcel.
Their vineyards today stretch across 240 hectares and include 410 parcels. Interestingly, each parcel is fermented in individually designed tanks, perfectly sized for that specific parcel. With over 450 tanks ranging in size from 2.5 hectolitres to 0.4 hectolitres, this is quite a commitment from the Maison. However, Lécaillon stressed that this single estate philosophy is at the heart of Roederer’s operation and is the key to his winemaking equation: “Finesse = elegance + ripeness.”
Lécaillon began our vin clair tasting with a brief overview of the 2016 vintage through the eyes of Louis Roederer. As widely reported, it was an extremely difficult season climatically (read here for a detailed description). With much of the years climate influenced by oceanic weather patterns, the growing season brought unusually high levels of summer rain. Consequently, downy mildew was a big problem for growers throughout the Champagne region. In his first of many allusion to biodynamics, Lécaillon noted that the biodynamically farmed vineyards were performing much better at the time of flowering (mid-June), with 10% more downy mildew seen on the non-biodynamically farmed land. However, during and immediately after flowering the biodynamic vineyards were more sensitive to downy mildew damage and by July, 20% of the biodynamic potential grapes had been lost. Lécaillon compared 2016 to the 2012 season, where 10-15 hectares were lost to downy mildew damage.
He also highlighted last years unusual harvest. Comparing the 2016 Chardonnay to 1996 Chardonnay, he recalls how the house picked the grapes too early twenty years ago: “Pinot Noir is typically picked on ‘the perfect day’, but with Chardonnay the window is much larger. You need to go far in ripening… the longer you wait, the better it is.” Determined not to see this mistake repeated, Roederer picked their Chardonnay grapes after the Pinot Noir for the first time ever last year. During véraison (the onset of ripening when the Pinot grapes change colour from white to black), the Pinot Noir raced ahead. At ripening stage, the period from flowering to picking was just 85-88 days, compared to Chardonnay’s 95 days. Lécaillon commented: “This is the first time we essentially had two harvests.”
After this informative insight into Roederer’s experience of the season, we moved onto tasting the base wines. Lécaillon informed us of the rules: “At Roederer, we always taste the Pinot Noir first – this brings the finesse, whilst Chardonnay brings the strength.” We then followed Lécaillon around the cellar whilst he served us samples from tanks he’d pre-selected, taking us on a geographical journey through the villages. Most interestingly – due to their individual tank per parcel storage – Roederer were the only house that afforded us the opportunity to taste wine from different vineyards within the same village. In typical relaxed style there are no spittoons in the Roederer winery; the drainage system in the floor is used for disposing of tasted wine.
The potential alcohol levels here were a lot higher here than in other houses, typically between 11.5% and 12%. Noticing our surprise Lécaillon smiled, saying: “I pick very ripe.” When we asked about the acidity content of specific parcels, he told us he doesn’t assess acidity: “That’s a job for the analysts in the lab.. I use my taste alone when sampling the grapes in the vineyard.”
The following tasting notes are sorted by village (underlined) and the specific vineyard (where known) followed by region is provided in italics.
Aÿ La Bonotte, Vallée de la Marne
Biodynamic since 2007, 56 year old vines. Cristal estate. Lots of fruit and salinity at the end, dominant peaches and spice character.
Aÿ La Villers, Vallée de la Marne
Biodynamic vineyard, 20 year old vines. Cristal estate. To keep a good balance between oxidative and reductive, JBL moved this into an oak barrel for 3 months after alcoholic fermentation. Loads of softness here. Very good.
Aÿ Valnon, Vallée de la Marne
Cristal estate. Lots of clay soil. Seems quite tight at present, simple red fruits. Acidity quite prominent and a good mouth-feel.
Beaumont-sur-Vesle La Voie des Vignes, Montagne de Reims
Biodynamic vineyard. Lots of red and black fruits. Nice spicyness and great finish.
Cumières Côte à Bras, Vallée de la Marne
Steep, south facing slopes. Powerful and intense, lots of red fruits character. Chalky and spicy.
Mareuil-sur-Aÿ La Four Cheule, Vallée de la Marne
South-east facing slope. Pushed alcohol high to get the acidity down. Some hints of tropical fruits. Big mouth-feel and hints of spice.
Mareuil-sur-Aÿ Les Clos, Vallée de la Marne
Essi helped pick grapes from this vineyard during the 2016 harvest. Quite pretty – lovely black fruits and strawberries. Long length.
Verzenay Le Chamois, Montagne de Reims
Biodynamic since 2014. Very chalky and delicate. Very slight hints of vanilla. Great, rich mouth-feel and loads of concentrated fruit.
Verzenay Pisse-Renard, Montagne de Reims
Roederer’s first vineyard, bought in 1981. Oak fermented. Lots of bright cherry and strawberry favours.
Verzy Sept-Saulx, Montagne de Reims
Non-biodynamic vineyard. Situated on a chalky ridge. Lots of creaminess, peaches and tropical hints; almost Chardonnay!
For the first of the Chardonnay’s, Lécaillon introduced us to one of his many ongoing experiments. We tasted wine from a single 9-year biodynamic vineyard in Avize that had been handled differently since harvest; the first two were stainless-steel fermented with different sulphite treatments and the third was oak fermented and conventionally treated.
Avize 1 Côte des Blancs
Stainless-steel fermented. Traditional method, sulphite added at pressing. Apples and pear, lots of fruit and soft acidity.
Avize 2 Côte des Blancs
Stainless-steel fermented. No sulphites added at pressing. Quite different – more richness of fruit and fuller mouthfeel. Curious that it has richer fruit, considering no sulphites were added to reduce oxidation.
Avize 3 Côte des Blancs
Oak fermented. Traditional method, sulphite added at pressing. Hints of richness of oak, lovely fruit content and fresh acidity.
Avize Clos Le Bourg, Côte des Blancs
Oak fermented. Some peaches and ripeness. Big weight of fruit.
Cramant Côte des Blancs
From a vineyard on the border of Avize. Intense fruit, peachy and chalky. Beautiful acidity.
Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Montmarte, Côte des Blancs
Steel fermented. Lots of pears and apples. Hint of smokiness.
Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Côte des Blancs
Oak fermented. Mid-slope upwards. Really peachy and tropical, very intense oak and smokiness.
Vertus Les Faucherets, Côte des Blancs
The last terroir picked, in early October. Lots of ripe appley fruit, acidity seems higher than the previous Chardonnay’s.
Louis Roederer Cristal 2016 First Trial Blend
After tasting the vins clairs, Lécaillon invited us back to the Maison to taste some of the blending he’d already done of the 2016 base wines. The first of these was the initial blend of Cristal 2016. Adopting the single estate philosophy that is the mark of Louis Roederer, Lécaillon told us that the initial blend is always an assembly of wine from all the Cristal estate parcels, each input weighted equally to match that parcel’s total percentage contribution.
Explaining how he approaches the assemblage process, Lécaillon commented: “I have no expectation for Cristal. I do my single classification blend and it’s a surprise.” He went on to stress the importance of properly assessing the vintage prior to manipulating the wine himself, joking: “I am lazy as a Chef de Cave… I take it as it comes. I get the picture of the vintage first.. I let the wine speak, not me.”
The 2016 blend we tasted had a higher Chardonnay content than usual; 55% PN and 45% CH. Lécaillon attributes this to the strength of the Pinot Noir in 2016, explaining that the Chardonnay was much less rich than he would have liked. Whilst it may not be characteristic Cristal just yet, it was tasting fantastic already. A nose of peachy, rich lychees and a very intense palate of bright fruit with loads of acidity; this was voluptuous still wine. Lécaillon didn’t reveal exactly what he had planned for the blend but told us it would be finished by the end of March.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV (2016 Base)
Lécaillon then revealed he’d had a busy start to the year, finishing the Brut Premier blend (with 2016 as a base vintage) in January. This latest assemblage has a much higher Pinot Meunier content at 28%, is only 30% malolactic and features 25% reserve wines. Lécaillon’s pride in the quality of Roederer’s NV is obvious, telling us that the standards for their vintages are so exponentially high, that he prefers to think of their non-vintage Champagne as “almost a vintage.” This blend has a lovely fruit density and an acidity that seems high but is not out of context. Already drinkable as a still wine, it will be a few years before we see this hit the market as Champagne, but we expect it to be sublime when it does.
Finally, Lécaillon had one last treat for us. Released just two months ago, we still hadn’t had a chance to taste Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2009 and what a place to do it! Expectations were high and amplified further when Essi shared with us one of her few tasting rules, revealing: “I never spit Cristal Rosé.” The bottle was extremely cold when first opened and it took almost all of our restraint to leave it to warm – but boy are we glad we did. This has an incredible nose with an abundance of fruit and complexity. The palate is simply stunning, exquisite creaminess with a balance and length that render this hard to taste and not drink. After tasting the Vins Clairs, the origin and pedigree of the blend – 55% Pinot Noir from Aÿ and 45% Chardonnay from Mesnil and Avize – is put into context, somewhat explaining the sumptuous levels of fruit. This will be fascinating to follow over the coming years. (Buy Cristal Rosé 2009 here.)
Before we left, Lécaillon shared with us a quick glimpse of the future for Cristal. One area he has been personally involved in developing recently is the cellophane cover that protects Cristal from light damage. Expressing his concern that many bottles of Cristal are being damaged due to consumers (and in some astonishing cases of neglect, retailers) removing the cellophane, he revealed that Roederer are working on how the cover is marketed. He believes it “must be part of the glamour” and estimates that by 2019 a totally new type of cellophane that cannot be removed without opening the bottle will be released.
Finally, we couldn’t leave without asking about Cristal 2008. Commenting only that “2008 is almost my dream”, Lécaillon’s excitement was evident – it is clearly going to be something spectacular, even by Cristal’s standard. He did reveal that it will be released in 2018, the first time ever that the house has waited 10 years to release a Cristal vintage.
Overall, a magnificent visit to this most famed of Champagne houses. The only thing more difficult than getting inside is having to walk away when you’re done. The strength of the 2016 Vins Clairs proves they are on track for yet another successful vintage. And with a man as knowledgeable, engaging and charming as Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon at the helm, Louis Roederer’s future is as bright as its history is rich.