Somewhat unsurprisingly – we’ve come to expect first-class hospitality from Chef de Cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon – our vins clairs tasting at Louis Roederer was the most comprehensive of all the houses we visited this year. We tasted a range of Pinot Noirs from the Vallée de la Marne and Montagne de Reims and a selection of Chardonnays from the Côte des Blancs before sharing a truly magnificent champagne lunch, which showcased some of the best – both old and new – of the Roederer range.
As Louis Roederer are the biggest biodynamic producers of Champagne, with 110 hectares of their 240 hectare estate now following biodynamic farming methods, many of the vins clairs we tasted were produced from grapes grown on organic and biodynamic vineyards. As such, it is worth quickly highlighting the difference between the two.
Organic vineyards cultivate organically-certified grapes, which means they are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers. Bugs, weeds, and pests are managed using all-natural substances (or are mechanically removed) and the fertilisers used to nourish the vines are also 100% natural.
Biodynamic vineyards also do not use synthetic chemicals, but go further than organic farming by incorporating ideas about a vineyard as an entire ecosystem. The important concept behind biodynamics is the belief that the crops, soil, farmer and universe are all interconnected – thus, the connection between farmer, vine and the earth itself is finely balanced in accordance with such things as astrological influences and lunar cycles. Where known, the organic or biodynamic status of the plot that produced each Louis Roederer vin clair tasted is shown below.
Vins Clairs 2017
Lécaillon introduced the vintage with an overview of the growing season. “In general it was a complicated year, of which Chardonnay was the clear winner,” he said. Although there were no incidences of acid rot in the Roederer vineyards, many of the Pinot Noir plots struggled with botrytis. Lécaillon informed us that they’d decided to stop tilling the soil in late-June (earlier than usual) and he believes the volume of water in the soil may have encouraged botrytis to spread – a process accelerated by vines sucking the excess water from the soil and insects bringing in bacteria.
“We planned to pick the Vallée de la Marne on 1st September, the Côte des Blancs on 4th September and the Montagne de Reims on the 5th September,” Lécaillon said. However, unexpected wet and warm weather in late-August forced Lécaillon to change plans as botrytis spread further. “We started with all 600 pickers straight away rather than slowly increasing to our full picking workforce,” he told us. This still wasn’t quick enough. After three days, he had to send all of his pickers to the Montagne de Reims to harvest the Pinot Noir even faster.
This bold decision to pick quickly undoubtedly improved the overall quality of the harvest, but the bulk of the Pinot Noir grapes were still not as ripe and mature as desired and many had to be rejected due to rot. That said, of all the Pinot Noir vineyards, Lécaillon noted that those farmed biodynamically were the most stable. The vins clairs we tasted were mostly produced from Roederer vineyards. Those that were had no malolactic fermentation – the only base wines that underwent malolactic were those produced from purchased grapes, as they were lacking the required level of ripeness and the malolactic helped broaden their otherwise lean mouthfeel.
We began our tasting in the Vallée de la Marne with three Premier Cru plots – all vinified in stainless steel. Lécaillon informed us that the wines were kept on the lees until January, a considerably longer-than-typical five months, as he wanted more body. In addition, the lees were lightly stirred to bring out flesh and texture and protect the wine from oxidation.
The plot in Hautvillers is on a south-west facing slope and is therefore slightly cooler than others, hence picking began later there than in other regions. The plot in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ is recognisable for how well it ripens and has recently been converted to biodynamic farming.
|Hautvillers | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Montecuelles
Lovely clean strawberry and raspberry. Fresh acidity and has a peppery spice which JBL says is typical – often from the acidity.
|Cumières | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Valnon
Lots of strawberry and blackcurrant and good spicy redcurrant. More spice on the palate, quite smoky and spicey and some black cherries.
|Mareuil-sur-Aÿ | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Capinet | Farming: Biodynamic
Quite soft and round. Light strawberry and hints of tropical fruit, peaches and pineapple. Slight smoky character. Balanced & clean.
The next three wines were all produced from biodynamic plots in the Grand Cru village of Aÿ, also in the Vallée de la Marne. The first plot, Villers, was converted to biodynamic in 2006 and is known for its tendency to produce wine with more reductive characteristics. Thus, Lécaillon fermented it in large oak vats this year in order to give it more oxygen.
The second, Bonotte, was planted in 1998 using a strain of Burgundy grapevines and converted to biodynamic farming methods in 2003. After 2017, Bonotte will be fallowed for two years (allowed to rest to restore fertility) before being replanted and becoming a key Cristal Rosé plot. The third, Goutte d’Or, has been biodynamic since 2002 and produced an absolutely stunning wine in 2017 – one which Lécaillon affectionately referred to as his “favourite of the year”.
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Villers | Farming: Biodynamic
Lots of ripe fruit: blackcurrant, raspberry, cherry and spiciness. Lovely mouthfeel. JBL “a little smoky and often more reductive, hence oak fermentation – needs some O2.”
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Bonotte | Farming: Biodynamic
Very peachy and abundance of ripe tropical fruits. Black cherry, apricots and pineapple. Lovely acidity. JBL “has high dry extract.”
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Goutte d’Or | Farming: Biodynamic
All peaches and apricots and sensual chalky texture and lingering spiciness. JBL “my favourite of the year.”
Next we moved eastwards, towards the Montagne de Reims and the Grand Cru villages of Beaumont-sur-Vesle and Verzy. All three are Cristal plots that are biodynamically farmed, however with no Cristal produced this year, the wines will go into the reserves. Lécaillon is fond of this region for its “chalky, ripe soils” that “promote elegance and freshness of acidity”. The Champs Romés plot in Verzy in particular has all the chalky, round and spicy elegance of Cristal – the very essence of the prestige cuvée’s style.
|Beaumont-sur-Vesle | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Voie des Vignes | Farming: Biodynamic
Chalkiness and spiciness. Black cherry with bundles of strawberry and very fleshy and mouthfilling.
|Verzy | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Les Vignes Goisses | Farming: Biodynamic
Some reduction, smokiness and lots of fruit and spicy freshness to its acidity.
|Verzy | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Champs Romés | Farming: Biodynamic
Strawberry, peaches and black cherry. Very elegant. Chalky, powdery & a real light delicacy on the palate. JBL “the essence of Cristal.”
To complete our Pinot Noir experience, we compared three biodynamic plots from Verzenay. This Grand Cru village in the northeast of the Montagne de Reims was struck by frost in 2017. White frosts attacked the bottom of the hill, whilst black frosts arrived from strong winds from the north that hit all parts of the slope, resulting in a 40% loss of vineyards in Verzenay.
However, those that did survive produced wines with impressive juicy character. The first plot was vinified in large oak vats, the others in stainless steel. Lécaillon shared with us the importance of balanced blending: “When you blend all three components equally, the salinity comes out,” he said. “The lightness comes from the salinity and then during second fermentation and lees ageing, you get the umami.”
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Potences Rochelles | Farming: Biodynamic
Big texture. Lots of fruit and a real juicy character. Spiciness, chalkiness and hint of structure almost like tannin.
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Basse Coutures | Farming: Biodynamic
Very juicy. All cherry, redcurrant, rhubarb and lingering and fresh saline finish.
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Pisserenard 98 | Farming: Biodynamic
Tropical peaches and strawberries. Good power of fruit and just a hint of that juiciness, chalkiness and some tannins.
The Chardonnay vins clairs we tasted were all from vineyards in the Côte des Blancs that, according to Lécaillon, “usually produce vintage material”. The south of the region received less water than in a typical season and the grapes were picked in pattern with geographical location: the further north the village, the later it was harvested.
The wine from Oger was fermented in stainless steel and had a notably expressive mouthfeel and will be used in the Blanc de Blancs blend. The wine from Chouilly was produced from an organically farmed plot and fermented in oak vats.
|Vertus | Premier Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Montferrés le Plateau Barilliers | Farming: Biodynamic
Great mouthfeel. Lots of fruit and richness. Loads of banana, pineapple, chalkiness and spice. Very elegant.
|Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Teratte | Farming: Biodynamic
More lemon and apples and ripe pears dominate. On the palate great mouthfeel and spice.
|Chouilly | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Noue Tuilière | Farming: Organic
Great texture, ripeness, richness and spiciness. This is very good! So much warmth and power and almost some of that expressiveness you get in Gewürtztraminer.
The next three vins clairs were all produced from biodynamic vineyards in villages located in the centre of the Côte des Blancs. As we tasted, Lécaillon spoke of the difference in transition to biodynamics between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay plots. “Within two years, the experiments on Pinot Noir showed a big difference, but with Chardonnay it wasn’t as clear,” he said. Lécaillon attributes this difference to the removal of sulphites: “With zero sulphur you lose some of the elegant and delicate Pinot Noir flavour, so we keep a little pre-press SO2.”
|Le Mesnil-sur-Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Volibart | Farming: Biodynamic
Banana and pineapple notes. Great texture. Very tropical like mango and nice salinity.
|Le Mesnil-sur-Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Montmartin | Farming: Biodynamic
Hint of spiciness at first. Very fresh acidity and power of fruit.
|Cramant | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Farming: Biodynamic
Lemon and grapefruit on the nose. Lovely richness of ripe apples and hints of pineapple fruit and freshness, hint of salinity.
We then turned our attention to the Grand Cru village of Avize and compared three different plots that produce wine specifically for the Blanc de Blancs champagne. Fellow guest Essi Avellan MW had assisted in the picking of grapes from the first plot, Gros Yeux, which had some of the rich expressiveness typically associated with the Gewürtztraminer grape variety. Lécaillon remarked that, between these three plots, the Blanc de Blancs blend really comes together and he is confident that Blanc de Blancs 2017 will be the star of the vintage.
|Avize | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Gros Yeux
Lemon ripeness, pineapple and cooked apple. Richer, fuller style and some of the aromatics that make you think of Gewürtztraminer.
|Avize | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Le Bourg
Rich and ripe peaches and pineapple, chalky and delicate texture with a fresh and saline finish. Very good!
|Avize | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Voie d’Épernay
Rich texture and really ripe tropical fruits of pineapple, guava pushing you to the suggestion of Gewürtztraminer. Light and delicate texture, quite chalky.
To conclude our Chardonnay tasting, we sampled the results of an ongoing 17-year old trial of natural winemaking techniques. Since 2001, Louis Roederer have been farming the Pierre Vaudon plot in Avize with two different methods: organic and biodynamic. To limit the influence of extraneous variables, the two plots are picked on the same day and are both fermented in stainless steel vats. The difference was striking.
The first, produced from the organically farmed half of the plot, was very fruit forward with a much more saline personality. The second, produced from the biodynamically farmed half of the plot, seemed to have more tropical fruit flavour, higher acidity and more character from the soil. The point isn’t to determine which is better (an impossible task regardless) but to highlight the huge impact that farming methods have on the eventual wine produced and to assess how these differences are expressed vintage-by-vintage.
|Avize | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Pierre Vaudon | Farming: Organic
This has lots of fruit and seems to have more salinity than others.
|Avize | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Pierre Vaudon | Farming: Biodynamic
Seems more tropical and richer than organic. Acidity seems higher and more soil personality.
In summary, although there won’t be any Brut Vintage 2017 or Cristal 2017 produced, Lécaillon’s quick instincts during harvest have ensured it won’t be a bad vintage for this famous house. Despite the challenges they faced, the Pinot Noirs we tasted at Roederer were some of the best 2017 vins clairs we’d sampled. Lécaillon’s closest comparison is the 1947 vintage, one he described as another “fantastic Chardonnay year”. As a result, Blanc de Blancs 2017 will be the champagne to excel and, as is always the case when a vintage isn’t powerful enough to produce a prestige cuvée, the non-vintage blend and reserve wine stocks will inevitably be strengthened as a result.
We finished our vins clairs tasting with the 2017 base year Brut Premier NV blend, which had been completed just the day before our visit. The assemblage is 183 different plots, with a slightly higher Chardonnay percentage than typical, owing to the high quality of the white grapes this year. The 27% reserve wine content is a blend of seven vintages, 16% of which is the Brut Premier blend from last year and a further 10% is from reserve wines aged in oak casks. Despite being such a small percentage of the overall blend, the influence of the oak is incredibly powerful, lending a real smokiness to the finished wine. This was already tasting impressive as a standalone still wine and with its higher-than-usual 3.6 million bottle production is one to watch when it hits the market in a few years. Roll on 2022/3 when we may see it in the market place.
|Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV Assemblage | 2017 Base Year
42% CH, 36% PM, 22% PM | Base Year: 2017 | Reserve Wine: 27%
Some smokiness from the reserve wines in oak. Some toasty nuttiness already and rich fruit, great acidity; one to watch when released.
The mouth-watering business of vins clairs tasting was kindly followed by a sensational lunch, matched only in calibre by the quite mesmerising range of finished champagnes that Lécaillon was generous enough to pair with it. The first flight of champagnes included rare original disgorgements of Blanc de Blancs 1998 and Brut Vintage 1990, and a bottle of the equally unique Brut Vintage Rosé 1996.
Asked about the lower pressure in their Blanc de Blancs champagne, Lécaillon told us that every vintage had been bottled at a pressure of 4 atmospheres since the very first bottling in 1930. “A higher pressure competes with the malic acid,” he explained. Lécaillon also spoke fondly of Brut Vintage 1990 – his second year at Roederer and one in which they were conducting trials of hyper oxidation.
The fourth champagne was particularly interesting for its surprisingly gentle acidity. Brut Vintage Rosé 1996 – from a vintage famed for its record-breaking acidity levels – was apparently produced with a high quantity of wine from Cumières, an unusually ripe 1996 that Lécaillon referred to as an “amphitheatre of chalk, clay and mixed soils”. After the Cristal Rosé 1974 blend worked so well, Lécaillon said the winemaking team at the time adopted the same recipe for Brut Vintage Rosé 1976 – a recipe that hasn’t changed since.
An outstanding year in many respects, Lécaillon looks back on 1996 as a landmark year for shifting ideologies in Champagne. “1996 was the last vintage that we became blind by numbers… now taste is so much more important. This was the year that triggered the new approach in viticulture and so we began farming organically.”
|Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV Magnum
40% CH, 40% PN, 20% PM | Base Year: 2010 | Reserve Wine: 30% | Lees Ageing: 3.5 Years | Disgorged: 2014 | Dosage: 10 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Has a lazy elegance. So much fruit & nuttiness & rich fruits; the magnum effect & post disgorgement time really show. Has a lightness & long finish.17.5/20
|Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs 1998
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 3 Years | Disgorged: 2002 | Dosage: 9 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 16 Years
Such a forward, rich nose. Lots of juicy fruit and some of that lovely buttery pastry & custard and creaminess. A rich and toasty nuttiness that lingers. Dosage seems quite light – very elegant and still showing great freshness. 19/20
|Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 1990
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Disgorged: 1995 | Dosage: 11 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 23 Years
Some honey at first and a very lively richness of fruit; more juicy on the palate with soft acidity and some brown apples. Showing some age now & its optimum drinking window is right on us. Incredible considering its 23 years post-disgorgement from a year where many are now not showing gracefully, this has held up very well. 18/20
|Louis Roederer Brut Vintage Rosé 1996
65% PN, 35% CH | Red Wine: 20%
Very pale and delicate aromatics. A lazy character and wow on the palate all that lush fruit, mushroom and hints of red fruits like strawberry. Goes a hint meaty with time. Acidity is very gentle for a 1996. Go back to it a few minutes later and how lush, very soft and light on the palate and ageing very gracefully. 18.5/20
Our second flight was a masterclass in Cristal – both the past and the future. We began with new Cristal 2008, due to be released in June this year. Lécaillon declared it “the new 1988” and spoke of his experiments with dosage. The trial disgorgement was given a standard dosage of 8 g/L but, lacking the race and vivacity desired, he dropped the dosage to 7.75 g/L. “Dosage is the search for purity,” he added. Interestingly, following our almost immediate comments regarding the power of the nose and the delicious richness on the palate, Lécaillon revealed that the bottle had been opened an hour ago and that “two hours was probably optimum”.
Next up was an original disgorgement of the remarkable Cristal 2002. Unsurprisingly elegant and light, a near-perfect champagne, the wait for Cristal Vinothèque 2002 is almost too much to bear. Lécaillon told us the Vinothèue 2002 had been disgorged last year, given a dosage of 6 g/L and laid in the cellars where it will rest for seven years before release (in 2024!)
We then compared the current vinothèque release, Cristal Vinothèque 1995, with the original cuvée, Cristal 1995. The philosophy behind this new late-release edition is to leave a few hundred bottles of Cristal on the lees for around ten years longer than the original release, add a lower dosage (~2-3 g/L less than the original) after disgorgement and let them rest in the cellars for seven years before release. “Twenty years from vintage is always a nice window,” Lécaillon has previously told us and this time we were given more information about the winemaking process.
Cristal Vinothèque 1995 was blended and bottled – under stainless steel crown cap – in 1996. The bottles then spent eight years ageing on the lees horizontally and seven years ageing on the lees vertically, before being disgorged in 2011 and left to rest for seven year post-disgorgment. One of the main driving factors behind late-release oenothèque champagnes is the belief that the extra lees ageing develops new levels of complexity and, ultimately, produces a more impressive champagne.
Tasting the vinothèque alongside the original Cristal 1995 was therefore a rare opportunity to test this theory. Although impossible to pick a favourite – they are both world-class champagnes – the original Cristal 1995 was most certainly not obviously inferior. The original was really quite evolved and showed no sign of oxidising in the glass. What effect does seventeen years post-disgorgement under cork seal (Cristal 1995) have versus fifteen year lees ageing under crown cap (Cristal Vinothèque 1995)? We don’t yet have all the answers but it’s a fascinating experiment.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2008
Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: October 2017 | Dosage: 7.75 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
So light on the palate but has such richness. This has so much power and has loads of elements: tropical fruits, subtlety, elegance and lightness of touch. I would have difficulty picking this over 2002 or indeed 1988! 19.5+/20 “This is the new 1988″ – JBL.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2002
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: Late 2009 | Dosage: 10 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Years
Such a lovely rich nose with bananas and pineapple coming forward. Great richness and the fruit makes the dosage seem very low. Elegant lightness and saline. This isn’t a perfect bottle as lacks some of the fruit richness that you get in Cristal 2002. 19/20
|Louis Roederer Cristal Vinothèque 1995
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 15 Years | Disgorged: 2011 | Dosage: 7 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Years
Lots of banana and tropical fruits, quite exotic. On the palate you get a wow, hugely rich and lush! Pineapple and ripe apple – so fresh and light and beautiful texture, creamy and chalky, yet delicate and with great length. 19.5/20
|Louis Roederer Cristal 1995
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: 2001 | Dosage: 10 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 17 Years
A lovely caramel nose and richness of fruits, like apricot and pineapple. A lot more developed and evolved than the Vinothèque with lots of creamy pasty character and good length. Like the nose on this and the palate on the Vinothèque. Dare I blend at this lunch table! 19/20
Our final flight of champagnes involved a similar masterclass, this time in Cristal Rosé. We again began with new Cristal Rosé 2008, which prompted Lécaillon to reiterate his likeness of this vintage to 1988, the “closest to it than any after”. The juice of the red grapes used in Cristal Rosé 2008 were left to macerate on their skins for 7-10 days, giving the final champagne a wonderful fruity freshness.
We tasted the new release alongside Cristal Rosé 2002 – a champagne too sublime for words (Essi boldly stated that it deserves 100 points!) – and Cristal Vinothèque Rosé 1995, of which only 300 exist. In short, this was another memorable visit to one of the most progressive houses in the champagne region. Whether its biodynamic farming, planting vineyards with Burgundy grapevines or experimenting with longer lees ageing on their prestige cuvée, Louis Roederer seem to have everything covered. And in Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, they have a leader at the very top of his game. The only thing that remains uncertain is how long we can bear waiting before we visit again.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2008
Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Disgorged: October 2017 | Dosage: 8 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
The nose is just wow! Has so much fruit, freshness, lightness, chalkiness and delicacy. 19.5+/20 JBL “The closest to 1988 than any after.”
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2002
60% PN, 40% CH | Dosage: 10 g/L
Soft and juicy and how do you describe this?! Just so lush, delicate and rich and wow such length. 20/20 Essi states boldly “100 points!”
|Louis Roederer Cristal Vinothèque Rosé 1995
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 13 Years | Disgorged: 2009 | Dosage: 7 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Years
Very pale hint of colour. Has that lovely rich red fruit coming through. Such elegance, freshness and a length that goes on and on. Seems very subtle but very big. 19.5+/20
|Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2009
66% PN, 33% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Dosage: 0 g/L
Has a richness of fruit to the nose, loads of peaches and creaminess that goes on and on. A hint of nice bitterness and chalkiness on the tongue. Round mouthfeel with a touch of salinity on the end. After all these champagnes surprised it doesn’t seem dry. Ripeness of the grapes really shows adding great texture to the mouthfeel. 17.5+/20
|Louis Roederer Brut Vintage Rosé 2010 Magnum
61% PN, 38% CH | Lees Ageing: 4 Years | Dosage: 9 g/L
Forward fruit on the nose, redcurrant and strawberries wrapped around lees ageing character; lightness on the palate with bundles of fruit and longer lees ageing shows broadening the texture. 18/20