Louis Roederer’s charismatic leader, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, had a heck of a year in 2018. The summer release of Cristal 2008 proved to be the most talked about launch of the decade, and Louis Roederer once again swept the board at the CSWWC, picking up an unprecedented number of trophies. When it became clear that the near-perfect weather conditions experienced during the growing season were going to persist throughout harvest time, it was an idyllic end to a sparkling year.
“We had fun in 2018,” Lécaillon recalled with a smile. “This year has produced the ultimate terroir driven wines – each parcel is really clearly different.” For Roederer, there were two distinct harvests – one in August for the Pinot Noir, and one in September for the Chardonnay. Whilst many producers feared picking too late, Lécaillon displayed characteristic patience in waiting for his preferred ripeness levels, still picking grapes 1-2 weeks later than other houses.
The resulting average alcohol levels reflect his restraint positively: 11.7% for the Chardonnay and 11.4% for the Pinot Noir. The average pH level in the winery this year is an astonishingly low 2.8, similar to the 1988, 1996 and 2008 harvest, and much lower than that of other houses – a result of Roederer’s focus on organic and biodynamic viticulture. The average alcohol and pH figures combined “are even more impressive than 2012”, according to Lécaillon.
Even with such high quality grapes, yields were high: 13,000 kg/ha on average – around 14-15,000 kg/ha for the Chardonnay and 11-12,000 kg/ha for the Pinot Noir. The standard of the juice was such that Lécaillon decided not to do malolactic fermentation on any of the wines. “Every summer with dry conditions, we have strong wines – the winner is the chalk, as it retains the water and expresses the character of the terroir,” he said.
In 2018, all of the 42 Cristal estates (plots that produce grapes/wine destined for the Cristal blends) were bottled, a feat accomplished only twice previously – in 2002 and 2015. “The biggest Cristal year thus far is 2002… this one  will be close.” It wasn’t only the Cristal estates that performed well either. Lécaillon told us that “there are a number of vineyards just outside Cristal classification that are pushing their way in.”
His ultimate description of the vintage? “2018 has the density of 2002 and the precision of 2008.”
2018 Vins Clairs
Keen to highlight how each individual parcel had expressed the unique characteristics of the terroir in 2018, Lécaillon had prepared a comprehensive tasting of base wines: more than 30 in total, covering 51 hectares of vines. As Pinot Meunier constitutes just 6 ha out of Roederer’s 240 hectare estate, we tasted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay only, and approached them geographically – starting in the Vallée de la Marne, moving through the Montagne de Reims, and eventually finishing in the Côte des Blancs – with a few of Lécaillon’s favourite experiments thrown in.
The first three Pinot Noirs from the Vallée de la Marne are wines destined for different champagnes: Brut Premier, Brut Rosé and Brut Nature, respectively. The final wine, from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, was undoubtedly the best of the bunch, described as “super Pinot… almost Burgundy… this is the terroir – high voltage!” by Lécaillon.
|Hautvillers | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Blanche Borne
Has a real ripeness, tropical fruits and peaches. Loads of ripeness, rhubarb, plums and raspberry with hints of smokiness. Very alluring.
|Cumières | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Chalmonts | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
This is spicy and smokey with some juicy fruits like loganberry. There is ripeness from the warmth of the year, some tart fruits like cranberry and some fleshier ones like blackberry. Great freshness and salinity.
|Cumières | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Les Chèvres Pierreuses | Fermented In: Oak Barrels
This has a distinct creamy character with that umami spice edge. Loads of red berry fruit like redcurrant and raspberry. On the palate, there is a roundness that has come from the battonage. No ML. This has so much ripe apple, blackberry and rose hip. Lifts up at the end with hints of salinity and freshness.
|Mareuil-sur-Aÿ | Premier Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Fourcheule
This has high ripeness, texture that dances on the palate and an extra texture that brings roundness that we usually associate with dosage.
The second flight of Pinots presented the results of an experiment Lécaillon had been conducting on the effects of altitude on the vineyard. The wines were from three different plots in Aÿ, each located at different altitude levels with about 70-80m variance between them.
We found there to be more ripeness in the lower altitude wines; a result, Lécaillon believes, of the increased wind protection lower down (wind “shuts the vines down”). Further, the grapes grown higher up each slope displayed more concentration. Lécaillon posited this to be a result of the lower nitrogen levels in the vines further up the slope, as there is less water in the soil.
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Varmery | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks | Highest Part of Hillside
Great ripeness on the nose, loads of tropical fruits and pepper. So much texture on the palate and so much freshness and iodine. This has power and lightness.
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Bonotte | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks | Mid Part of Hillside
So much ripe fruits and density. Wow, the powerfulness and concentration with spiciness, lychee, pineapple and textural pleasure.
|Aÿ | Grand Cru, Vallée de la Marne | Plot: Goutte d’Or | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks | Lowest Part of Hillside
This has power – raspberry, peaches, blackberry and so much spice. A beautiful texture and such powerful flavours that last long. Lot of freshness from that saline, chalky character.
The next three were from Grand Cru villages in the Montagne de Reims. The first, from a plot called Croisette in the famous village of Verzy, is destined for the Vintage Brut champagne, which, this year, Lécaillon is hoping will be a Blanc de Noirs: “I’ve been aiming to make a Blanc de Noirs but it has never been possible before as I’ve needed the Chardonnay. This year, I’m not sure what the Chardonnay will add.”
This acceptance of letting the terroir express itself was a common theme throughout our discussion. Technically speaking, Lécaillon thinks 2018 should be an easy year for the Chef de Cave. “Don’t try to control it,” he said. “This is the type of vintage where you have to let it be… let it happen. You have no rot, so… no worries!”
|Verzy | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Croisette | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
Has bright red fruits and so much zingy character. Raspberries, strawberries and power of blackberries. Lots of freshness and iodine.
|Verzy | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Vinzelles
The nose has a lovely reduction, spicy character and redcurrant and saline freshness. Powerful and really engaging aromas.
|Verzy | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Champs Romés | Fermented In: Oak Barrels
Soft juicy fruits and roundness. Wow, so much mid-palate texture, ripe fruits and superb freshness.
|Beaumont-sur-Vesle | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: La Voie des Vignes
Has density of fruits and yet elegance and lightness.
The final three Pinot Noirs all originated from Verzenay. The final wine, an oak-fermented vins clairs from the Piscard plot, is “the best of Montagne de Reims this year,” according to Lécaillon. This is at least in some part due to it being biodynamically farmed for so long – it was the first Louis Roederer parcel in the Montagne de Reims to be fully converted to biodynamics, back in 2004.
All three are destined for the Cristal blend which, unsurprisingly, Lécaillon will be producing this year. “Cristal must be fruity, powerful and elegant. We have all three this year.”
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Potences | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
This has a real elegance and power. So much fruit and freshness. Delicious ripe tropical notes with the classic peach and raspberry flavour.
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Basses Coutures | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
This seems softer than the previous wine but has ridiculous power and weight of fruit. The vineyards are quite close together, yet show such different fruit and textural characteristics.
|Verzenay | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Piscard | Fermented In: Oak Barrels
Such richness of fruits, lovely ripe red berries. Some black notes, like black cherry and bramble. Refreshing finish.
The Chardonnays we tasted were from a range of Premier and Grand Cru villages in the Côte des Blancs. The first, from a plot called Noue Tuilières in Chouilly, is the only white wine in contention for the Brut Vintage blend, if Lécaillon decides not to make it a Blanc de Noirs. The best from the first line-up was the fourth wine, a Chardonnay from Volibart (one of the Cristal plots in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger) that has such power, Lécaillon claims he can “always recognise it in a blind tasting.”
|Chouilly | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Noue Tuilières | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
Some of that lovely toasty smoky character with richness and power of ripe apples, peaches and tropical notes. An underlying chalky character and great freshness.
|Vertus | Premier Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Montferrés le Plateau | Farming: Organic | Fermented In: Oak Barrels
Very precise with bundles of apple, pear and ripe pineapple. All with a spicy undertone and refreshing acidity.
|Le Mesnil-sur-Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Montmartin | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
Has strong ripe apple, pear and pineapple. The freshness is amazing with hints of salinity and chalkiness.
|Le Mesnil-sur-Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Volibart
Great power and softness. Lots of apples and pineapple. Has a power that “grabs and shakes you.” Lots of chalk character.
We also tasted the results of experiments on wine from Avize. In each pair, both wines were from the same plot and were picked on the same day. In the first pair, one had been fermented with commercial yeast; the other with wild, or indigenous, yeast. In the second pair, one originated from soil farmed organically; the other from soil farmed biodynamically. We tasted both pairs blind.
The winners in each pair were: the wine fermented with wild yeast, and the wine from soil farmed biodynamically. Lécaillon believes that fermenting with wild yeast produces a more complex wine with a more pronounced bouquet, better suited to the current “neoclassical” style of winemaking – a return to more complexity, which was dismissed in the 1960s in favour of wines that were easier to drink.
In terms of biodynamics, Lécaillon has noticed a trend in which biodynamically cultivated soil produces wines that retain freshness (and have lower pH levels) in warmer years, whereas in the cooler years, the organic vineyards seem to produce riper fruit.
|Oger | Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs | Plot: Pierre Vaudon | Fermented In: Oak Barrels
Has some tropical notes straight off with some of those Gewürztraminer lychee character, like spiciness. Very interesting, really fresh tropical notes and classic Chardonnay combined.
|Cramant | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Fermented In: Stainless Steel Tanks
Very reductive smoky nose with lots of pear and ripe red apple. Powerful fruit with tropical notes and great texture from the almost oily rich texture.
|Avize | Grand Cru, Montagne de Reims | Plot: Voie d’Épernay | Fermented In: Oak Barrels
Chalk and pears and slightly softer fruit, yet there is so much freshness.
Next, we tasted the recently completed 2018 base Brut Premier NV blend. With 58% Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay, the white grape content is higher than typical, as Lécaillon believes “the Chardonnay really brings something in 2018”. A quarter of the wines in the blend underwent malolactic fermentation and the reserve wine content this year is less than 25% (15% being the 2017 Brut Premier blend and the remaining 10% a blend of the previous 7 vintages), on account of the strength of the 2018 vintage.
|Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV Assemblage | 2018 Base Year
58% PN, 42% CH | Base Year: 2018 | Reserve Wine: 25% | Malolactic Fermentation: 25%
Has some lovely spice. More Chardonnay than usual and less reserve wine. There is a freshness and concentration and the typical very polished and refined texture. Can’t wait to taste this in four years.
COTEAUX CHAMPENOIS WHITE & RED WINE
Our final two vins clairs experiments involved wine destined for the Coteaux Champenois (still white and red wine) blends that Lécaillon has been developing for more than a decade. During dinner later that evening, he noted that, “if you really want to showcase the terroir of champagne, it is through still wine.”
The three Chardonnays all originated from a plot named Volibart in the Grand Cru village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The Chardonnay grapes for the Coteaux Champenois white wine are managed differently to those that make champagne. They are pruned to allow just one bunch of grapes to grow per shoot (to enhance the ripeness of the grapes), and they are whole bunch pressed in the winery.
The first was fermented in 320hl stainless steel tanks, which provide the reductive potential; the second in ceramic tanks, which have tiny holes that allow air in (what Lécaillon refers to as “un-oaked breathing”) and bring the core of the fruit; and the third in oak barrels, which give the oxidative qualities and oak characteristics desired.
The five red wines were all from a plot called Charmont in the Premier Cru village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Lécaillon specially planted the one-hectare biodynamic Pinot Noir vineyard in 2002 with a selection of vines from Burgundy, with the intention of one day producing a Coteaux Champenois red wine.
The first wine was produced from almost fully de-stemmed grapes (just 2% whole stem) and each wine thereafter was produced from progressively more whole stem grapes: 16%, 31%, 44%, and 55%. This fascinating experiment showcased the significant difference that small incremental alterations in just one of the vast repertoire of tools available to the winemaker can make. The wines at each extreme were particularly interesting and, when blended, produced an impressive wine of complexity and balance.
Over the course of a resplendent dinner at the family house in Reims, we were spoilt by a quite mesmeric array of Cristal champagnes. After Cristal 2008, which may well be superseded by Cristal 2012 soon, we sampled a preview of the next vinothèque release: Cristal Vinothèque 1999, alongside the previous release: Cristal Vinothèque 1996. Vinothèque 1999, which was aged for 7 years sur latte (horizontal) followed by 7 years sur pointe (upside down), will be released early next year.
Next came a magnum of Cristal 1988, a vintage which, although celebrated as one of the very best today, Lécaillon noted was not considered great for quite some time. “The 1988 vins clairs were not so good when young… they took 20 years to get this good.” It may have taken some time but it was certainly worth waiting for, and to taste a champagne of this standard from magnum is an altogether different experience. Lécaillon informed us that he puts less yeast in the magnums so that the process of fermentation takes longer, creating a unique quality he referred to as “aged reduction”.
We finished with two rosés: Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1999 and a magnum of Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1995. The Rosé Vinothèque 1999, which was also aged for 7 years sur latte and 7 years sur pointe, is currently more identifiable as Cristal than the blanc version, with oodles of lees character, freshness and chalky salinity.
Tasting Cristal Vinothèque from magnum (the larger formats will be released next year) is about as good as it gets in champagne. The Roederer winemaking team refer to the vinothèque program as “eternal youth”, and aptly so – despite its 11 years on the lees and 12 years post-disgorgement, Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1995 from magnum still has so much youthful vivacity; an utterly faultless example of an old champagne that has aged gracefully under perfect storage conditions.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2008 | 19.5/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: 2018 | Dosage: 7.75 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 1 Year
This has so much power and often we describe it as very precise and slightly tight or restrained, at present this is right; it is packed full of tropical fruits, subtlety, elegance and lightness of touch. On the palate it has a full and round texture from extended lees ageing and its youthful character is very evident. Difficult picking this over 2002 or indeed 1988! Stunning – expect this to develop for 30+ years.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Vinothèque 1999 | 18.5+/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 14 Years | Disgorged: 2014 | Dosage: 6 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Rich and deep golden colour with plenty of fruits jumping straight out of the glass. Hints of honey, ripe red apples, caramel and pineapple. On the palate you get the intensity and that soft and creamy texture from the lees ageing and relatively light acidity for a Cristal. Very easy to drink and for a difficult vintage this shows a lot of class and finesse. Drink now to 2030.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Vinothèque 1996 | 19/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 14 Years | Disgorged: 2011 | Dosage: 6 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 8 Years
A forward nose with real vibrancy to the fruits; tropical flavours and spicy character combine with incredible ripeness. Great mouthfeel and the length goes on and on. Lovely acidity and a delightful lees character on the finish with a real chalky edge and saline finish. Superb. No rush to drink now for 20+ years.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 1988 Magnum | 19+/20
50% PN, 50% CH | Lees Ageing: 18 Years | Disgorged: 2007 | Dosage: 9 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 12 Years
Intensely chalky and dense dried fruits – citrus, figs and grapefruit. Lovely engaging palate, great texture and power and density of fruit in the mouth, with richness and freshness and wow that seaweed iodine finish. Has density, length and elegance.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1999 | 19/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 14 Years | Disgorged: December 2014 | Dosage: 7 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Very light hint, a rather delicate pink colour. Straight away this is packed full of fruits, loads of red berry with dried cranberry and red grapefruits and hints of spice. When you taste you get all these flavours with an elegance to the lees character that adds such roundness and mid-palate pleasure with freshness and salinity. Great length that goes on and on. A triumph for a year that didn’t get great press! Subtle and powerful.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1995 Magnum | 20/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: 2007 | Dosage: 7 g/L | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 12 Years
This received two more years in the cellars than the bottle which indeed is amazing, I didn’t even know magnums existed. When I started writing this tasting note I went back and tasted once more trying to challenge myself; couldn’t find a reason to not give this 20/20! It is so complete, a very alluring and powerful basket of fruits with more of the dried apricots and tangerine and blood grapefruits and the lees has really done wonderful things to the palate. Bundles of fruit, great texture, salinity and that lift of acidity. All seems very balanced and rather moreish and is the perfect age to be drinking Cristal. I fear rather few will be available for sale. My hand is definitely raised up high!