Appointments with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon are always highly anticipated. The eminent chef de cave is a master educator, conversationalist, scientist and host and we’ve come to expect memorable evenings in his company. That said, our most recent meeting in June 2019 with Jancis Robinson MW still took us by surprise. Reaching an altogether new dimension, like the Vinothèque of tasting programmes, it was packed full of youthful delights yet teased the palate with layers of complexity and maturity, exuding, overall, an air of ultimate prestige.
Lécaillon took us on a journey through time, beginning with all the latest vintage transitions and a brand new Brut Nature, through to the upcoming Cristal and Cristal Vinothèque magnum launches, and finishing with some old – very old – Cristals.
First on the agenda were the eagerly anticipated Brut Natures. Environmentally conscious, handcrafted wines are very much en vogue and Brut Nature is perhaps the most wholesome and unrefined expression of this emergent artisanal trend. It is a ‘field blend’, produced using all three of the dominant Champagne grape varieties, all grown on the same 100% biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Premier Cru village of Cumières, and all picked on the same day – the way the Champenois were “doing it a century ago”.
To be harvested on the same day, the grape varieties must reach peak maturity at the same time. Such synchronisation is difficult to achieve and is a primary reason why Brut Nature can only be produced in warm, dry years. Cumières sits on dark clay soil rich in potassium and nitrogen that, during wet and cool years, encourages the grape varieties to take divergent paths, ripening at different stages. During warm and dry years however, the grape varieties ripen linearly, so peak maturity can be synchronised.
After harvest, all three grape varieties are pressed together and cold fermented. Malolactic fermentation is blocked and 15% of the wines are fermented in large oak casks. Brut Nature is bottled at a lower pressure of 5 atmospheres (the typical pressure is 6 atmospheres), as “the champagne has some tannins and zero dosage, therefore a lighter mousse sits better”. Although there are no challenging blending decisions to make, Lécaillon explained that producing Brut Nature involves more work than the other wines, because “if you go wrong, it is really obvious… it will stand out, it is a ‘naked’ wine.”
Brut Nature 2012 is the third iteration, following 2006 and 2009, and is the most precise and pure expression of terroir yet. Brut Nature Rosé 2012 is the much anticipated first release of a rosé equivalent, produced from an identical field blend, differing only in that a proportion of the Pinot Noir grapes are vinified using the same 5-day red wine infusion technique utilised in the production of Vintage Rosé and Cristal Rosé to impart more colour and tannins to the wine. According to Lécaillon, Brut Nature Rosé was simply “ready to be produced in 2012… it was an extra special year of Pinot Noir ripeness.”
The current vintage release in magnum, Brut Vintage 2012, is a Pinot Noir masterclass. “The Pinot Noirs were the best in 2012 since 1990,” Lecaillon said, adding, “although both were beaten by 2018.” To produce Louis Roederer Brut Vintage, Lécaillon makes a Blanc de Noirs from the grapes of Verzy and experiments with the addition of incremental percentages of Chardonnay to the “austere Pinot Noir” until the perfect blend is achieved.
Over the course of the year, the entire range of Louis Roederer vintage champagnes will transition to 2013. The new Brut Vintage 2013 is 80% Pinot Noir and is already surprisingly expressive, particularly considering the bottle we tasted was so recently disgorged. Lécaillon described 2013, which was the most recent October harvest, as “a great vintage… in mineral expression, in fruit, with a bit of bitterness and chalkiness.”
Rosé 2013, which underwent 25% malolactic fermentation, is produced from the Pinot Noir of Cumières and the Chardonnay of Chouilly and has a much sweeter, delicate, rose petal character than the full bodied 2012.
The biggest change across the new vintage range was Blanc de Blancs 2013, with which Lécaillon is introducing a new style of Blanc de Blancs. The Chardonnay ripeness was “pushed very high, to almost 12%” and all malolactic fermentation was blocked. “Pushing ripeness and keeping freshness creates a chalkiness,” Lécaillon explained, however this technique is being threatened by climate change. Whereas Pinot Noir is less affected by the warmer summers and consequently accelerated ripening periods (“you can make beautiful Pinot Noir with 88 days flowering”), Lécaillon believes that Chardonnay “needs long phenolic ripeness… 95, 96, 97 days. People don’t push Chardonnay enough.”
It is this reduced phenolic structure of Chardonnay that causes the bubbles in Blanc de Blancs champagnes to be more active – the addition of Pinot Noir and the phenolics that come with it keeps the bubbles restrained. “They couldn’t bottle Blanc de Blancs in the 1990s, they called it a ‘crazy wine’… now we know to drop the pressure.”
|Louis Roederer Brut Nature 2012 | 17+/20
55% PN, 25% PM, 20% CH | Dosage: 0 g/l
On first impression you see the chalky character and then the rich tropical notes emerge: peaches, apricots and hints of pineapple. When you taste it you get the freshness of zero dosage, but its impression on the palate doesn’t seem zero, the lees character has added so much texture it rounds out the palate. Very fresh and light with a mineral and saline finish. This wine gets better each release, this, now the third release, is very precise and pure. Drink now to 2022.
|Louis Roederer Brut Nature Rosé 2012 | 17.5++/20
55% PN, 25% PM, 20% CH | Dosage: 0 g/l
Has some reductive character and a roundness and richness to its fruity personality. The texture is outstanding; rich and round giving a real lushness to the mouthfeel, which I wasn’t expecting. It doesn’t seem zero dosage, and when I went back I could see some spice character to the rich red fruits. Very good, this will likely go to an 18/20 with more post-disgorgement time. The influence from macerating the Pinot Noir grapes should see this zero dosage age better than the white version. Drink now to 2025.
|Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012 Magnum | 18.5/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Dosage: 9 g/l
Has such a richness and purity to the nose and textural pleasure that gives additional richness to the mouthfeel. I am struggling not to swallow this. Roederer magnums have texture that always means they get at least an extra half to one point vs the same champagne in bottle. Very elegant, very precise, very enjoyable champagne and when you relate back to the price it is very good value. Drink now to mid-2030s.
|Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2013 | 18.5/20
80% PN, 20% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: January 2019 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
Has a lot of tropical fruits right from the start, very open for a recent disgorgement. The fruit ripeness is there with lots of light red fruit, some dark cherry and bundles of those tropical yellow fruits. It has textural pleasure, ripeness, great length and it lifts up on the end with real freshness. Distinctly quite different vintage characteristics over 2012, this seems a little more forward and drinking very well at a young age. Drink now to 2030.
|Louis Roederer Rosé 2013 | 16.5+/20
67% PN, 33% CH | Dosage: 8 g/l
Lots of red fruits and juicy red cherry character with the trademark rich texture that makes it great on the palate. This is a great balance of freshness, fruit and lightness on the finish. Drink now to 2030.
|Louis Roederer Blanc de Blancs 2013 | 18/20
Has so much richness of fruit which just grows more on the palate and combined with the texture it seems very rich and lush. This has great length that finishes so light and delicate. Nice chalky character and drinking so well again at this age. Drink now to late 2020s.
From this point onwards, the tasting and its accompanying dinner were a veritable feast of Cristal. We began with an exclusive preview of the eagerly awaited next release, Cristal 2012, tasted alongside the current release, Cristal 2008.
The newest vintage is most suitably introduced against a backdrop of the history that bought about its unique production methods. Lécaillon spoke of winemaking in the 1960-80s, when the use of chemicals and fertilisers was widespread, tripling yields but reducing ripeness. “The idea developed that the longer the lees ageing, the better the champagne… which is true if you don’t have the best raw materials.” The real concept of champagne for Lécaillon though, “is to start with a neutral base and create the idea using autolysis.”
At Louis Roederer, the first signs of weakness in the fruit were identified in 1982. The real epiphany however, was the 1996 vintage. “We should have made outstanding wine but made very good wine… [which was] the same for all winemaking regions,” Lécaillon recalled. This period of awakening really kickstarted the viticulture revolution which Louis Roederer spearhead in Champagne today. First came the organic wave and the widespread reduction of synthetic chemicals and fertilisers, followed by a surge in biodynamic farming, which incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an entire ecosystem.
Louis Roederer currently own 125 hectares of biodynamically certified land – significantly more than any other producer – the grapes grown on which are primarily destined for Cristal. “The DNA of Cristal is not to focus on autolysis, but to focus on the fruit and the vineyard. We don’t aim for autolysis as that gives tertiary aromas… [which] are not the Cristal style,” Lécaillon told us. This emphasis on vineyards goes some way to explaining why the house systematically release their prestige cuvée champagne long before other producers – by cultivating the best raw materials, their wines do not require extended lees ageing (autolysis).
They eventually went “full speed on biodynamics in 2012”, converting all 45 parcels that make up the ‘Cristal Estate’ to biodynamic farming methods. Cristal 2012 is therefore the first 100% biodynamically farmed Cristal vintage. “This  is the next chapter. We changed our viticulture, which will speak with time… we will see the wine showing its multilayered dimension.”
Whether it is the biodynamic effect or not – just 40% of the Cristal parcels were farmed biodynamically in 2008 – the difference between Cristal 2012 and Cristal 2008, though slight in quality, is significant in personality. Cristal 2008 was very closed at launch and while Cristal 2012 is clearly still just a baby, it has a more approachable, palatable texture than its predecessor. The vintage influence is of course not to be overlooked: 2012 was a warm year, 2008 was a cold year. More post-disgorgement time will be necessary before any credible comparison can be made, but Cristal 2012 is at least as exciting a prospect as Cristal 2008 was this time last year, if not more.
For Cristal Rosé, the biodynamic conversion took place even earlier, meaning Cristal Rosé 2012 is already the fourth 100% biodyanmically farmed vintage. Produced in just 10% of the quantities of Cristal, the four parcels that constitute the Cristal Rosé Estate – Goutte d’Or and Villers in Aÿ for the Pinot Noir and Montmartin in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for the Chardonnay – have been 100% biodynamic since 2007.
Lécaillon has been paying close attention to the colour of Cristal Rosé, which has reduced in intensity in recent years. Cristal Rosé 2012 has a lighter, more salmon pink hue than Cristal 2008. The palate by contrast is more concentrated, displaying an added Pinot ripeness and texture over the 2008. Though dosage is Lécaillon’s least favourite topic of discussion, he did reveal that the latest vintage has “the lowest dosage ever”.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2008 | 19+/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: January 2018 | Dosage: 7.75 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 18 Months
This is a slightly different experience of 2008, now with more post-disgorgement time the chalky character seems more forward, then underneath that you get almost a warmth from the fatness of all the fruit and then the texture as ever is that fine lees-y, chalky character that adds so much textural pleasure, all finishing with great length and precision. Crisp and light on the finish.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2008 | 19.5/20
56% PN, 44% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: January 2018 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 18 Months
Again like the blanc I am seeing more of the chalk character right up front and then you see the layers of fruit, some great red fruits, dark cherry and hints of smoky roasted nuts. On the palate these layers build, the ripeness of fruits, more red fruits at present, and some of the Chardonnay just adding the fresh reductive notes. Has great freshness, delicacy and a distinct salt/iodine hint on the finish. Very fine.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2012 | 19/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: March 2019 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Months
This has richness, ripeness and a slight fatness right now and the texture is right up there. The 2008 was very tight and precise at launch and this is similar; I feel this is a little more approachable as the texture is again very intriguing in this Cristal. Has a lot of power of fruit – fresh crunchy ripe apples and richer fruits like pineapple and many tropical suggestions coming out. This champagne has real enthusiasm and freshness and is a great sparring partner for the 2008. Will look forward to a re-taste with more post-disgorgement time. Drink now to mid 2030s.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 2012 | 19.5/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: January 2019 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Months
You would think the 2008 is a hard act to follow, but this youngster is showing off its class. You can see the youthfulness that is so charming, the power of the fruit, the yellow fruit is right in up front and then you start to see some of those soft red berry fruits. Fresh and almost toasty this champagne is very fine, the texture is surprisingly powerful considering this has 3 years less lees ageing than 2008 – bright acidity, but softer than 2008. At present you see more of the minerality on the 2012 (vs 2008) which is having more of a chalky phase right now. Very good, it is really hard to rate them different, this would appear to be showing very ready right now, but I am sure we will see it close down in a year or so to emerge again a few years later. I wonder if this will be one of those vintages we come back to in 20 years and won’t be able to believe how well it has matured. Drink 2020 to at least mid-2030s.
Over dinner, Lécaillon wanted to “explore different shades of Cristal over 43 years” in order to “showcase the consistent freshness, finesse and chalkiness of Cristal.” This he certainly achieved, generously sharing vintages of Cristal from ripe or ‘classic’ years spanning four different decades, examined through the lens of original disgorgement, Late Release and Vinothèque.
The Late Release project, which was initiated with the 2002 vintage, highlights the effect of extended post-disgorgement ageing under perfect conditions. A significant number of bottles and magnums of original disgorgements from special vintages are kept in the cool, dark Louis Roederer cellars for more than ten years of post-disgorgement ageing, until Lécaillon feels that “the wine has reached an extra dimension.” The next Late Release vintages will be 2008 (released in the late 2020s!) and 2012, meaning there will have been just two Late Release vintages for the entire noughties.
The Vinothèque programme, which was initiated with the 1995 vintage, demonstrates the effect of extended lees ageing. The wines are aged on the lees sur latte (horizontal) to “build texture and autolysis” and then sur pointe (upside down) to “prevent oxygen ingress and reach a kind of reductive stage which protects the fruit and freshness” for a combined total of thirteen years. They are then disgorged with a 2-3 g/l lower dosage than the original disgorgement and stored in the cellars for an extended period of post-disgorgement maturation.
We were fortunate enough to taste magnums of Vinothèque during our visit. The strategy with the larger formats is identical, however they are aged for even longer on the lees – sixteen years – and released two years after the bottles of the same vintage.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Late Release 2002 Magnum | 19.5+/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 2009 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 10 Years
Straight from the beginning there is tropical fruits jumping out, very forward and showing off today, it is packed full of density and richness and on first taste I wrote “wow what a texture.” Salinity keeps it light and yet the density is as much as I have ever tasted, there is richness coming from vanilla and roasted cashews. JB says “vanilla is a concentration identifier.” Unusually for JB in 2002 he picked a week earlier than everyone else. The texture is giving the wine a pleasing “not trying too hard character”, it is just lying back not showing off too hard and is an amazing combination of texture, a lot of ripe tropical fruits, the chalky minerality and perhaps at present the reductiveness nature of Chardonnay is dominating. I initially gave it 20/20 then I tasted the rosé and felt that had a teaspoon more so docked half a point! Drink now for the next 20+ years.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Late Release 2002 Magnum | 20++/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 2009 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 10 Years
The aromatics are like running through the rose gardens in Regents Park; incredibly scented with that freshness and pure signature and an underlying chalkiness. On the palate the lees ageing is very evident adding a broad and silky texture and then more fruits come out like pineapple and guava with the dried fruit character just starting to develop. The rich red Pinot Noir fruits add to the density and spread of flavours; deep cherry and peach all come out on the palate. Despite so much density of fruit and texture, the wine dances on your palate with lightness and the chalky character and hint of salinity give it that lift at the end. Great length, just goes on and on. Drink now for at least 25+ years.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Vinothèque 1999 Magnum | 19/20
58% PN, 42% CH | Lees Ageing: 16 Years | Disgorged: 2016 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Aged 7 years sur latte, 9 years sur pointe. A ripe year with the lowest acidity since 1959 (2003 was next lowest). Rich and deep colour with Pinot Noir more prominent at this time with dark plums, peaches, hints of honey, ripe red apples, caramel and layers of tropical fruit just starting to emerge – some pineapple and roasted cashews. The journey explodes when you taste as the middle palate fills massively with the lees ageing texture, more yellow fruits come out and build the richness. The minerality and salinity really help keep the freshness up there despite the softer acidity. Great preview of what is coming in 2-3 years. Drink now to late 2020s.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Vinothèque 1996 Magnum | 19/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 16 Years | Disgorged: 2013 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 6 Years
Aged 10 years sur latte, 6 years sur pointe. This was the year JB says he wished the house picked 7-10 days later. Despite this the champagne has a fair amount of tropical notes, the yellow richness of grapefruit and pineapple and then the layers of Pinot Noir fruits, so dark plums and peaches. Has a lot of freshness and you can also see the minerality from the chalk adding to the texture from this extended 16 years of lees ageing. This is showing really well at the moment and will be fascinating to see its post-disgorgement journey. I believe the texture from the long lees contact with the acidity will give this magnum an expected drinking window of 20+ years.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1999 Magnum | 19+/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 16 Years | Disgorged: 2016 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Aged 7 years sur latte, 9 years sur pointe. Lots of rich red fruits the ripeness in the fruits gives you the suggestion of charcuterie; on the palate you get the rich red fruits, apricots, pineapple roasted almonds, wrapped up around the texture from the lees aging and quite an iodine like freshness and hint of bitter that leaves it finishing fresh and flavours that linger long. Going back can see some real creamy vanilla character. Drinking well now and for at least mid 2030’s
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1995 Magnum | 20++/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 16 Years | Disgorged: 2012 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Years
Aged 8 years sur latte, 8 years sur pointe. The fruit jumps out, tropical ripe fruits giving the wine such lushness and power on the nose with an underlying chalky character. It is hard to describe freshness on the nose, but this has that purity that I often describe as freshness. The richness and the tropical notes and layers are immense; dried fruits, roasted cashews, many yellow fruits, plum, pineapple and grapefruit and then some red fruits like redcurrants and dark cherry and a hint of blackcurrant richness. After a while some dark chocolate notes seem to come out. A very complex and ridiculously fine champagne. I would like to own a few of these! Drink now and for many decades.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 1990 | 18.5+/20
70% PN, 30% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 1997 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 22 Years
Higher Pinot Noir content than normal. There are those signature dried apricot, lime raspberry and cherry notes with layers of roasted cashews. You can see the fruit ripeness with pineapple and really ripe lemons with roundness from the fruits as well as the lees. Ends beautifully fresh. This 1990 in just bottle size is proving that some champagnes from this great vintage are still in impressive shape, with further life still ahead.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 1979 | 19.5/20
62% PN, 38% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 1986 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 33 Years
This is different to the others, it has the power and intensity on the nose and palate with bundles of fruit, plenty of dried fruits, and creaminess with great freshness. The colour is dark golden and the texture is great, It has hints of oxidative character, but that is simply its age, not a negative, and I find the texture and acidity intriguingly different to the other vintages. Very fine now and would guess it will stay very similar to this for at least ten more years.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 1989 | 19/20
50% PN, 50% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: 1999 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 20 Years
Another ripe year and JB’s first vintage at Roederer, although he was in California at Roederer Estate at that time he was still involved in the blends back in Reims. A full and rich nose with red fruits like dark cherry, redcurrant and loganberry and another layer of fruits come out when you taste, lots of dried apricots and raspberry. It has a great lees texture and a chalky finish leaving it so light and delicate on the finish.
|Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé 1976 | 20/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: 1986 | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 33 Years
The second release of Cristal Rosé (first being 1974). Ripe fruit year from a very long and dry summer; picked early Aug and JB says perhaps could have been a few days earlier. When JB took over as cellar master he tasted this and it encouraged him not to be afraid of ripeness. The power and intensity of the fruits is incredible, some delicacy of aromatics with many dried fruits, dried raspberry, pineapple flower and redcurrants. Has a rich and very fine silky mouth-filling texture and the dried fruits give the champagne concentration and the finish is light with a hint of salinity leaving a velvet coating to your mouth.