It Doesn’t Get Better than This: A Champagne Louis Roederer Tasting with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

Champagne Louis Roederer continues to be the quintessential Champagne house.  Certainly, there are plenty of brilliant Champagnes, and there are other houses with different styles — Bollinger and Charles Heidsieck immediately come to mind — where every step of the range offers dynamic, complex, vivid wine offering great pleasure but, if the mood suits, worthy of careful consideration.

In this instance, it was not just the opportunity to taste the Roederer wines currently on offer, but also the opportunity to evaluate them in the context of a few older vintages, guided by the genial, urbane chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.  I’ve been fortunate to taste with Jean-Baptiste many times over the years; the quality of information he offers, like the wines, is always of the highest level.  It is not so much his obvious intelligence, but the depth of his perspective (having been at CLR since 1990) and the breadth of his experience: being in charge of all of the Roederer-owned properties, he has made and/or overseen winemaking in Tasmania (a nightmare he can laugh about now), California, Bordeaux, and Portugal.  But perhaps even more than that, what makes him so fun, and a conversation so rewarding, is that he really seems to relish when he’s posed challenging questions.

Spending time with Lécaillon, one is always impressed by his open-minded pursuit of producing delicious wines, wines juxtaposing power and finesse, expressive of their property, in the house style.  Not one bound by ideology, he has a clear-eyed, pragmatic perspective on his work, and works with a questioning spirit.

The larger Champagne houses are much maligned these days, seen as Goliaths opposed to the noble small growers, who, irrespective of the quality of their holdings, winegrowing and winemaking practices, have captured the imagination of many consumers. While there are many growers who craft fascinating, often brilliant wines, I think it important, as always, to look at the wine qua wine, in terms of what’s in the glass.

That said, Roederer owns enough property for about 2/3 of its production, and the purchased fruit (which they control through long term contracts) is only used for their non-vintage Brut Premier.  Thus, with the exception of the Brut Premier, Roederer is, in fact a grower; but, perhaps more important, Roederer represents the quintessence of Champagne’s essence: the art of the blend.

With the current rage about single-vineyard and terroir-driven wines, one element that seems to have been forgotten is that Champagne has dominantly always been a blended wine, whether it be among varieties, vineyards, and cuvées.  The assemblage has always been a critical stage in the production process, whether determining the style and balance of the NV, or tête de cuvée, or how the vintage is best expressed. The dominant crus underlying the style of Champagne Louis Roederer for Pinot Noir include Aÿ, Verzenay, Verzy, and Cumières; and for Chardonnay, Avize, Oger, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Cramant, Chouilly, Epernay and Hautvillers.  The house style is to have full ripeness, working to achieve 11% alcohol with no chaptalization.  Overall, Roederer expression of Champagne’s terroir could be called “purist,” in that once the fruit is in the cellar, their winemaking techniques are all designed to retain, not manipulate the essence of fruit character.  Thus, they flirt with reduction, protecting the wines from the gentle oxidative process that are the polar opposite of the full-bodied, oxidative style of other producers.  Similarly, malolactic fermentation is discouraged, because, among other things, takes the wines one step away from the purity of its origins.  Nor do they keep their wines long on the lees — five to six years at most, thinking that the toasty, biscuity flavors imparted by extended autolysis obscure the terroir.

But to return to the significance of the assemblage in the production of Champagne, Jean-Baptiste distinguished two different types of weather patterns in Champagne, which he argues is the essence of understanding vintages within Champagne itself: “Continental” vs. “oceanic” vintages.  Conversely, oceanic” vintages are wetter, but not necessarily cooler: a vintage can be wet, but also warm and humid. “Continental” vintages are drier – but not necessarily hot (e.g. 1996 and 2008).  In continental years, chalk soils allow a slow but permanent water delivery to the vines, whereas clay changes size, developing cracks in the soils, and stresses the vines to give a less balanced kind of ripening.  What this means is that the compact, chalky soils of Mesnil, Avize and Cramant work very well, while the clay in Chouilly and Vertus is more difficult.  It is the opposite in an oceanic year: with more water, the clay increases its size, fixes the water, and gives more roundness to the wines from Chouilly and Vertus.  In this oceanic pattern, the chalky soils are fine, but lack a little bit of body, as the water is used directly by the vines.  In wetter years, more wine from Chouilly will be added; further north, more north facing, and with more clay in the soil than Avize or Mesnil s/Oger, it is less powerful.  “Continental” vintages will have more Cramant and Mesnil sur Oger.

ROEDERER BLANC DE BLANCS FLIGHT:

The house’s blanc de blancs style is mostly based on a blend of 3 crus (roughly 1/3 of each; while the same blocks are usually sourced, this may change from year to year).  The core crus are Mesnil s/Oger, offering purity, nervosité, and focus; Avize, imparting roundness, depth, richness and vinosity; and Cramant, enhancing the bouquet with exotic aromatics.  About 20% of the wine will be fermented in wood for texture and roundness.  The wines never undergo malolactic fermentation as a firm, active acidity is necessary for the wine’s laser-like precision, and they want to highlight the citrus, orange peel quality of the Chardonnay.  The wine always has a lower pressure (4 bar as opposed to the standard 6 bar), as they feel the 6 atmospheres is to aggressive for the delicacy they try to capture.

2004 Blanc de Blancs, which JB characterized as a “classic” vintage: bright and aromatic following a dry summer, not hot, with generous yields; they had to drop as much as half of the fruit to get the intensity and focus they wanted.  The wine itself showed a very tiny mousse; a bright, chalky nose; firm but delicate on the palate, with a tart, citrusy attack; tight and taut, opening back across the palate with a lightly chalky texture, delicately electric and nervy, with a minerally, long, delicate laser-like finish; a baby.

1996 Blanc de Blancs offered a deeper straw color, with a creamy, lemon quality to the nose, which really boasted an intense bouquet — developing but still fresh and a little exotic; on the palate a very soft mousse highlights the subtle, spicy qualities of a broad, even integrated wine still showing a firm acidity, with notes of lemon, chalk and orange peel; still youthful overall but coming along with full palate coverage; quietly powerful and intense. Yow.

1990 Blanc de Blancs: medium gold, with an unmistakable nose of development: mushrooms, hints of caramel and subtle toffee (torrefaction); medium bodied, with a full 3D bloom in the mouth, opening out with retronasal mushroom, over a fine mineral scrim; three dimensional flavors as in the nose, still crisp with a laser-like 3D focus, very long. Glorious.

Brut Vintage Flight:

Pinot Noir from Verzenay forms backbone of the Brut Vintage; north-northeast facing, it’s a great site because it has no fog and lots of morning sun, if tended well, offering relatively long, slow ripening.

2004 (70 Verzenay PN; 30 Avize, Mesnil s/Oger  dominate: the Pinot Noir was very tense and acidic this vintage, hence this wine underwent 40% oak fermentation and a little more lees contact to render a rounder, balanced wine.) :  Creamy nose, still, fresh, mineral, citrus, green apple, broad palate.  Integrated, even, long, seamless, more green apple.  Long mineral finish. Has an elegance but with tension.

1996 (Disgorged [D/G] 2007) Only slightly more lemony than the 2004, but with a brilliant hue.  Nose shows the nuttiness/spiciness of PN from Verzenay in the North (the nose is not about the fruit; it’s a singular expression.  The Pinot Noir here is from the 1st vineyards LR bought in 1845.

Huge, nutty, coffee, torrefaction, mushroom, developing more than expected, even with a future ahead; still very much alive, vibrant, retronasal spicy bruised apple, round spicy, taut, with a long finish.  Much more evolved than the Blanc de Blancs ’96: the PN was much riper than the Chard.  A brilliant demonstration of how Chardonnay’s higher acidity preserves wine.

1978:  Very difficult vintage; late harvest; picked in October; a PN year; D/G ’84 or ’85.  Jean-Baptiste tried to prime the pump, suggesting exotic aromas of aromas of curry, spice, nuts and tobacco.  He may be very persuasive, but sadly, the wine wasn’t:  Amber gold, nutty nose, intense, with earthy and arguably a curried quality; very complex, some kind of marmelade, honey mushroom, a little cheesy with smoky notes; the palate was medium bodied with initially a big attack, though with little mousse; earthy, mushroom, torrefaction, flavors, but with a short finish: the wine lacks spine and midpalate nerve; the acidity drives the wine but wine immediately falls apart, losing its balance; the acid persists on the finish; broad but not integrated.  Weakest wine of the day, alas.

ROSÉ  FLIGHT : All disgorged 5-6 years after bottling

2006 Rosé (Fruit from Cumières):  Pinkish salmon; delicate red fruit nose, not just strawberry; spicy; medium-bodied, very spicy attack all the way through to the finish, which also is long and minerally.  Overall it’s a mineral-driven wine, crisp, with great drive, mineral and spice dominate.  Intense and focused.  2006 was a difficult year with uneven results among producers.  A hot June and July, the latter with isolated hailstorms, were followed by  a rainy, humid August. Acidities by and large were slightly lower than normal; Roederer’s suppression of the malolactic gives this wine fine nerve and ageworthiness.  Jean-Baptiste thought this vintage was among the finest for CLR in the past decade, along with 2002 and 2008.

1995 Rosé: Cool harvest, thus more faintly colored, but with a spicy, inviting developed nose;  just shy of full-bodied on the palate, it was even, round, ripe, ready to drink, with medium concentration of persistent ripe red fruits, red apple, with a mineral underpinning and an integrated elegant fade, having evolved from the zip and spark of a young wine.  Delicious and harmonious.

1989 Rosé: Much riper than the 1995, therefore more color: pale, but bright orange copper/amber.   A medium intense, very complex nose nose of crème brulée crust, butter, madeleine, cinnamon, spice, exotic – baked apple skin; very dynamic; on the palate, medium-bodied, with very little effervescence; developed flavors of super-ripe red fruits, crisp, coffee, hints of mushroom; a mineral quality wrapped within which emerges to dominate a finish that also has a subtle toasty quality wafting above, 3-dimensionally; drinking beautifully with honeyed notes at the end.

CRISTAL FLIGHT  

The Cristal blend is generally described as 50 Chardonnay: 50 Pinot Noir, though more often than not, the Pinot shares a little more than half of the blend.   The Chardonnay usually comes from Avize and Mesnil s/Oger; the Pinot Noir from Verzenay, where, northeast facing, the grapes ripen very slowly as a cool climate variant of the variety. Typically, 1/3 of the fruit is from grand cru sites in the Cote des Blancs; 1/3 from Verzenay-Verzy, and 1/3 from Aÿ.
Half of the fruit for Cristal is now produced organically.  Slowly CLR has increased the amount of property it has been working biodynamically over the past 12 years, from 10 hectares in 2009 to 28 now, in Avize, Aÿ, and Verzenay – locations close to their press houses, where they can easily monitor the vineyards.  Twenty per cent of the blend has a large, neutral oak vat fermentation, with no malolactic fermentation.  Cristal is arguably released well before it is ready to drink — I contend it needs minimally 10 years of bottle age — thus, when young, it is always taut, very concentrated and powerful, nervy, and relatively closed; the finesse increases exponentially as the wine ages.

CRISTAL 2004:  Pale straw, with a bright nose: apricot pit! Lemon, apple, chalk, taut, elegant; on the palate a huge attack, but  elegant, energetic, with full palate presence, persistent, very long finish; finessed.  Yow, very well balanced,  Very open for Cristal, almost ready to drink, even if packed and youthful. Will be delicious ten years hence.

CRISTAL 1990: [d/g 1999; 39% Chardonnay]  Pale gold, with a nutty palate; integrated, crisp, harmonious, nervy, delicate character somehow, finessed. Full palate coverage, persistent, very complex & dynamic, three dimensional, flavors of mineral, mushroom and  rich, sweet fruit; very long with a slow fade and  a ‘fil’ of minerality throughout the finish

CRISTAL ROSÉ FLIGHT 

Cristal Rosé was created in 1974 by Jean Claude Rouzaud, who wanted a rosé with more tension and class.  It is in more of a grand vin, or should we say grand cru style, befitting CLR’s meticulous approach of careful vineyard site selection (their vineyard holdings have evolved over the years as they sought parcels likely to give the fruit quality they demanded). Much of the fruit comes from vineyards composed of clay on chalk, yielding concentrated, powerful fruit.

CRISTAL ROSÉ 2004:  Pale salmon, with a very spicy nose of red fruits; medium-bodied on the palate, stony, still very tight, with a nervy, spicy mineral finish; elegant, refined and lovely in its way, even if its best is yet to unfold.

CRISTAL ROSÉ 1995:  1995 was a great vintage, and often overshadowed by the unmistakable 1996s, with high acidity and concentration.  The 1995s are showing beautifully now, nicely well-knit and developed.  Pale gold with pink overtones, with a toasty, developing nose: smoky, honeyed, nutty, torrefaction, elegant and dynamic; the palate is full-bodied and very powerful, three-dimensional and utterly delicious, with flavors of butter, pasticeria romana, pie crust, apple; open and complex, yet still tight and concentrated, with huge mineral breadth throughout, with a retro-nasal nutty, toasty, honeyed bloom. This wine is full-palate driven, fully open, but with a long finish and a long time ahead of it.

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2 Responses to It Doesn’t Get Better than This: A Champagne Louis Roederer Tasting with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

  1. Ed McCarthy says:

    Great, Lisa! Except avoid using the word “craft,” please! It’s become an overused cliché word that every PR baboon has adopted.

    Ed McCarthy

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