3. LOUIS ROEDERER
That Louis Roederer, another family-owned business, retains its position in the top three Most Admired Champagne Brands comes as no surprise. Its reputation is built around consistent excellence in the bottle, while the family’s 240ha vineyard estate, large enough to provide around two-thirds of the grapes it needs, is the cornerstone of the business.
It seems hard to believe that a decade has passed since Frédéric Rouzaud’s reign at the head of the business began. He’s the seventh generation to lead the business and has taken over seamlessly from his father, Jean-Claude, a hard act to follow, even when they had worked together for a decade first. He has been helped in this by having as his right hand man head winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.
Recognising his crucial role in the business, the same year he took over one of Rouzaud’s first moves was to make Lécaillon executive vice president, in charge of production of all the Roederer wineries.
For such a conservative, traditional house, the two of them have overseen quite revolutionary changes. These include the first new wine in the Roederer range for more than 40 years since Cristal Rosé was initially released in 1974 with the launch of Brut Nature 2006. This is a single cru, zero dosage, vintage champagne from a biodynamically farmed vineyard, is made at lower than normal pressure, comes from a three-varietal vineyard blend and is part oak fermented. Thus it encompasses several observable trends in one cuvée, quite a development from a major house that is almost alone in not even making an unvintaged rosé style – only four other producers in our top 30 don’t and two of these are Chardonnay specialists.
Under their watch Roederer now has the largest organically and biodynamically farmed estate in Champagne – 150 of its 410 parcels are cultivated in line with biodynamic principles. A good deal of it is used for making prestige cuvée Cristal – more than half the fruit used is from these parcels. Lécaillon sees winemaking as a continuation of the vineyard work.
“Since Frédéric arrived in 1996 we’ve gradually changed the way we farm with ploughing, working organically and then biodynamically and also going back to more oak fermentation because the material we have is stronger and richer so it can handle more aeriation in oak,” says Lécaillon. “Today around a quarter of Cristal is oak fermented, the rest is in stainless steel. The dosage level has come down too, in order to let the wine shine. It’s decreased by 3gm/l between 1999 and 2014, it used to be between 12-13gm/l. Winemaking is a slalom between oxidation and reduction. Trying to aerate those [vats] that need oxygen and protect those that don’t. The riper fruit from south east-facing slopes tends to go into stainless steel tanks because we want to keep the freshness.”
As a team, while recognising the importance of the house’s history, they are constantly looking at making small changes to see if anything can be done better than in the past. The flagship Brut Premier blend has been a major beneficiary. Researching a piece about those in Champagne experimenting by using less sugar in the prise de mousse to create champagnes at a lower pressure than the standard six bars, I went to see Lécaillon. I discovered he now bottles different sizes of the mainstream Brut Premier blend at different pressures.
Taking the magnum he sees as the perfect sized receptacle for producing champagne, he bases all his calculations on that format and adjusts the amount of sugar to use for the prise de mousse for the others, and thus the end pressure in the bottle. The benchmark magnum gets 20gms/l, the bottle 22gms/l and the half bottle the highest at 24gms/l. It needs this higher amount to help protect it as half-bottles are more susceptible to oxidation, says Lécaillon. “The bigger the format the smaller pressure we want.”
Such fine tuning is only possible thanks to recent scientific progress that makes it possible to test the pressure inside a bottle without opening it. The complexity of the Premier Brut blend has also been increased by other tiny changes, such as the additional use of reserve wine, now typically at least 30% of the blend and usually coming from the seven previous years before the harvest on which it is based.