Frédéric Rouzaud, representing the seventh generation of the lineage in the family, is in charge of Louis Roederer and the whole group. I saw in him an unpretentious man of natural elegance, genuine openness, with a big smile. Clearly and simply, he explains what great champagne is all about, and how the independent spirit of his house and its great vineyard allow them to produce “haute-couture” wines that are seen by many as the benchmark in champagne.
You are one of the few large family-run Champagne houses. What does that mean exactly?
Our shareholders do not ask for results over the next trimester, they ask us to position Louis Roederer in the next 20 years.
Since our inception in 1776, we have been lucky enough to keep the house within the family. I think that this is vital to be included in the high end of fine wines. To make high-quality wines, a long-term vision is vital, and having family shareholders is a necessary yet insufficient guarantee to afford us that time. Our shareholders do not ask for results over the next trimester, they ask us to position Louis Roederer in the next 20 years. As a result, we have time to do things properly and accurately, with determination and rigor.
You are also one of the few Champagne houses to own a vast vineyard. How does that impact your wines?
Louis Roederer wanted to make the best wine possible and to do that, we needed to own and cultivate our vineyards, in the best crus.
From the start, our strategy has to been to create a vineyard in the region, which was quite visionary at the time because, in the past, Champagne grapes were not expensive like they are today (with an average price of 6 euro per kilo). However, Louis Roederer wanted to make the best wine possible and to do that, we needed to own and cultivate our vineyards, in the best crus. He started by purchasing vineyards in chalky and limestone soils with the best sun exposure.
Therefore, the success of our house perhaps stems from this desire to control quality from the vine stock because to make fine wine, whether in Champagne, Burgundy, or Bordeaux, you need great terroirs. Today, we are quite a unique house in Champagne because of our very large vineyard. All of our vintage wines, and our most famous vintage, Cristal, are made solely from our vineyard. For Brut Premier, we buy grapes that make up to 30% of the wine.
We have many vineyards in grands crus, but also in other crus that are well exposed and, in my opinion, deserve the title of grand cru. The viticulture that we practice in our vineyard is accurate and sophisticated so that we get the most interesting grapes at each harvest.
Researching the best crus and their expression has become a mantra in champagne, with more and more mono-cru, and even single-parcel champagnes being made, mainly by growers. What do you think about that?
Houses magnificently blend wines from different crus and years.
That is true, but do not forget that 80% of the champagnes produced are multi-vintage. Houses magnificently blend wines from different crus and years, traditionally using the grapes they buy from growers who do not necessarily have the means to build stocks of wines.
And some houses also produce single-parcel champagnes, but in reality, they are still blending because the vine stocks are not all the same and don’t all give the same grapes in the same vineyard. You blend as soon as you use two vine stocks together. Even Cristal, our most famous cuvée, is a blend of different yet very specific parcels.
Your house has a predilection for pinot noir. In what way does this grape variety manifest itself in your style?
Pinot noir when it is well worked, in great years, produces something magical and unique in Champagne.
The choice of pinot noir is historical and originated from Louis Roederer buying vines planted with this grape variety that he found to be more interesting. Admittedly, pinot noir is a capricious variety that is difficult to control, but when it is well worked, in great years, it produces something magical and unique in Champagne.
Chardonnay is very interesting and appealing, and it is a much more tolerant variety that adapts more easily, which allows for more or less decent harvests every year.
Two-thirds of our vineyard is planted with pinot noir with two expressions: that of the Montagne de Reims in the north-east, which mature more slowly and give a distinctive structure and spiciness to the wine; and that of the Vallée de la Marne, where they are south-facing, with more generosity that gives more red fruit aromas. These two expressions complement one another.
What is your approach to biodynamics that is very in vogue today?
The vineyard used today for Cristal is 100% biodynamically cultivated.
We are always moving forward in the house. Our teams are always researching. As a result, the vineyard used today for Cristal is 100% biodynamically cultivated.
In 2017, for the first time, we cultivated all of our 240 ha organically (50% are certified organic), of which 80 ha biodynamically. It is an important element in our quest to capture this extraordinary raw material–the Champagne grape when cultivated correctly–given that differences in viticulture produce very different grapes. All of this is done to make champagne more authentic, purer, and more representative of the chalky soils and particular climate of our region.
What role does vinification play in researching the purest expression of the Champagne terroir?
Our 410 vats allow us the freedom to vinify each parcel separately to preserve its individuality.
Our vinification is minimalistic to get the purest flavors of the terroir. It is also tailor-made, with certain parcels being vinified in stainless steel vats to preserve the fruit and others in wood to round up their strength. Some years, we will proceed with malolactic fermentations, and other years we won’t. We won’t necessarily do this to all of our wines, so our vinification adapts to the vintage. And our 410 vats allow us the freedom to vinify each parcel separately to preserve its individuality.
What makes truly great champagne?
To me, great champagne represents the perfect balance between concentration, finesse, fruitiness, and strength.
To me, great champagne represents the perfect balance between concentration, finesse, fruitiness, and strength. Like a beautiful rainbow, all the colors need to be there, but none of them should prevail over another. Cristal is a universal wine that embodies that perfect balance that we look for; a powerful wine made with old vines, but as it comes from chalky soils, it also expresses great finesse.
Your Brut Nature champagne has attracted a lot of attention for the collaboration with Philippe Starck, who helped define the cuvée. What is the story behind this champagne?
It is the result of a fortuitous encounter. I enjoy what Philippe Starck does in architecture and design, where he expresses a sense of aestheticism that I really like. When I met him, I discovered someone truly passionate about champagne, someone who drinks it daily, someone who only drinks zero dosage champagne. It turns out that when I met him, I was also exploring the possibility of making such champagne. Even when I joined the house in 1996, I thought that our range had too much dosage. We have lowered the average dosage from 11-12 g/l on average to 8-9 g/l today.
Starck wanted to take part in this project, so during six years, he came to Reims to meet our teams and our chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, for memorable days of exchanges and tastings, telling us his idea of champagne and his vision of the ideal champagne.
You have a great vineyard and a great grasp of vinification and blending. Do you still need dosage?
Yes. We can only make Brut Nature from south-facing terroirs, in sunny and quite dry years. For this, we identified parcels in Cumières with shallow clay soils on which we could get these incredible grapes that allow us to not add dosage in certain years. But for wines coming from chalky soils, we still need to add some balance with a light dosage to smooth the acidity down a little.
What do you see in your house’s future? What are your ambitions?
We are not looking for a growth in volume, which stayed more or less the same since the 19th century at 3.5 million bottles per year. For 200 years, our job has been to cultivate our vineyard and increase the quality of our grapes, make progress in vinification, to be even more precise. We want to make the champagne of tomorrow and aspire to greatness.
The competition from other sparkling wines is growing. How do you see the future of champagne?
I am not worried about the increasing sales of other sparkling wines, whether it is Prosecco, English sparkling wine, or Cava. The more sparkling wine drinkers, the better, with champagne firmly at the top of the pyramid because of its price and quality. Therefore, consumers who delve into the world of sparkling wines might end up discovering interesting champagnes.
I think that champagne has all the assets needed to continue to be the reference in the sparkling wine category.
I think that champagne has all the assets needed to continue to be the reference in the sparkling wine category thanks to its one-of-a-kind terroir, made of chalk and a very particular climate, which produces the world’s great sparkling wines or, in any case, wines of a strong identity.
Consumers have been paying more for champagne than for sparkling wine from other regions for 300 years. There is a clear explanation for this: the consumers accept to pay more for quality that they deem to match the price that they pay. When champagne is well made, there is nothing else like it in the world. It has an extraordinary balance, is complex, and has a remarkable ability to age. It is a great, inimitable sparkling wine.
It is vital that the Champagne region does not rest on its laurels and that it continues to improve its quality.
However, it is vital that the Champagne region does not rest on its laurels and that it continues to improve its quality. On our small scale, our house is also taking part in increasing the quality of champagne.
Do you drink champagnes from other houses?
Of course. We always enrich ourselves by drinking other champagnes, and I do it whenever I can. Champagne has such a wealth of houses, styles, and different champagnes, and that’s great! It would be a great shame if we could only drink one kind of champagne.
You are the president of a world-renowned house. How do you feel about it?
If there were one word to define champagne, what would it be?
What would life be like without champagne?
Sad, very sad.