Guillaume Lété was appointed chef de cave of Barons de Rothschild in 2015. A bright young man with a contagious smile and very clear ideas, he perfectly reflects the dynamic and eager spirit of this house, founded on strong family values and traditions combined with a clear vision into the future. He explains how he executes the philosophy of the house to craft a focused range of wines characterized by freshness, finesse, and complexity, coupled with a distinctive finale in the mouth; the embodiment of the Rothschild’s spirit of doing things their way.
How did you get into the champagne world and into Barons de Rothschild?
My destiny crossed paths with champagne very early in life. Being from a family of small champagne producers in Avize, I spent a lot of time since I was very young with my grandfather in the cellar and the vineyard. I joined Barons de Rothschild by chance. During my studies in enology, I worked in Bordeaux and California and finally found my way back to Champagne by getting involved in research and development at a big Champagne house. Then I wanted to get into a house whose wines are strongly connected to the terroir. It was in 2011 that I joined Barons de Rothschild as assistant chef de cave to Jean-Philippe Moulin. I held this position for five years before being appointed chef de cave in 2015.
What differences have you seen in winemaking in Champagne compared to other wine regions where you worked?
Compared to what I noticed in the US, in Champagne the winemaking philosophies are the opposite. Here we are interested in the terroir, in a specific know-how, with a wine industry that has evolved from a long and rich history. In the US on the other hand, there is a more industrial winemaking culture, with a wine world that has been created recently and a very innovative spirit that adapts to the American style of consumption.
Here we are interested in the terroir, in a specific know-how, with a wine industry that has evolved from a long and rich history.
You mentioned the terroir of Champagne. What is your approach to its expression in your wines?
Our vision on this subject is clear: we vinify by village, and when we can, by plot. We work with small stainless steel vats of 25, 30, 50, and 60 hl, which allow us to have more choices, with wines with different characteristics that we associate during the assemblage.
From which crus do you source your grapes?
For our small production of 500,000 bottles a year we have selected the villages that interest us: grands and premiers crus in the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims. Our chardonnays mostly come from Cramant, Avize, Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Vertus. The pinot noirs come only from the north and south part of the Montagne de Reims, from villages like Ludes, Verzenay, Verzy, Ambonnay, Bouzy, Avenay Val d’Or, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Aÿ. We do not include any meunier in our blends, but only chardonnay and pinot noir, of which we only use the cuvée.
You emphasize the use of grands and premiers crus. Are they a guarantee of quality champagne?
I do not think that using a grand cru automatically results in great champagne, but it certainly brings something positive. The most important factors for us are where the vines are planted, who the vine grower is, so the location, the sun exposure, and the vine grower’s way of working. These factors make a big difference in the same cru.
I do not think that using a grand cru automatically results in great champagne, but it certainly brings something positive. The most important factors for us are the location, the sun exposure, and the vine grower’s way of working. These factors make a big difference in the same cru.
We try to work with long-term agreements for several years. We work hand in hand, accompanying the vine growers right to the end of the maturation of the grapes, and we follow-up with them in the vineyards the analytical and gustative profile of the grapes to choose the right day to harvest. We make a strict selection of the grapes that are delivered to us each year, and if there is a problem we do not accept them. We have 80 ha of supply of which we only use 50 of the best quality. In the chardonnay, at the time of harvest, we seek to keep this acidulous, fresh side, but with a certain maturity of the lemon flavors. We are therefore looking for the right maturity without getting into something too opulent or rich.
As we use a lot of reserve wines in all our non-vintage champagnes, we must properly keep these wines over time to ensure the style of our house. We want to keep their freshness, and therefore they cannot be too mature at the beginning of their life. Hence, if we harvest the grapes when they are too ripe, we cannot maintain the style of our wines in the long run. It is, therefore, a question of finding the right timing for harvesting, which is not obvious.
As we use a lot of reserve wines in all our non-vintage champagnes, we must properly keep these wines over time to ensure the style of our house.
Why you do not use meunier?
Considering our winemaking scheme and wine style, which focuses on long aging in vats and then in bottles, we find more interesting to work with pinot noir than meunier. The latter is more opulent and richer in his youth but doesn’t age that well under our vinification and aging process.
How do you define the style of Barons de Rothschild? What do you want to convey?
The idea we want to convey with our style is that of freshness, delicacy, and finesse, with complexity.
The idea we want to convey with our style is that of freshness, delicacy, and finesse, with complexity. We want to create champagnes of great drinkability, with enough power and complexity in the mouth, although not excessively rich, with elegance and delicacy built around chardonnay. In our brut non-vintage, chardonnay represents 60% of the blend with 40% of pinot noir, 40% of reserve wines, and aging on lees for at least four years. With a very fresh nose marked by chardonnay, the pinot noir enhances the intensity in the mouth, with an increasingly powerful finish that becomes almost spicy. To preserve the finesse of the chardonnays, we do not include pinot noirs from crus that are too opulent or too rich. Our champagnes are also characterized by an interesting bitter end in the mouth, which is a sign of the maturation of chardonnay.
You emphasized the important contribution of reserve wines in your non-vintage champagnes. What is the profile of these wines?
The reserve wines that we include in our blends are largely of the year before the current harvest (the base year), but are also from three years prior, and we often include few other wines that bring something special to the blends. We work our reserve wines in two ways: with a perpetual reserve–by keeping a small part of each harvest in the same tank–which is the basis and the heart of the blend of our brut non-vintage. The reserve is then enriched with a few touches of other wines with distinct characteristics, to bring power in the mouth in case the blend lacks a little. Our reserve wines are not filtered to avoid excessive oxidations and to better preserve them. We will filter the wine once the blend is made, to stabilize it.
What role does dosage play in creating your champagnes?
We produce elegant champagnes, with finesse and freshness, coupled with long aging that brings a certain natural sweetness providing a taste of beautiful maturity in the mouth, and that we enrich with a low dosage, to complete the work that has been done beforehand. The dosage is the culmination of this work, like the choice of good vineyards, and taking the time to taste the wines. We make blends late, doing the bottling [for the second fermentation] in late March and at the end of April, and in July for the vintages. This allows us to taste the wines several times, enabling us to confirm our choices of blends and to let our wines open up in the spring, which is important in trying to make the best. Then we age our Brut and Blanc de Blancs on lees for four years and our Rosé for three years. After disgorgement, we let our champagnes rest between six and eight months before marketing them. All this allows us to offer champagnes with a low dosage, between 6 and 7 g/l for our entire range, except Extra Brut with 1.5 g/l.
Tell us more about your Extra Brut.
This cuvée follows the demand of our customers in Japan, a country that particularly appreciates our champagnes, who asked a cuvée with no dosage. We now offer this champagne in all our markets, including France, especially in restaurants, but it remains a wine for experts. The blend is similar to our Brut, but we age it longer, and let it rest longer after we add its little dosage. We had considered making our Extra Brut absolutely with no dosage, but when we conducted tastings of this blend with no added sugar, or with very low incremental dosages of 0.5 g/l, we found that a dosage of 1.5 g/l brings a certain power and roundness to the wine that we deem necessary.
What are the limits of producing well-made champagnes with absolutely no dosage?
We could make well-crafted champagnes with no dosage but that would change the style completely. We could go much further in the maturity of the grapes, which might induce a loss of freshness.
We could make well-crafted champagnes with no dosage but that would change the style completely.
How do you cope with the fact of being one of the youngest Champagne houses, competing with 150-200-250-years-old maisons?
The message that the Rothschild family sends us is that we have time, even if we are young. We are under a lot of pressure to ensure the quality of our wines and that there is absolutely no negative feedback from our consumers. The family is always supportive of the making of quality wines. Therefore, we have no inferiority complex vis-à-vis of Champagne houses with a longer history. In fact, they are our friends. In the same way, the vine growers who wanted to support us in this adventure were very welcoming of the Rothschild family in Champagne because of their long-term vision, even if they were not yet experts in this world. We have the means and the time to do well.
Do you drink other sparkling wines apart from champagne?
Yes, I drink other sparkling wines for work and pleasure and some are done very well. It’s important to stay open-minded, to try to understand what is being done elsewhere, how it is done, and then to check the result of it. Tasting is very important to develop an idea.
I drink other sparkling wines and some are done very well. It’s important to stay open-minded, to try to understand what is being done elsewhere, how it is done, and then to check the result of it.
What does champagne mean to you?
Champagne is a magic word, which shines. The Champenois have built a global brand and a reputation on this one word; it is our strength and our wealth.