Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon has been chef de cave of Louis Roederer since 1999. A man of great passion, energy and curiosity, he is so friendly and down to heart almost as if he didn’t know that many of his peers and knowledgeable champagne consumers look at him with great admiration. In this interview, he explains that champagne must carry first of all a sense of place, and this is why he is obsessed with high quality, tailor-made viticulture, to obtain superior grapes with a story to tell in their corresponding champagnes.
Louis Roederer is one of the few Champagne houses to own a very large vineyard that satisfies most of its grape needs. How was this vineyard developed?
Nicolas Schreider who founded the house in 1776 and his nephew Louis Roederer who gave it his name were among the first to understand the potential of the sparkling wine that was getting a foothold in the court of King Louis XV.
These German merchants settled in Champagne where they bought still wines from the winemakers and made them effervescent at their facilities. These still wines were of inconsistent quality and Louis Roederer realized that it was better to buy grapes to produce his wine. He went a step further and between 1831 and 1845, he bought vineyards, mostly in Verzenay and in the Montagne de Reims.
The second wave of purchases took place between 1850 and 1880 with the arrival of the phylloxera when the vine growers were selling their plots. Then again between 1918 and 1930 with the end of WW1 and the crisis of 1929 when it was very difficult for vine growers to live off the land. More recently, in the 1960s, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, president of Louis Roederer at the time, bought several hectares regularly, always around our vineyards. Generation after generation, the family continued this model of vertical integration. This is how our large vineyard was created.
You often talk about Louis Roederer as the most Burgundian house of Champagne. Why?
We are the only Champagne house to have such an individualized expression of parcels and terroirs.
The archives of the house show that the family rated its vineyards 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class, and 4th class, according to the quality of their grapes, similar to Burgundy houses. In the 1960s, with the shift from oak barrels to stainless steel vats, our winery was expanded and today, it includes 410 vats, almost one for each of our plots, thus respecting the identity of each parcel. This is very Burgundian. Today, I believe that we are the only Champagne house to have such an individualized expression of parcels and terroirs.
You apply organic and biodynamic viticulture in your vineyard. Why this choice?
We cultivate our 240 ha of vines using tailor-made viticulture, to obtain an exceptional level of grape maturity.
We cultivate our 240 ha of vines using tailor-made viticulture, to obtain an exceptional level of grape maturity. Our work is inspired by biodynamics, with no use of herbicides or pesticides. This way, the energy of the soil rises through the sap and penetrates the vine, making it resistant to diseases, and producing quality grapes, consistently.
But I think we are past biodynamics. We own the most beautiful parcels in Champagne and our responsibility is to cultivate them as best as possible to make exceptional products. For this, we have very close relations with our vine growers; we are almost like a family, sharing a common project. That’s why we talk about family viticulture at Louis Roederer, thinking about what we will hand over to future generations.
What role does winemaking play in creating your style?
Viticulture guarantees the starting base for maximum taste, but if one uses badly the raw material, all its potential gets lost.
Viticulture guarantees the starting base for maximum taste, but if one uses badly the raw material, all its potential gets lost. Our vinification is minimalist because we think that with each process, we lose information about the soil and some taste.
This family viticulture, with moderate yields, produces grapes with more substance and power that requires more oxygen to express their flavors. We do not add sulfur to the musts for a first “unprotected” fermentation that allows this very rich and powerful substance to express itself, to degrade to an extent. Our wines are athletes, but we want to make them ballerinas, with muscle but also with elegance.
We always harvest late to have this richness of substance that allows the wine to age well.
We always harvest late to have this richness of substance that allows the wine to age well after the fermentation and gain in complexity, as it is the richness of the substance through the maturity that allows the wine to age, more than its acidity. What we aim for is a mature wine with substance and acidity for taste and freshness.
We vinify 80% of the musts in stainless steel vats for a pure expression of aromas and 20%–the most intense terroirs–in large oak barrels that do not bring woody tastes to the wines, with lees stirring to give them more richness. In the blends, the proportions of steel and wood always vary, depending on the year.
How do you combine your terroirs in the assemblage to create your style?
We live the assemblage as a revelation of the singularities of the parcels.
There are two traditional ways to make the assemblage: to impose one’s style or one’s terroir. For us, it is different. We live the assemblage as a revelation of the singularities of the parcels. Each plot has its musical notes and by adding them together, we obtain something sublime, more harmonious.
Great wine, as we imagine, combines power and finesse. Its terroir, its land, its sun exposure, its climate, bring its character. The finesse can come from the soil, but rarely together with the character. Therefore, human vision and composition are necessary to rebalance this finesse. That’s why we do not talk about assemblage but about composition.
We make elegant wines, with freshness but also with richness and concentration.
At Louis Roederer, we make wines respecting the unique soil and climate of Champagne. We make elegant wines, with freshness but also with richness and concentration. So, the Roederer style is found in the balance between finesse and elegance of the chalky terroir and the richness that comes from the maturation and concentration of our grapes. Hence, we create our style not only with the assemblage but especially with the viticulture, in the vineyard. For us, quality comes mainly from the vineyard, hence our obsession to have our vineyard to define our wines.
How does perpetuating the house style allow you to stay contemporary and never become obsolete?
The climate is changing, the vines are changing, the practices are changing, the cuisine is changing, and the great strength of champagne is to have always been able to adapt and therefore remain contemporary.
Our Brut Premier non-vintage, the champagne most representative of our style, does not express a consistency of a taste but of an idea; for example, it is a wine to for both aperitif and gastronomy. But gastronomy evolves, so our champagne must evolve. Brut Premier must be light enough to be served as an aperitif, please a wide audience, and remain very digestible.
Louis Roederer is internationally renowned for Cristal, your prestige champagne. What makes it so legendary?
Cristal is a champagne that is beyond champagne and does not resemble anything else. It is a wine of extreme purity, but very concentrated.
Cristal is a champagne that is beyond champagne and does not resemble anything else. It is a wine of extreme purity, but very concentrated. The idea of Cristal is a white soil, a blue sky, without any cloud, and so we only use the plots that express this idea. These are 45 parcels, sometimes fewer, depending on the vintage, and almost the same since 1876 when this prestigious champagne was created. These plots have very similar limestone soils, are all very shallow (1-1.2 m/39-47 in), with roots sitting on chalk.
It is, therefore, a wine of absolute finesse that must taste of chalk, salinity, but without being tense, unaffordable, or too intellectual. The vines are 20-25 years old, so are very ingrained and produce great concentration. But the younger vines on these plots, which are not yet ready for Cristal, are used for Brut Premier.
Also, Cristal is not based on the yeast taste, typical of the Champagne Method, but has rather a taste that is enriched by the yeast, in a controlled and very moderate way. For me, champagne should reflect the soil and not be “yeasty.”
Your rosé champagnes are made using a particular method. Could you explain it to us?
We produce rosé champagne by blending red and white musts.
We produce rosé champagne by blending red and white musts. We first pass the pinot noir musts in a cold room at 4-6 °C and let them macerate with the grapes’ skin for 7-10 days without fermentation, for the skins to enrich the musts, with a phenomenon of osmotic pressure where the sugars favor the explosion of skin vacuoles that release aromas and tannins. But these skin tannins are light and velvety (as opposed to harsher pip tannins) and contribute to the typical texture of our wines. Then, we assemble these red pinot noir musts with white chardonnay musts to vinify them together.
It is a technique in between d’assemblage and saignée that we call infusion. This way, chardonnay brings acidity to pinot, which is fermented like white wine, without fermentation on the skin. If pinot and chardonnay were vinified separately, the pinot wines would have more marked aromas of red wine.
Though a very focused pinot noir house, you also make a blanc de blancs. Why?
When I joined Louis Roederer, I was a real pinot noir aficionado and did not find chardonnay that interesting on its own, although useful in the assemblage to bring a certain smoothness and brilliance.
So, I tried to denature this chardonnay, with these interesting notes of lime, but without much fruit and charm in my opinion. For our blanc de blancs, we use only three parcels in Avize and one in Oger, with very hard and dry chalky soils, which give identity to the wine. Avize gives wines with body, quite vinous. The grapes are harvested at a very ripe stage and the musts are oxidized (no sulfur are added during pressing) to bring out this saline note in the fermentation, for delicious wines. It is, therefore, a blanc de blancs champagne made our way.
Do you taste champagnes from other houses?
Yes, because I am largely unfaithful, like most wine lovers. I am very curious. I can also disconnect between technical tasting and pleasure, although I always try to understand what is in the wine when it is not Louis Roederer, even to guess the winemaker.
Do you drink sparkling wines other than champagne?
It is only in Champagne that I find freshness, taste, and finesse, all together in the same wine.
Yes. I recently drank a good sparkling wine from Tasmania, but we must contextualize the wines to their typicity and terroir. It is only in Champagne that I find freshness, taste, and finesse, all together in the same wine. Great champagne is a combination of power and finesse, character and elegance, and I have never found this simultaneity outside of Champagne.