My afternoon visit in Champagne was at Louis Roederer, with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Roederer’s executive vice-president in charge of production. He gave me a tour of the cellars and new winery, followed by a tasting of several of the house’s cuvées.
I first met Lécaillon at Vinexpo in 2001. I was impressed by his forthright attitude and knowledge. Since joining Roederer in 1999, he has instituted small changes over the past 10 years. The result is wines of greater precision and finesse.
One of the house’s advantages is that it owns more than 500 acres of vineyards, accounting for two-thirds of its production. This offers Lécaillon more control over the viticulture and yields.
Each vineyard block is kept separate during fermentation, allowing a vast range of components for blending. Since 2000, Lécaillon has introduced more use of large oak barrels for the first fermentation.
One of the latest innovations is the new winery, built two years ago. Lécaillon seeks freshness, energy and tension in his wines. That requires working reductively and, because of the riper fruit harvested in recent vintages, measuring oxygen at every step.
Fermentation of Pinot Noir in large oak vats and aging on the lees prevents oxidation, but risks losing fruit. Therefore, only 30 percent of the wines are made this way. The other 70 percent is fermented in stainless steel to retain fruit. Malolactic conversion is avoided to preserve elegance and fruity aromatic profiles in the wines.
The new facility has tanks large enough to do the blending with one pumping and the fermentation tanks have a height-to-width ratio that Lécaillon claims exerts the correct pressure on the lees to prevent too much yeasty, aldehyde or reductive aromas. There are truncated wooden tanks too. Even the trucks that deliver the juice from the press houses have as many as eight compartments to keep small lots separate.
All this technology allows Lécaillon more control over all the components from each parcel of vines in the Champagne region’s three major areas: Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims and the Marne Valley. “I’m not a terroirist, but I think it’s worth respecting,” he explained. “I don’t want process to destroy origin.”
For our tasting, Lécaillon first opened eight vintages of Roederer’s Blanc de Blancs. The grapes come from Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant. More Cramant fruit has been added to the blend since 1999, after 5 years of trials, for its acidity, freshness and mineral essence. Most of the wines were the original disgorgements, about five years on the lees. The goal is for richness and concentration in these Chardonnay-based Champagnes.
Of the eight vintages, 2003, 2002, 1999, 1996, 1995, 1990, 1988 and 1979, my favorites were the ’02, ’96 and ’90.
The 2002 was ripe and round, yet very elegant, boasting lemon, peach apple and honey aromas and flavors on a balanced frame. Clean, pure and long, it lingered with mineral notes and a tensile feel (93 points, non-blind).
Harmony and finesse combined with a feeling of energy were the hallmarks of the 1996. It’s beginning to show butter, brioche and hazelnut flavors as it matures, yet was fresher than the 1999 (94 points, non-blind).
The 1990 displayed an exotic character, showing ripe peach, apricot and even pineapple notes, backed by refreshing acidity. It ended in a cascade of toast and mineral flavors (94 points, non-blind).
For such a hot year, the 2003 was very fresh, full and rich (90 points), while for drinking now, the 1999 is mellow and creamy, with baked apple, vanilla and lemon custard notes on an open, easygoing profile (90 points).
Among the other cuvées we tasted, the Brut 2003, with 70 percent Pinot Noir from Verzenay, was powerful, vinous and structured, evoking red berry and plum flavors (92 points, non-blind). It has come together since I reviewed it last year and it was all structure. Lécaillon chose the north-facing vineyards in ’03 for two reasons: They bud later and missed the devastating frost in April and they ripened more slowly in the summer heat.
The Cristal 2002 just keeps getting better. Its peach, apple and mineral flavors permeated the creamy texture. It has flesh, concentration, great structure and balance (94 points). Lécaillon described it as having the energy of Montagne de Reims, the silkiness of Aÿ and the classic structure of Cramant, Le Mesnil and Avize, all the areas that make up the blend.
By contrast, the 2000, from a warm, humid vintage, offered slightly cooked apple, peach and a hint of grapefruit on a rich, open frame (90 points, non-blind). “It was the most difficult vintage I have made,” said Lécaillon. “From tasting to tasting, the wines were moving like a dancer.”
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