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The Best of Both Worlds in Champagne

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 5, 2008 2:37pm ET

In my last blog, I discussed the idea of terroir in Champagne. When I visited the region for the first time in 2003, my impression was that the work in the vineyards was less advanced than what I had seen in Alsace or Burgundy. More and more attention is being devoted to the vineyards today. Olivier Krug mentioned this when we met last July. And viticulture was also the topic when Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Louis Roederer’s executive vice president in charge of production, came by our New York office last week.

Improving quality by spending more time in the vineyards is not a monopoly of small growers. Houses are paying more attention to detail in the vines also. That said, Roederer is no ordinary house. They have the advantage of owning more than 500 acres of vineyards in the Champagne region, including more than 300 acres rated grand cru. This accounts for roughly two-thirds of its production, among the highest for a Champagne house in the region.

"We, at the house of Louis Roederer, are in a unique and exceptional position to combine the best of the two worlds of Champagne: a grower philosophy to take the best of the terroir combined with the power of master blending with a clear and unique style," said Lecaillon.

Under his direction, Roederer has reduced vigor in its vineyards with practices like plowing and less use of fertilizers. The surface roots on 75 percent of the vines, particularly the young vines, are cut to drive the roots deeper where the subsoil has even less nutrients. There is also stricture pruning, debudding, and if necessary, a green harvest after flowering, all to grow grapes that result in wines of extra dimension, concentration and energy.

They are also doing some trials with biodynamic farming in small parcels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but Lecaillon cautioned against being committed to one system. "Biodynamic means entering one church," he explained. "We want to take the best of all the new approaches to be ‘green.'"

Lecaillon’s goal is to make the most of Roederer’s vineyards and their chalky soils. To achieve that, the winemaking is very minimalist. Nonetheless, he has implemented some changes since joining the house in 1999.

Beginning in 2001, he has gradually reduced the dosage, from 12 to 13 grams per liter of residual sugar to 9 to 10 grams per liter. In some of the recent warmer vintages, he pointed out that the riper grapes required less sugar in the dosage. He also noted that sugar masks the purity of the wine.

Lecaillon also prefers to retain most of the malic acid in the base wines. It’s not so much a question of acidity for him, but rather that the butter, coffee biscuit and apricot notes imparted through the malolactic conversion tend to dominate any expression of terroir.

He cited Burgundy, where the top wines often go through long, slow malolactic fermentations, sometimes taking up to a year to complete. By contrast, in Champagne, the wines are bottled quickly, six to eight months or so after the alcoholic fermentation (at Roederer, it’s eight to nine months). This precludes a long and slow malolactic fermentation, so Lecaillon works reductively during the fermentation and bottling, avoiding any kind of oxidation. The wines are aged on the lees and nothing is added except sulfur dioxide and a collection of six or seven yeasts which differ for the alcoholic fermentation and second fermentation in the bottle.

At Roederer, it is the long, slow oxidation in the bottle that gives what Lecaillon calls "more refined aromas of truffle and a silky smoothness."

"We want to make what I call spring wines, with energy—very fresh, floral and sappy," he said. "They are wines that are discreet, but it’s necessary to capture all the evolution that will come with oxidation in the bottle to bring forth all the chalky minerality in the terroir."

To prove his point, Lecaillon brought several vintages of Cristal, including the 1996, 1990, 1988, 1982 and 1979. We tasted the wines from oldest to youngest.

The 1979, almost 30 years old now, featured a complex, aromatic bouquet of truffle, coffee and toffee. It was refined and silky, very harmonious and creamy in texture, with great freshness and a very long finish. I rated it 97 points, non-blind.

The 1979 vintage is one of my favorites. Lecaillon pointed out that it was a low-yielding year that made wines of concentration. In 1982, the yields were higher. Despite that, the ’82 was a more powerful, masculine wine, with assertive acidity. Baking bread elements, toast and nut aromas introduced roasted almond flavor and the texture had more grain. An impressive Cristal that has still not quite reached its peak (94 points, non-blind).

Both wines were the original disgorgement with 12 grams per liter of sugar in the dosage. Both were also 65 percent Pinot Noir and 35 percent Chardonnay.

By contrast, the 1988, at 55 percent Chardonnay and 45 percent Pinot Noir has one of the highest proportions of Chardonnay for Cristal. It was disgorged in 2006, with 8 grams per liter of sugar. I loved the toast, mineral and iodine aromas and the racy, linear profile of the wine. Intensely flavored, it showed ginger, spice, oyster shell and mineral and a lovely texture. Lecaillon described it slightly more buttery (95 points, non-blind).

The 1990 was also disgorged at the same time as the ’88 and finished with 8 grams of sugar in the dosage. It contains 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay. The aromas and flavors offered a kaleidoscope of red fruit, citrus, mineral. Big, powerful, firm and still youthful, with a fine grain to the texture, it’s very classically proportioned in its structure and character (96 points, non-blind).

The 1996, disgorged in 2007, also had 8 grams dosage. Like the 1990, the ripe fruit reveals itself and balances the racy structure. Yellow fruits, beeswax and mineral aromas were followed by peach, citrus and more mineral on the palate. Though crisp and tight, it was harmonious and exhibited great potential (95 points, non-blind).

I often find that Cristal is almost too discreet in its youth and that it improves with time in the bottle. This is certainly the case in the top vintages we tasted last week. But I also respect that Roederer has a vision for its wines, investing the time and effort and money in the vineyards and adapting its winemaking to what those vineyards deliver.

Alanson M Short
November 6, 2008 2:13am ET
i couldnt help but notice that the wines you were tasting were disgorged at a much later time than the wines were released on market. Do you think that your assesment is acurate to those who purchased the wine on release? Having drunk my 1996 last november (2007) i can say that crisp would not be a term i would have used. The wine was stunning don't get me wrong but how do you justify these ratings and tasting notes to those who purchased on release?
Paul M Hummel
Chicago, —  November 6, 2008 7:15am ET
Mr. Short's question is very astute and important. After reading the article, I was very tempted to buy some 1996 to further age.However, I assumed that all the 1996 Cristal in the market would have been disgorged at approximately the same time.Further comment is requested.
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  November 6, 2008 12:22pm ET
Excellent comments. That is why I have noted the disgorgement date. In the last paragraph, there is a link to a tasting of the 1996 I did last year, albeit from magnum. This was from the original disgorgement, as were my official reviews found in our wine ratings search on the Web site. My assessment is based on what was in the bottle in each case. The Cristal we tasted last week came from Louis Roederer's cellars in Reims. Whenever I taste Champagne with the winemakers, I like to know if it is the original disgorgement, or a later one. Which begs the question, why not just put it on the bottles for commercial release?
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  February 24, 2009 11:33am ET
As a journalist, I often urge Champagne growers and houses to include disgorgement dates on bottles, particularly for NV Champagnes, which otherwise don't appear to be different from year to year. With respect to vintage Champagnes, more houses are now disgorging in a rational manner, i.e. when the wine is ready, rather than on demand. There may be some bottles held back as library releases, which will be disgorged later. My mandate is to ask these questions on behalf of consumers, to best inform and educate them to make better buying decisions.

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