BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Frédéric Rouzaud, President of LOUIS ROEDERER, one of the most prestigious and highest quality Champagne House.
Frederic Rouzaud represents the 7th generation of the Roederer family
Founded in 1776 the House is among the oldest. In 1833 Louis Roederer inherited the House, applying the guiding principle that all great wine depends on the quality of the soil.
For that he expanded the vineyard, acquiring parcels in grands crus villages, a visionary approach that contrasted sharply with contemporary practices.
Within few years, the House became one of the most renowned of the times, mostly thanks to the introduction and spreading of the famous Cristal champagne in the Russian market.
The House has remained family-owned and family-run and is managed since 2006 by Frédéric Rouzaud, who represents the seventh generation of the lineage.
Rouzaud, a man of natural elegance, genuine openness, and a big smile, explains how ROEDERER’s independent spirit and great vineyard allow the House to produce “haute-couture” wines that are seen by many as the benchmark of great champagnes.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: You are one of the few large family-run Champagne Houses. What does that mean exactly?
FREDERIC ROUZAUD: Since our inception in 1776, we have been lucky enough to keep the House with the family. I think that that is vital to be included in the high end of fine wines.
To make high-quality wines, sense of time and long-term vision are 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 Roederer in the next 20 years. As a result, we have time to do things properly and accurately, with determination and rigor.
BC: You are also one of the few Champagne Houses to have your own vast vineyard. How does that impact your wines?
FR: From the start, our strategy has to been to create a vineyard in the Champagne 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€/kg), whereas having your own vineyards and growing them cost a fortune.
However, Louis Roederer wanted to make the best wine possible and in order to do that, we needed our own vineyards in the best crus. Louis Roederer started by purchasing vineyards in chalky and limestone soils with the most exposure (to the sun).
Therefore, the success of our House perhaps stems from this desire to control quality from the vine stock because to make a fine wine, whether it be Champagne, Burgundy, or Bordeaux wine, you need great terroirs.
Today, we are quite a unique House in the Champagne region because of this very important 240-hectare vineyard. All of our vintage wines, and our most famous vintage, Cristal, are made solely from our vineyard.
For the Brut Premier, we buy grapes that make up to 30% of the wine. Our family is determined not to increase the production volumes, which have stayed more or less the same since the 19th century (3.5 million bottles per year).
We have many vineyards in grand crus that are necessary to make vins de garde (wines meant to age), but we also have some vineyards that are not grand cru but 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.
BC: Researching the best crus and their expression is very current in Champagne, with more and more mono-cru, and even single-parcel champagnes being made, mainly by Champagne Growers. What do you think about that?
FR: That is true, but Champagne Houses’ uniqueness also comes from the art of blending. Houses magnificently blend wines, crus, from different years. Do not forget that 80% of champagnes are multi-vintage wines.
That is why we invented the concept of blending, which is done more by Houses that traditionally buy grapes from Growers who do not necessarily have the means to build stocks of wines.
However, there are also Houses that produce single-parcel champagnes, with their clos (walled vineyard), but in reality, they also blending because the vine stocks are not all the same and don’t all give the same grapes. We blend as soon as we use two vine stocks together.
Even Cristal, our most famous cuvée, is a blend of different, yet very specific parcels.
BC: Your House has a predilection for Pinot Noir. In what way does this grape variety manifest itself in your style?
FR: The choice of Pinot Noir is a historical one and originated from Mr. Louis Roederer buying vines planted with this grape variety that he found to be more interesting.
Admittedly, Pinot Noir is a capricious grape variety that is difficult to control, but when it’s well-worked during great years, it produces something magical and unique in Champagne.
Chardonnay is very interesting and appealing, and it is a much more tolerant grape variety that adapts more easily, which allows for more or less decent harvests every year.
2/3 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 generous Pinots that give more red fruits. These two expressions complement one another.
BC: What is your approach to biodynamics that is very in vogue today?
FR: We are always moving forward in the House. Our teams must always be researching. As a result, the vineyard used today for Cristal is 80% biodynamically cultivated.
In 2017, for the first time, all of our 240 ha have been organically cultivated, 80 ha of which were cultivated bio-dynamically. It is an important element of our quest to capture this extraordinary raw material, which is the Champagne grape when cultivated correctly, from the moment that the differences in the cultivation of the vineyard produce very different grapes.
All of this is done to make champagne more authentic, purer, and more representative of these chalky soils and this very particular climate.
BC: What role does vinification play in researching the purity of expression of the Champagne terroir?
FR: Our vinification is minimalistic in order to get the purest flavors of the terroir. It is also à la carte (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 fermentation, and other years we won’t, and we won’t necessarily do this to all of our wines, so our vinification adapts to the vintage.
Our 410 vats allow us the freedom to vinify each parcel individually to preserve the purity and authenticity of this raw material.
However, what is most important is the raw material, the grapes, and therefore the vines, to try and make a truly great champagne, the best champagne possible.
BC: What makes truly great champagne?
FR: To me, a great champagne represents the perfect balance between concentration, finesse, fruitiness, and strength. Like a beautiful rainbow, all of the colors need to be there, but none of them can prevail over another.
Cristal is a universal wine that embodies that perfect balance that we look for. It is a powerful wine that is made with old vines, but as it comes from chalky soils, it also expresses great finesse: simultaneously fine and powerful.
BC: 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 encounter?
FR: It was a chance encounter which comes from me enjoying 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 who is 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 curious about exploring the possibility of making a zero-dosage champagne.
Even when I joined the House in 1996, I thought that our range had too much dosage. We have lowered the dosage from 11-12 g/l on average to 8-9 g/l today.
Starck wanted to participate in this project, so he came to Reims for six years to meet our teams and our Cellar Master, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, for memorable days of exchanges and tastings, telling us his vision of the ideal champagne, his idea of champagne.
BC: You have a vast terroir and a great grasp of vinification and blending. Do you still need dosage?
FR: Yes, because I think that Brut Nature can only be made on south facing terroirs during sunny and quote dry years.
For our Brut Nature, we identified the parcels in Cumières with shallow clay soils on which we could see this incredible material that allows us to not add dosage during certain sunny years.
But for wines coming from chalky soils, we still need to add some balance with a light dosage to cool the acidity down a little bit.
BC: What do you see in your House’s future? What are your ambitions?
FR: We are certainly not looking for a growth in volume. For 200 years, our job has been to cultivate our grand crus and increase the quality of our grapes, make progress in vinification, to be even more precise, even more balanced. We want to make the champagne of tomorrow and aspire to greatness.
BC: The competition from sparkling wine is growing. How do you see the future of champagne?
FR: I am not worried by the increasing sales of other sparkling wines, whether it be Prosecco, English sparkling wine, or Cava. The more sparkling wine drinkers, the better, including for champagne, which is 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 of the assets needed to continue to be the wine of 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 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; a great, inimitable sparkling wine.
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, Louis Roederer is also taking part in increasing the quality of champagne.
BC: Do you drink champagnes from other Houses?
FR: Of course. We always enrich ourselves by drinking other champagnes, and I do it whenever I can. Champagne has such a wealth of styles and Houses, and very different champagnes. And I say that that’s great! It would be a great shame if we could only drink one kind of champagne.
BC: You are the President of a world-renowned Champagne House. How do you feel?
FR: Very lucky.
BC: If there was one word to define champagne, what would it be?
BC: What would life be like without champagne?
FR: Sad, very sad.