BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Chef de Cave of LOUIS ROEDERER, one of the most prestigious and highest quality Champagne House.
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon has been Chef de Cave of Louis Roederer since 1999
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, maintaining its long-term vision based on high-quality grapes for great taste champagnes.
Lecaillon, a man of great passion, energy, and curiosity, explains how Roederer’s success comes from its vineyard and tailor-made viticulture, to obtain grapes with an exceptional level of maturity.
In this way the House produces unique wines that combine power and finesse, seen by many as the benchmark of great champagnes.
BEST CHAMPAGNE: 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?
JEAN-BAPTISTE LECAILLON: 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 own wine.
He went a step further and between 1831 and 1845 he bought vineyards, mostly in Verzenay and in the Montagne de Reims.
A second wave of purchase took place between 1850 and 1880 with the arrival of the phylloxera when the vinegrowers were selling their plots.
Then again between 1918 and 1930 with the end of the First World War and the crisis of 1929 when it was very difficult for growers to live off the land.
More recently in the 1960s when Jean-Claude Rouzaud, President of ROEDERER at the time, bought several hectares regularly, always around our vineyards.
This is how the ROEDERER’s vineyard was created. Generation after generation the family continued this model of vertical integration.
BC: You often talk about ROEDERER as the most Burgundian House of Champagne. Why?
JBL: The archives of the House show that the family rated its vineyards 1st class, 2nd class, 3rd class, 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 or our plots, thus respecting the identity of each parcel, and this is very Burgundian.
Today I believe that we are the only Champagne House to have such an individualized expression of parcels and terroirs.
BC: 100% of your vineyard was grown organically in 2017. Why this choice?
JBL: We cultivate our 240 hectares 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. In 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 vinegrowers; we almost like a family, sharing a common project.
That’s why we talk about family viticulture at ROEDERER: thinking about what we will hand over to future generations.
BC: What role does winemaking play in creating your style?
JBL: Viticulture guarantees the starting base for maximum taste, but if one works badly the raw material, all its potential gets lost.
Our vinification is minimalist because we think that with each process we lose information of the soil, and some of the taste.
This family viticulture, with moderate yields, produce 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 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% in oak barrels (for the most intense terroirs), in large containers that do not bring woody tastes to the wines, with batonnage (lees stirring) to give them more richness.
In the blends, the proportions of steel and wood always vary, depending on the year.
BC: How the assemblage express your style and terroir?
JBL: 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 more sublime, more harmonious.
A 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, the human vision and composition are necessary to rebalance this finesse. That’s why we do not talk about assemblage but about composition.
At 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.
For us, quality comes mainly from the vineyard, hence our obsession to have our own vineyard to define our wines.
We create our style not only with the assemblage but especially with the viticulture, in the vineyard.
BC: How does the idea of perpetuating the House’s style allow you to stay contemporary and never become obsolete?
JPL: The climate is changing, the vine is 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.
The Brut Non-Vintage, the champagne that most representative the style of a House, does not express a consistency of a taste but of an idea; for example, our Brut Premier is a wine to for both aperitif and gastronomy.
But gastronomy evolves, so our champagne must evolve as well. Brut Premier must be light enough to be served as an aperitif, please a wide audience and remain very digestible.
BC: ROEDERER is largely known for Cristal, its prestigious and internationally renowned cuvée. What makes this champagne so mythical?
JBL: 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 limestones soils, are all very shallow (1-1.2 meters), with roots sitting on chalk.
It is, therefore, a wine of absolute finesse that must taste chalk, salinity, but without being tense, unaffordable, or too intellectual.
To be very concentrated, the vines are 20-25 years old, so are very ingrained. The younger vines on these plots, which are not yet ready for Cristal, are used for Brut Premier.
Also, this champagne is not based on the yeast taste, typical of the champagne method, but has rather a taste that is enriched by yeast, in a controlled and very moderate way. For me, a champagne should reflect a soil and not be “yeasty”.
BC: Your Vintage Rose is made using a particular method. Could you explain it to us?
JBL: We produce our rosé champagne by blending red wines that we vinify ourselves.
But we pass the Pinot Noir musts in a cold room at 4-6 °C and let them macerate for 7-10 days without fermentation, for the skin to enrich the grapes, with a phenomenon of osmotic pressure where the sugar favors the explosion of skin vacuoles that release aromas and tannins.
But these pips tannins are light, velvety, and contribute to this typical texture of ROEDERER.
Then we assemble these Pinot Noir musts with Chardonnay musts to vinify them together. It is a technique in between d’assemblage and saignée that we call infusion.
In this way, the Chardonnay brings acidity to the Pinots Noir which is fermented like a white wine, without fermentation on the skin. If Pinot and Chardonnay were vinified separately, the red Pinot wines would have aromas more marked of red wine.
BC: A very focused Pinot Noir House, you make a champagne Blanc de Blancs. Why?
JBL: When I joined ROEDERER I was a real Pinot Noir aficionado and did not find Chardonnay interesting.
This variety was interesting in the assemblage to bring a certain smoothness, brilliance. So I tried to denature this Chardonnay that I did not like much on its own, with these notes of lime, but without fruit and charm in my opinion.
For our Vintage Blanc de Blancs we use only 3 parcels in Avize and one in Oger, with soils of very hard and dry chalks, which give identity to the wine. Avize gives wines with a good volume and a beautiful body, quite vinous.
The very ripe Chardonnay is harvested and it is oxidized (no sulfur added during the pressing) to bring out this saline note in the fermentation. This makes delicious wines. It is, therefore, a Blanc de Blancs the ROEDERER way.
BC: Do you taste Champagnes from other Houses?
JBL: 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 ROEDERER, even to guess the winemaker.
BC: Do you drink sparkling wines other than champagne?
JBL: Yes. I recently drank a good sparkling wine from Tasmania but we must contextualize the wines to their typicity and their terroir.
It is only in Champagne that I find freshness, taste, and finesse, all together in the same wine. A champagne, a great champagne is a combination of power and finesse, character (marked identity) and elegance, and I have never found this simultaneity outside of Champagne.
BC: ROEDERER is a family House. What does this mean?
JBL: If there is a qualifier for ROEDERER, it’s the word freedom. In this House, there is a long-term vision that allows everything. In the assemblage, I am free to create what I want and this is for me the ultimate form of freedom.
This freedom is also embodied in all our employees who enjoy a large degree of autonomy and responsibility, whether in the vineyards or in the cellars, where they are first of all craftsmen who master their work, their art.