INTERVIEW WITH GUILLAUME LETE CHEF DE CAVE OF CHAMPAGNE BARONS DE ROTHSCHILD

BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Guillaume Lete, Chef De Cave of Champagne Barons de Rothschild, the young quality Maison that was founded by the world-famous dynasty of bankers, and winemakers, in 2005.

Guillaume Lete Chef de Cave Champagne Barons de Rothschild

Guillaume Lete was appointed Chef de Cave of Champagne Barons de Rothschild in 2015

The Rothschild have been longstanding wine lovers, expressing this passion with their Chateaux, which are among the most prestigious in Bordeaux.

But this passion also extends to champagne, leading three Barons, descendant of the French branch of the family, namely Benjamin, Philippe, and Eric, to create a Champagne House that would carry their family’s name and values.

Going against all odds and advice to the contrary, they decided to found their Maison on two strategic choices that made their venture even more complicated and fascinating: to build the House from scratch rather than buying or partnering with an existing one, and to use Chardonnay – the less available grape variety in Champagne – predominantly in their blends.

The result is a Maison with a strong identity and champagnes of great elegance.

The man at the helm of the business and propagating its fast-growing fame is its charismatic and energetic Managing Director, Frédéric Mairesse, while the careful and precise winemaking is in the hands of young and ambitious Lete.

A bright man with a contagious smile and very clear ideas, Lete perfectly reflects the dynamic and eager spirit of Champagne Barons de Rothschild, founded on strong family values and traditions combined with a clear vision into the future.

In this interview, he explains how he executes the philosophy of Champagne Barons de Rothschild to craft a focused range of wines characterized by freshness, finesse, and complexity, coupled with a distinctive finale in the mouth; an embodiment of the Rothschild spirit of doing things its own way.

BEST CHAMPAGNE: How did you get in the champagne world and into Champagne Barons de Rothschild?

GUILLAUME LETE: My destiny crossed paths with champagne very early. Being from a family of small champagne producers in Avize (grand cru), I spent a lot of time, since I was very young, with my grandfather in the cellar and in the vineyard.

I joined Champagne Barons de Rothschild by chance. During my studies (in enology), I worked in Bordeaux and California and finally found my way back to Champagne by getting involved in research and development at a big champagne House.

Then I tried to get into a House whose vinification is strongly related to the terroir.

It was in 2011 that I had the opportunity to join Champagne Barons de Rothschild as Assistant Chef de Cave to Jean-Philippe Moulin (Chef de Cave from 2007). I held this position for 5 years before being appointed Chef de Cave in 2015.

BC: What differences have you seen in winemaking in Champagne compared to other wine regions where you worked?

GL: Compared to what I noticed in the United States, in Champagne the winemaking philosophies are completely opposite. Here we are really interested in the terroir, in a specific know-how, and the wine industry itself has evolved from a long and rich history.

In the United States on the other hand, a more industrial winemaking culture exists, with a wine world that has been created recently and a very innovative spirit that adapts to the American style of consumption.

BC: You mentioned the Champagne terroir. What is your approach to its expression in your champagnes?

GL: Our vision on this subject is clear: we vinify by village, and when we can, by plot. We work on very small stainless steel vats of 25, 30, 50, and 60 hectoliters, which allow us to have more choices when blending wines.

Hence, we work with a panel of vats/wines with different characteristics that we associate with each other during the assemblage.

BC: From which crus do you source your grapes?

GL: For our small production of 500,000 bottles a year we have selected the villages that interest us, mostly grands and premiers crus in the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims only.

Our Chardonnays mostly come from Cramant, Avize, Oger, Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Vertus.

The Pinot Noirs come only from the North and South part of the Montagne de Reims, from villages like Ludes, Verzenay, Verzy, Ambonnay, Bouzy, Avenay Val d’Or, Mareuil sur Ay, and Ay.

These crus represent our main supply basins.

We do not include any Meunier in our blends, but only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, of which we only use the cuvée (the finest portion of the must).

BC: Why you do not you use Meunier?

GL: Considering our winemaking scheme which focuses on long aging in vats and then in bottles, alongside our wine style, it is more interesting for us to work with Pinot Noir than Meunier. The latter is more opulent and rich in his youth but doesn’t age that well under our vinification and aging process.

BC: How do you define the style of Barons de Rothschild’s champagnes? What do you want to convey?

GL: The idea we want to convey with our style is that of freshness, delicacy, and finesse, with complexity.

We want to create champagnes with good drinkability, although not excessively rich, but with a very fine and very delicate style built around the Chardonnay, and with a background common to all our champagnes of lightness and finesse but with enough power and complexity in the mouth.

In our Brut Non-Vintage (the champagne most representative of the style of a Champagne House), Chardonnay represents 60% of the blend with 40% of Pinot Noir, 40% of reserve wines, and aging on lees for at least 4 years.

With a very fresh nose marked by Chardonnay, the 40% of Pinot Noir enhances the intensity in the mouth, with an increasingly powerful finish that becomes almost spicy.

To preserve the finesse of the Chardonnays, the Pinot Noirs come from crus that bring some structure and fruit, but we do not include Pinot Noirs from crus that are too opulent or too rich.

Our champagnes are also characterized by an interesting bitter end in the mouth, without stifling it, which is a sign of the maturation of Chardonnay.

BC: You emphasize the use of grands and premiers crus. Are they a guarantee of quality champagne?

GL: I do not think that using a grand cru automatically results in a great champagne, but it certainly brings something positive.

The most important factors for us are where the vines are planted, who the vinegrower is, so the location, the orientation, and the vinegrower’s way of working. These factors make a big difference in the same cru.

We try to work on long-term agreements with vinegrowers, contracted over several years for a minimum of 5.

We work hand in hand, accompanying them right to the end of the maturation of the grapes, and we follow-up with them at the vineyards from an analytical and gustative point of view to choose the right day to harvest.

BC: What is the ideal profile of grapes for your style of champagnes?

GL: We make a strict selection of the grapes that are delivered to us each year and if there is a problem we do not accept them. Presently, we have 83 hectares of supply of which we only use 50. Hence, we have 30 hectares in surplus, which gives us huge room for quality selection.

Our vinegrowers select the grapes carefully, in relation to our needs, being very cautious about their maturity.

For the Chardonnay, at the time of harvest, we seek to keep this acidulous, fresh side, but with a certain maturity of the lemon flavors.

We are therefore looking for the right maturity without getting into something too opulent or rich.

As we use 40% of reserve wines in all our non-vintage champagnes, we must properly keep these wines over the time to ensure the style of our House. We want to keep their freshness, and this is why they cannot be too mature at the beginning of their life.

Hence, if we harvest the grapes when they are too ripe, we will be unable to maintain the style of our wines in the long run. It is, therefore, a question of finding the right timing for harvesting, which is not obvious.

BC: You emphasized the contribution of 40% of reserve wines in all your non-vintage champagnes. What is the profile of these wines?

GL: The reserve wines that we include in our blends are largely of the year before the current harvest (the base year), but are also from 3 years prior, and we often include few other wines that bring something special to the blends.

We work our reserve wines in two ways; with a perpetual reserve, which is the basis and the heart of the blend of our Brut Non-Vintage. We make this perpetual reserve by keeping a small part of each harvest in the same tank.

The reserve is then enriched with a few touches of other wines with distinct characteristics, to bring power in the mouth in case the blend is a little lacking.

Our reserve wines are not filtered or stabilized so as to avoid excessive oxidations and to better preserve them. We will filter the wine once the blend is made, to stabilize it.

BC: What role does dosage play in the creation of your champagnes?

GL: We produce elegant champagnes, with finesse and freshness, coupled with a long aging that brings a certain natural sweetness providing a taste of beautiful maturity in the mouth, and that we terminate with a low dosage, to complete the work that has been done beforehand.

The dosage is the culmination of this work, like the choice of good vineyards, and taking the time to taste the wines.

We make blends late, doing the bottling (for the second fermentation) in late March and at the end of April, and in July for the vintages. This allows us to taste the wines several times, enabling us to confirm our choices of blends and to let our wines open up in the spring, which is important in trying to make the best.

Then we age our Brut and Blanc de Blancs champagnes on lees for 4 years and our Rosé for 3 years. After disgorgement we let our champagnes rest between 6 and 8 months before marketing them.

All this allows us to offer champagnes with a low dosage, between 6 and 7 g/l for our entire range, except the Extra Brut at 1.5 g/l.

BC: Tell us more about your Extra Brut.

GL: This cuvée follows the demand of our customers in Japan, a country that particularly appreciates our champagnes, and that asked us a champagne without dosage.

We now offer this champagne in all our markets, including France, especially in restaurants, but it remains a wine for experts.

The blend is similar to our Brut Non-Vintage, that will age even longer, and that we also let rest longer after this minimum dosage of 1.5 g/l.

We had considered the idea of making our Extra Brut absolutely without any dosage, but when we conducted tastings of this blend with no added sugar, or with very low incremental dosages of 0.5 g/l, we found that a dosage of 1.5 g / l brings a certain power and roundness to the wine, that we deem necessary.

BC: What are the limits of producing well-made champagnes with absolutely no dosage?

GL: We could make well-crafted champagnes without any dosage but that would change the style completely.

We could also go much further in the maturity of the grapes which might induce a loss of freshness. 

BC: How do you cope with the fact of being a young Champagne House, competing with 150-200-250 years old Houses?

GL: The message that the Rothschild family sends us is that we have time, even if we are young.

We are under a lot of pressure to ensure the quality of our wines and that there is absolutely no negative feedback from our consumers. The family is therefore really supportive in the making of quality wines.

Therefore, we have no inferiority complex vis-à-vis of Champagne Houses with a longer history. They are actually our friends.

In the same way, the vinegrowers who wanted to support us in this adventure were very welcoming of the Rothschild family in Champagne because of their long-term vision, even if they were not yet experts of this world. We have the means and the time to do well.

BC: You produce ½ million bottles a year. What are your future ambitions?

GL: Champagne is a very competitive product but Rothschild is already such a household name in the world of wine that it inevitably opens doors, with a spontaneous notoriety that accompanies us.

In this context the Rothschild family has asked us to build strong and solid foundations. Focusing on the quality of our wines, and our small production volumes allow us to be as accurate as possible.

So with a production limited to 500,000 bottles, we will necessarily have to work on allocations in the future.

BC: And how do you see the future of champagne with respect to its ever-rising prices and the competition of other sparkling wines?

GL: If we look at the consumption of champagne compared to that of sparkling wines in terms of percentage, we can conclude that it is tiny. So we are a niche market.

The planted area of Champagne is limited to 33,000 hectares. We are therefore forced to focus on value rather than volume and at Champagne Barons de Rothschild we are fortunate to be able to do so.

BC: Do you drink other sparkling wines apart from champagne?

GL: Yes, I drink other sparkling wines for work and pleasure and there are some that are done very well.

It’s important to stay open-minded, to try to understand what is being done elsewhere, how it is done and then to check the result of it all. It is very important to taste to develop an idea.

BC: What does the word champagne mean to you?

GL: Champagne is a magic word, which shines. A global brand and reputation have been built on this one word, which is our strength and our wealth. This word is protected and defended at home and abroad, something extremely important for the future of our region.

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