Champagne Uncorked: A Visit to Champagne Louis Roederer

“I'll drink your champagne. I'll drink every drop of it, I don't care if it kills me.” 
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gatsby Girls

My first trip to Champagne was for me, a complete success. I came away from the journey with a brand new appreciation and a more profound desire to get to know this well-known and highly regarded wine region so much better. With each trip to France, I come away with new insights and respect for the country and its people. I've become a Francophile in some ways and in other ways, not so much, but as it relates to wine, oh yes. Champagne for me was a place, I barely knew or understood twelve years ago, back before I started this wine journey I'm currently on. I know this will sound cliched, but I like to think of wine as a journey, it's not a destination.

Each stone you overturn on the pathway to discovery develops greater understanding and appreciation not only for the wine but for the great folks behind these labels, who bring great traditions and passion to the table. It's evident in what they say, how they say it and oh-so-evident in the final product, passion is a sure 'seller,' and it's contagious. As a result, I'm drinking more Champagne myself, far more than I ever have before and that's a good thing. Perhaps, it's just a bit of carry-over from the trip, I did bring three bottles back with me. I'm so glad not a single one of them had an issue, contents under pressure and all. Honestly, since I've been back, Mrs. Cuvee and I've uncorked and enjoyed three or more bottles to the delight of us both.

I went to Champagne with a great group of fellow explorers (writers), two of whom had been there before and have written about it extensively, this press junket was funded by the CIVC  and the EU to some extent of which I'm unsure (full disclosure). While the rest of us were first timers, exploring this beautiful region up close and personal. You can see some of them in the image above, meeting up with the LRC communications lead, while I lagged behind to capture this scene.

A gorgeous marbled hallway greets visitors and employees alike each day and welcomes you into the grandeur that is Champagne. But of course not all Champagne houses are created equal; Louis Roederer Champagne has to be one of the most well known and regarded for its consistent quality and passion for only giving the very best effort to produce World Class Champagne. I want to type bubbly, but after a visit to the region, I don't believe it's proper to merely refer to it as bubbly, that is just too generic in my book, thus Champagne.

We [LRC] don't make Champagne, we make a wine of Champagne!" ~ Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Louis Roederer’s Chef de Caves

Our group was quickly met by none-the-other than Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Louis Roederer’s Chef de Caves who pointing to the map of the region, he promptly gave us the rundown on the vineyards they own versus those grapes which are purchased from growers. Lecaillon explained to us, "Roederer owns 70 percent of its production. We are more of a grower, but we are also négociant, as well."

When we asked about developments in viticulture at Roederer Estate, Lecaillon explained that, since 1996, LRC has been on its own root-stock, supplied from its own nursery. The reason being, we wanted to control our own destiny, we have narrowed our diversity, micro vinification, it's a true root-stock story, LRC now produces more root-stock then what can be found in the south of France. We now control nearly the whole process, except for the fruit from the growers, who are not willing to take the same risks that we are, especially when it comes to farming biodynamically.

When asked about biodynamic certification and their use of it at LRC, Lecaillon stated, "We see biodynamic as a tool. Which allows our people to stay hands-on with our vineyards. He went on to say; "We currently have 65 hectares [of 240 additional hectares] we are farming Biodynamically and are certified." When asked if that included the winemaking process as well, "he admitted that facet was much tougher to incorporate, but he said they [LRC] are attempting to bring it into the winemaking as well, that is was a long-term goal."

While we were there, buckets of grapes were furiously tested for ripeness levels, but not necessarily to find out when they would pick, because the first allowable date to 'pick' is set by the CIVC and then communicated to the various houses and growers. When asked about Brix, a term they don't use, but understand, Lecaillon stated, "Sugar ripeness means nothing to me, in determining the best time to pick," Reorderer is a vineyard driven story, our winemaking is soft ended."

Regarding the grapes being brought into the wineries crush pad, it's very much a house divided, purchase grapes on one crush-pad and the purchase or contract grapes on the other side. Even the winemaking team which handles the grapes is diverse but divided, the men are with the 'purchased' grapes, and the women work only with estate fruit.

Why it is divided up as such, Lecaillon explained that men, in general, are fixers and will work better with the contract fruit and women, listen, they listen to the voice of the harvest, and to what the grapes are attempting to express. He went on to say; "we match our feeling as a grower and a winemaker in the bottle and keep the two worlds separate, but in control."

While there still very much similar work for both teams, the approach is entirely different. Does that recipe of a house divide bring in the cat sorta speak? , um, well I'll let you do the math, but I think their reputation speaks loudly and proudly on the world stage of wine. I welcome your thoughts below if you feel so inclined to share them.

The tasting of the grapes—the direct contact with the earth and the soul of the fruit—dictates future harvests. ~ Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon

At LRC the oval tun remains a classic, in their Brut Premier, because of the subtle woodiness it imparts to the wine, what many recognize as neutral oak; this size of the barrel has little impact. This process provides an efficient and authentic solution for maturation and barrel aging of aromatic white wines like Chardonnay. A grape found in Brut Premier typically compromising 40% of the blend, and although this varies, its typical blending partners are Pinot Noir at 40% and 20% Pinot Meunier.

The Brut Premier is blended from fifty different crus. It is aged for 3 years in LRC cellars and then left for 6 months after the dégorgement or as we were told "the operation." And after an operation, one needs time to convalesce, so does Champagne. This is a delicious Champagne, which is generous in the mouth, but crisper and cleaner than it was previously, seeing it's down to 9.5 grams of RS, previously it was 12 grams of RS. Apples, pears and a snap of citrus, a very pure expression of the Champagne, that's not oxidized, and over delivers on the SR price point of $40, folk's this is a no-brainer. This bottling is widely available and FAR better than almost any other mass-produced Champagne house I've encountered. Much drier, smoother and a lasting Champagne taste.

From the crushing of the grapes to the aging, the racking, the riddling, and as you can see in the image above, even the bottling line is wholly done in-house. There is nothing left to chance, there's nothing like controlling your own destiny, and for me personally, it reminds me of something I often say "If you want something done right, then do it yourself."

Riddling: This daily and delicate operation enables the deposit to gradually settle in the bottlenecks.

Way, down deep in the underground tunnels of LRC you find bottles of Cristal in what are called Riddling Racks, this tunnel, goes and goes as far as the eye can see. Without the light of my flash, only two lights sources will shine on the bottles which have not been disgorged and are waiting to be turned, the headlamp from the Riddler and of a dimly lit lamp above, emitting a yellowish glow. At LRC, they have two full-time riddlers for whose only job is to work with the Cristal, it takes them about 6 months to complete the process by hand, whereas a machine can get the job done in as little as two weeks. I felt terrible, but I needed to capture the moment of these developing wines with my flash, but it was the only way I was going to get the image.

After a tour of their facilities and formal tasting of a majority of the Champagne they produce, it was time for lunch, where we were treated to 2002 LRC Cristal, my first time having exposure to this much celebrated Champagne, I now see the attraction and why it's price point priced the way it is. I was quite impressed with its overall profile and flavors, Though to be honest at this point in the day, my pencil was down, and I was just enjoying the moment.

There is more to come about my experience with LRC, and I refer to this fantastic Champagne house this way because that is how I see it on the browser tab. I still need to detail, all the tasting notes from 5 other bottles I experienced that beautiful afternoon. Also, are host Frédéric Rouzaud who is head of family-owned Louis Roederer, broke bread with us and had many interesting insights to share with us, things I attempted to write down between bites, sips, and slurps. There's a reason their reputation proceeds them, it's because of all the major Champagne houses, they do things other 'houses' won't do or don't have the insights to do. Again, for the sake of full disclosure, I was invited on this trip by the Champagne Bureau, all my expenses of travel, lodging and meals were provided. As an aside, I did spend my fiftieth birthday with LRC and I doubt my half-century mark celebration could have been any better, this is where I wanted to be.

Maybe it’s their tall and grandiose appearance or the when you cast your eyes on it. But ultimately, the most humbling part is the sense of wine tasting fulfillment that you get after embarking on a trip such as the one I experienced. Perhaps, it's the feeling of achievement, appreciation for the journey, and the chance to peek behind the Champagne curtain, staring down the halls of winemaking history.  Hopefully, after reading this, it can inspire you to seize your days and lead a life of fun, frolic, and most of all, wine tasting adventure. Until next folks, remember life is short, compromise is for relationships, not wine, slurp long and prosper cheers!


Martin Redmond said…
What a great post Bill. I especially appreciate your wonderful photography and your ability to distill the essence of our visit to Champagne Louis Roederer! And like you, it was pen down bottoms up for lunch for me too;-)
Unknown said…
Very much enjoyed your article. Who did you contact to do this tour?
Will Eyer said…
Hi Anonymous or Unknown Commenter,

Thanks for stopping by to read the article. Perhaps it wasn't clear in my writing, but this outing was an organized press trip. I doubt this same level of access is available from a tour booking company. But who knows, as they say, money talks and well you know the rest.

If you need the name of a tour company in France, I know of one I can recommend.

Unknown said…
This will be our second trip to this area, we live in Germany so it is just a 10 hr. drive for us. If you could pass on the tour company you used that would be very nice, and yes I agree a little luck and a lot of money would not hurt.
Will Eyer said…
Hi Unknown,

Luck and money, in abundance, are both good things. That said, here's the name of a Tour Company I could recommend. Even though I didn't use one for the trip I took, as it was part of a press junket. That said, here you go or Exclusive France Tours. You can follow their account on the twitter machine here >>> have a great trip, please tell Courtney I sent you.

All the best,

Bill Eyer

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