Champagne Louis Roederer – A Profile

The leading house of Louis Roederer is Champagne gold standard. There may even be a temptation to take their excellence for granted without paying enough attention to the wines, because they command so much affection as one of the few independently owned top houses, safe it seems from the clutches of any marauding conglomerate.  You don’t have to look far to know why: they own 240ha of prime vineyards, more than any other major house bar Taittinger and Moët (who of course own the most). They are able to supply 70% of their own grape needs, a bigger proportion than Taittinger’s 50%.

The critical economic fact about this producer is that thus they are the most profitable house based on net margin and return on investment.  The owned vineyard includes a relatively recent 15ha from the sale of Champagne Leclerc Briant in May 2012.  The échelle rating of their vineyards is 98% and is the same for what they buy in. Of their 240ha, 130ha are grand cru and 73 1er cru. Their Côte des Blancs holding is 84ha; 69ha are farmed on the Montagne de Reims. To boot, they also own the lion’s share of Champagne Deutz and make probably the best current non-champagne sparkling wine: Roederer Estate in California.  Not to mention their acquisition of Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, the St Julien Bordeaux ‘super second growth’ in 2007, to augment their other Bordeaux and world wine interests.  Currently, the house makes some 3m bottles of champagne per annum and 70% is exported, to 80 countries.  The USA is the first export market, some.5m bottles, followed by the UK, Italy, Germany and Asia.

Founded as Dubois et Fils in 1765, by 1900 the house was owned by the Schreiders whose nephew Louis Roederer from Strasbourg, came into the business in 1827 at 18 years old and only six years later in 1833, was given the firm.  Louis renamed the house with its present name and transformed the business, especially as an exporter throughout Europe but also to the USA and Russia.  By the 1880s over half a million bottles were sold to Russia annually.  Cristal began life as a special cuvée made for Czar Alexander II, originally in a very sweet style, in 1876.  By now, the firm’s chief was a second ‘Louis’ and he established the discrete but impressively courtyarded premises in Reims’ Boulevard Lundy, perhaps the most handsome of any house.  I certainly won’t forget the quiet opulence discovered on my first visit there, nor being taken to the nearby winery by vintage Rolls Royce.

A celebrated period in the house’s history is that led by Madame Camille Olry-Roederer who inherited the house as a widow on her husband’s death in 1932.  Her dynamism not only earned her place as one of the famous ‘champagne widows’ but she took the firm from penury with vast unsold stocks in the 1930s depression to a firm footing.  This was achieved by shrewd management but also through buying up huge swathes of distressed vineyard assets, especially prime sites on the Montagne de Reims.  She probably deserves a marketing chapter too in Champagne history, deftly sweeping the winners from her own stables in horse races and then pouring Roederer champagne all over the subsequent parties.

Camille’s grandson Jean-Claude Rouzaud led the firm after her and being a wine specialist, consolidated the quality of viticulture and winemaking, something Roederer has managed to lead on amongst the houses ever since.  Simultaneously the house is now internationally respected Champagne royalty, patronising the arts, culture and gastronomy.  One of their most visible gifts, at the Basilique St Remi in Reims, is the statue in bronze of Clovis, King of the Franks who importantly converted to christianity in Reims in about 496AD.  In 2006 Jean-Claude’s son Frédéric Rouzaud took over, although his father is still a practical influence at senior level.   The Chef de Cave is the hugely respected Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon who arrived in 1989 and was made supremo in 1999.

The house has land in Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Aÿ, Sillery, Ambonnay, Bouzy, Cumieres, Hautvillers, Damery, Mareuil and all the crus on the Côte des Blancs.  Viticulture is advanced, avoiding synthetic chemicals as far as possible. By 2017 the entire estate was organically farmed, a process beginning in 2005.  Since then the house has experimented with  biodynamics too. Total bio-farmed land is now 40ha. By 2020, the entire ‘Cristal estate’ will be biodynamic.  This of course does not mean the house’s vineyard is anywhere near completely organic-biodynamic as some ‘biggest biodynamic producer’ reports have implied.  But they are the producer with the biggest bio farmed holding, comprising over 17% of their total owned vineyard.  Nevertheless, Lecaillon is on record as saying: ‘I am not a biodynamist’ and that for him it is ‘an additional tool in the vineyard’.  Nowadays some 70% of their holdings are cultivated against weeds versus 20% in 1996 when herbicide was used on a bigger scale.  The house is convinced roots go deeper and rain penetrates further to aid ripening in dry periods because of this.

Roederer’s winemaking is distinctive, aiming for structure combined with exquisite elegance, fine balance and finesse.  The impression is often of concentration and power but a sense of brilliant and insistent ‘high pitch’ to borrow a musical metaphor.  The combination of course lends itself to long-aged potential complexity and I certainly recommend ageing all of Roederer’s wines, including, for up to several years if you wish, the entry level Brut Premier NV.  In general, vinification is by parcel and cru in mainly stainless steel.  Reserve wines however (and also the wine used for dosages or liqueurs d’expédition) are kept in some 150 large old oak foudres, some 4-6000L each, (60 hectolitres).  A small fraction of the Brut Premier NV and vintage wines is vinified in large old oak ‘tuns’ but that is the exception.  Malolactic is generally blocked, but is allowed to occur in some wines depending on the year.  Great care is taken to maintain this no-malo policy, with no fixed lines in the winery where malolactic bacteria may develop and the reserves kept under low temperature air conditioning of 10-12C.

The Roederer range has been unchanged for some time now.  Unless you count the minor issue of its little known ‘second wine’ champagne Théophile Roederer which transformed into Champagne Théophile in 2011 and which we wrote about here.  The Brut Premier NV, some 80% of total production, is, in its latest garb, around 40PN, 40PM, 20CH with 5% of the vinification in old wood with daily bâtonnage and reserves are 8-10% from about six different years’ reserves from big old wood. The grape mix has changed over the years.  In late 2007 for example the mix, based on ’03 was 56PN, 10PM and 34CH, so the tendency seems to be more Meunier, less Chardonnay.  A fraction goes through malolactic, rarely more than 30% and ageing is on average three years on second lees.  It epitomises the house style, all held-back power, dense but delicate.  The Brut NV is the only wine in the range not to be made 100% from the estate’s own grapes.  There is no Pinot Meunier in any of the wines after the Brut NV. Nor are there any reserve wines. After the Brut Premier NV, the entire range of Louis Roederer is all vintage wine. However, this is not strictly the case because there are three sweet wines made in tiny amounts, the Carte Blanche NV Extra Dry (18g/L), Sec (32g/L) and Demi-Sec (45g/L) range.  While these wines are all made NV with a similar blend of grapes and winemaking to the Brut Premier, it is not quite the Brut Premier NV with different levels of dosage sweetness.  The vins clairs are in fact specially selected separately from the Brut Premier NV assemblage for their taut acidity to create a good balancing tension with the sweetness.

The always vintage Blanc de Blancs is perhaps a glory of the Blanc de Blancs panoply, too often shy behind the fanfares for the great cuvées prestiges of Taittinger and Charles Heidsieck and the leading Côtes des Blancs single domaines.  It deserves to be up there with the greatest Blanc de Blancs wines.  It blends Le Mesnil and Avize and some 20% is aged in old oak before 5 years on the second lees in bottle.  It is made with reduced pressure (4 bar) for finesse and dosaged at 8-10g/L.

The vintage wines are firm and taut in youth and some of the slowest developers in Champagne.  The 70PN 30CH general blend with the Pinot coming from the north facing slopes of Verzy and Verzenay and blocked malo both contribute to the stately impression of mineral austerity in youth.  They are worth waiting for, especially as they can seem slightly dumb too early.  Roederer tends to make vintage often, subscribing to the view it’s not so much about exceptional years as showing clearly the character of the year.  Of course it’s easier to say if you have complete control over your viticulture and at a high level of quality, as they do.

A vintage Brut Rosé was first made in the 2000 vintage and marries very ripe, especially low-yield south-facing Cumières Pinot Noir with very fresh Côte des Blancs Chardonnay.  Its freshness, saignée method giving vinosity, but with a silky texture and the complexity coming from 20% of the vinification in big old oak with no malolactic, makes this one of Champagne’s great rosés.  It needs some ageing to appreciate the subtle depths apart from the pure light fruits of its young attack.

Cristal was not only the first prestige cuvée (1876),  but is still one of the most striking, with its clear glass, flat punt and orange cellophane wrapper.  The Cristal wines are selected with intensity but light impression and finesse in mind.  Lecaillon says:  “It is an original choice by Louis Roederer to select old vines on very limey soils in quite specific locations so as to give the wines a ‘crystalline’ aspect. This is a well-defined area with us, with very specific plots. Of course, these change according to age or the working of the soil. The ‘DNA’ for Cristal is maximum ripeness of the fruit on limestone soils, allowing us to enjoy ripe, fresh wines that age well. Lightness in density.” The blend is roughly 50/50 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with variations by vintage.  Up to 30% is matured in old oak with stirring before the second fermentation when it has five to six years on second lees in bottle before disgorgement.  About .5m bottles are made each cuvée.

Cristal still keeps a specific status as perhaps the first among equals of the de luxe champagnes, even if it has lost some of its its ‘bling’ gloss after Jay-Z said Frédéric Rouzaud was racist in 2006 for seeming unenthusiastic about the rap community’s embrace of Cristal.  There is no evidence of racism; rather Rouzaud regretted the association between his brand and the apparent values of conspicuous consumption by hip hop stars.  Jay-Z of course has gone on to form a partnership with Cattier’s ‘Ace of Spades’ Armand de Brignac champagne in possibly the most tasteless bling design possible.  Perhaps Cristal got off lightly and for us, as far as quality is concerned, is much the better of the two champagnes.  Cristal was not made in these years: 1972, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1992, 1998 and 2001.

A rosé Cristal is also made. The first was in 1974 but it is not made automatically alongside the main Cristal bottling.  Recent years are 1990, 1995, 196, 2002 and 2006.  There are only some 11,000 bottles for the world.

Note:  On a visit to Louis Roederer in Reims in November 2007, I was accompanied by Patricia Stefanowicz MW and her contribution to the discussion there and since is acknowledged.

The Wines

Brut Premier NV Tasted regularly over the last 10 years.  A powerful  Pinot-dominated high quality NV in which the complex reserve wines show through.  Apples, cream, biscuit and a quite severe, crisp texture which repays keeping.   Recent notes: In 05.09 it had exquisite balance of citrus, cream and honey and a crystalline acidity.  Full of a sense of its future; perhaps too squeeky and a little awkward as yet – a couple of years would give it grace.  Those wood-aged reserve wines hardly being given a chance at present.  In 09.09  Mid-pale; very complete wine.  Creamy, autolytic and lengthy.  Lovely silk texture and good combination of incisive cut and rondeur. In 11.09 the usual richness and slightly severe structure.  Wait.  In 01/2012 A saline nose, crisp and crunchy with great crea, coming through. Very clean. In 07.12: This is yellow and ripe and a bit cheesy. Older bottle? But a lot of finesse and long. Lovely texture and not crude biscuit. Thought might be a B de Noirs.  In 10.12: Lovely breezy finesse on the nose, great sense of harmony and balance but a pressing energy, a wine in motion and revealing itself all across the palate.  A sense of remoteness, an aesthetic austerity which craves attention and a little thought, not just sheer enjoyment.  Terrific restrained structure, tight as yet.  Good. In 10.12 in magnum: striking magnum effect – a much tauter and delicate impression of this wine, very fresh but while intense, showing little complexity as yet.  This is very early days for Pinot Noir dominated champagne.  Very good.
Blanc de Blancs ’96 In 12.05, London:  DG 08/01.  9-12g/L. Yellow. Elegant citrus and water-melon nose. Very firm acidity, needs time. Very pure and understated, not huge autolytic character.
Brut Vintage ’90 In 12.05, London:  DG 10/98 Much less evolved than most others’ 90s, with crunchier acidty. Slight oxidation character. 75PN
Brut Vintage ’96 In 12.05, London: (magnum,  66PN 34CH ) Pure, but with more phenolic structure than the B de B.
Brut Vintage ’04 (in mag) London 05.11 Palish, but density and tight, very tight. Light lily, good and crunchy. In mag and no malo – a bit hard yet, as expected. But driven flavor forcing through.  Very good

Brut Vintage ’06 London 10.12 Very neat, all closed and lemon and line as yet.  Young and slimline with a saline cut for now.  Wait.
Brut Vintage ’00 Tasted 11/07 11g/L. Mid-gold; herbal lanolin nose, pretty closed. Quite intense tarte tatin palate and ‘Spangle’ sweets. Firm acidity and quite severe and minerally. Long. A baby.
Brut Vintage 2005 In 01/2012  Great finesse, complexity; very mineral and herbal note.  Nop hurry.
Brut Vintage Rosé ’96 In 12.05, London: DG 03/03. Very pale, barely pink. Notes of wild strawberries and thumpingly high acidity. Very dry with a slightly bitter finish. Needs time. Very pure. Their Rosé is made saignée and the ’96 was one of the palest ever.
Brut Vintage Rosé ’07 London  01/2012 and 10.12  Pale copper. Breezy nose.  Still a baby and pretty tight. But shows light crushed berry finesse and magnifies on the palate.  Rather good but wait. This is a gorgeous light textured rosé which belies the accusation that saignée versions are often over-coloured and tannic.
Brut Vintage Rosé ’08 London 01/2014.  Very much similar in the need to wait, as the ’07 note above.  This is so young and discreetly closed for now with just hints of a luscious primary fruit freshness and more subtle chocolate and coffee-spice.  Oozes silky class and shows the vinosity from both the very good year and the saignée method.  20% is made in old big oak with no malolactic.  One of Champagne’s great rosés.  Wait four more years for it to unfurl.
Cristal ’90 In 07.98 Quite deep colour, manages to feel weighty and fluid simultaneously; great poise, lively but magisterial. Lovely light biscuit complexity and very long.
Cristal ’88 In 03.99 Mid-gold; mid-weight. Superb and richly complex. Very long.
Cristal ’02 In 11.09 London. In a shell; rich hue; candy & pastry and a bit easy at this stage. Young and obvious.
Champagne Louis Roederer
21, Boulevard Lundy, 51100 Reims    03 26 40 42 1
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