I have been closely following Champagne for many decades, both from the glass and from about 20 visits to the Champagne region, and I have come to the conclusion that Champagne Louis Roederer is indeed one of the greatest Champagne houses of all. Its Prestige Cuvées, Cristal and Cristal Rosé, are arguably two of the best Champagnes being made today. Louis Roederer, a medium-sized Champagne house, now produces over 3.5 million bottles of Champagne annually (an increase in about one million bottles since I wrote Champagne for Dummies in 1999), and its Champagnes are exported to over 100 countries. The U.S. is one of its main markets, and clearly leads the world in importing Louis Roederer Cristal.
Because Champagne Louis Roederer owns almost 75 percent of the vineyards it uses in producing its Champagne (the highest percentage of any major Champagne house), it controls the production of its Champagnes from the vineyards to the finished product. This vineyard ownership has also led to its collection of a huge library of older reserve wines that contribute to the excellence of its Champagnes. Louis Roederer is probably the most commercially successful Champagne house of all--or at the least in the top group--which allows it to function well even in poor or mediocre vintages. (Tasting notes follow at the end of this column.)
Champagne Louis Roederer has been family-owned since its founding in Reims in 1776 (an auspicious year for Americans) by Dubois Père et Fils. In 1827, a nephew of the Dubois owner, Louis Roederer, joined the company, and inherited it from his uncle in 1833. He re-named the company Louis Roederer.
In 1876, exactly 100 years after its founding. the Roederer firm had a request from Tsar Nicholas II of Russia for a Champagne--specially made for him, in a clear bottle. Thus, Cristal, the first Prestige Cuvée, was born. At that time, all Champagne was much sweeter, including Cristal.
The 20th century was a difficult time for Champagne: much of both World War I and II were fought in France, including the Champagne region (more than half of Louis Roederer’s winery was destroyed during World War I), and the Great Depression in the 1930s certainly didn’t help matters. Another one of Champagne’s famous widows, Madame Camille Olry-Roederer, who took over when her husband died in 1932, saved Champagne Louis Roederer. Among her other accomplishments, Madame Camille bought up as many vineyards as she could, including some in the famed Côte des Blancs, the greatest vineyard region for Chardonnay. Under her reign, Cristal was re-released as a dry Prestige Cuvée in 1945. After she passed away in 1974 (having successfully run the firm for 42 years), her grandson, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, himself a winemaker, eventually took over and brought Champagne Louis Roederer to new heights.
Jean-Claude Rouzaud joined Champagne Louis Roederer in 1967; by 1979, at the age of 37, Rouzaud was running Louis Roederer. It was Rouzaud who expanded the house to what it is today. Among his other accomplishments, Rouzaud founded Roederer Estate in California. It took him two years to discover the right site. While other Champagne houses established sparkling wine firms in Napa Valley or Sonoma, Rouzaud went north to Anderson Valley. Today, many wine critics consider Roederer Estate’s bubblies the best in the United States, especially its premium sparkler, L’Hermitage.
Rouzaud not only expanded his company in California but also made it into an international powerhouse for fine wine. Wineries that Rouzaud acquired during his reign include Champagne Deutz, the Port house Ramos Pinto, Delas Frères (a Rhône Valley producer), Domaines Ott in Provence, and several excellent Bordeaux properties, including the Super-Second Growth, Château Pichon-Lalande.
Actually, Frédéric Rouzaud, Jean-Claude’s son who took over in 2006, played a strong hand in Pichon-Lalande’s acquisition, which took place in 2006. Frédéric Rouzaud had a challenge following his father; Jean-Claude Rouzaud was regarded as one of the wisest and most trusted producers in Champagne. But Frédéric has done such an excellent job that Champagne Louis Roederer is now considered one of the stars in the world of Champagne. Frédéric Rouzaud’s latest accomplishment was to introduce a Brut Nature to Roederer’s Champagne portfolio, together with Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, his brilliant Chef de Cave.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon joined Champagne Louis Roederer in 1999. Today he is Executive Vice-President and Chief Winemaker, not only for Champagne Louis Roederer, but also for all of Louis Roederer’s properties. Of all Jean-Claude Rouzaud’s accomplishments, hiring Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon was one of his wisest moves. Lécaillon is one of the best winemakers in Champagne. Before Jean-Baptiste took over the winemaking, Louis Roederer’s brut non-vintage Champagne, Brut Premier (which makes up 70 to 80 percent of Roederer’s sales annually) was regarded as a good, but not extraordinary Champagne. Today, I and many other wine critics regard Brut Premier as one of the best NV Bruts in Champagne. Before Jean-Baptiste accepted his present position at Louis Roederer, he had one condition--that he be in charge of the vineyards as well. Jean-Baptiste knew what is commonly accepted today, that the quality of wines is decided by the vineyards.
I recently tasted through the current portfolio of Louis Roederer’s Champagnes. Here are my comments on the wines:
Champagne Louis Roederer Brut Premier ($50): Roederer’s non-vintage Brut Premier makes up the house’s largest production of its Champagnes (about 2.5 million bottles annually). It is a blend of 40 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay, and 20 percent Pinot Meunier. It is aged for three years in the cellar and then another six months in the bottle before being released. Brut Premier is an assemblage of wines from six different vintages, including Reserve wines from Louis Roederer’s cellar. Because of the amount of Brut Premier produced, this is the only Louis Roederer Champagne that uses grapes from non-Estate vineyards.
I have noticed a distinct improvement in Brut Premier since Jean-Baptiste became the Chef de Cave. It used to be fruitier, more robust, and slightly sweeter. With Lécaillon’s emphasis on elegance and freshness, it is now more delicate, is perfectly balanced, and shows lots of finesse for a non-vintage Brut. It is a fine aperitif Champagne, but is also perfect with seafood entrées. It’s a Champagne that I look for in restaurants, and is one of my favorite NV Bruts. Available in half-bottles. Average retail price, $40 to $50. 92
Champagne Louis Roederer 2009 Brut Nature "Philippe Starck" ($90): Named after the designer Philippe Starck, who created the label and envisioned the wine’s style, this is Louis Roederer’s first new Champagne since its Cristal Rosé was introduced with the 1974 vintage. The secret for producing a Champagne with no dosage, according to Lécaillon, is to find vineyards that produce ripe Pinot Noir and to carefully choose a warmer vintage, such as 2009. Roederer’s Brut Nature was introduced with the 2006 vintage; the 2009 is its 2nd vintage. The Pinot Noir (its main grape) comes from vineyards in Cumières, which are also used by the exceptional grower-producer, Georges Laval. Chardonnay (about one-third) is also in the blend. The Brut Nature has intense floral aromas, and is more full-bodied than one would expect from a brut nature Champagne. Aged for five years in the cellar. For me, it is still too young to enjoy now. I would wait two or three years before drinking it. Average retail price, $79 to $90. 91 (potentially, 93)
Champagne Louis Roederer 2011 Rosé ($76): Louis Roederer’s Vintage Rosé is the big surprise in the portfolio; it is great! A delicate, dry rosé, it is simply delicious. Again, Lécaillon uses its vineyards in the Cumières area for the grapes. The Rosé is made from 60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay. Lécaillon manages to obtain a light, delicate hue from Pinot Noir grapes for Roederer’s rosés, and ages it for four years in the cellars. I was bowled over by the 2008 Louis Roederer Rosé a few years ago; I love the style. The current 2011 is very similar. Roederer’s rosé is its lightest Champagne. In my opinion, it is a terrific aperitif Champagne. Available in half-bottles. 95
Champagne Louis Roederer 2009 Vintage Brut ($75): Louis Roederer’s Brut Premier and its Cristal gets so much attention that we sometimes forget how good its Vintage Brut is. The 2009 is a sturdy, huge wine, with red fruit aromas dominating. It’s made from 70 percent Pinot Noir and 30 percent Chardonnay. The house uses its outstanding Verzenay Pinot Noir Vineyard in Montagne de Reims as the basis of its Vintage Brut. It is aged for four years in the cellars. I think that, although this 2009 can be consumed now, it will improve with another two/three years of aging, and should age well for another10 years. It’s a classic, rich Louis Roederer Champagne. 94
Champagne Louis Roederer 2009 Blanc de Blancs ($85): Although this house is known for its Pinot Noir in its Champagnes, Louis Roederer has always produced excellent blanc de blancs because of its great Chardonnay vineyards in the Côte de Blancs. This Blanc de Blancs is made from the superb Le Mesnil sur Oger and Avize vineyards. It ages for five years in the Roederer cellars. It is an intensely rich Champagne, certainly able to be served throughout dinner. The house thinks so much of its huge Blanc de Blancs that it always serves it after its Rosé and Vintage Brut. The Blanc de Blancs has a long finish, and will age longer than any other Roederer Champagne except Cristal. It will live two decades or more, especially in good vintages. I love this Champagne. In my opinion, it ranks with the top Blanc de Blancs Champagnes being made today. 97
Champagne Louis Roederer 2009 Cristal ($225): One of the great aspects of Cristal is that there is no such thing as a bad or even mediocre vintage Cristal. Because the Cristal grapes are so good, Cristal rates from very good to sublime. The sublime vintages of the past 30 years are the 1988, 1996, and 2002. Cristal is made from old vines of Grand Cru Pinot Noir (60 percent) and Chardonnay (40 percent) grapes. It is never a “blockbuster” Champagne. Rather it is the most elegant Champagne you can imagine, always with perfect balance. Cristal has the ability to be enjoyed in its youth and also when it matures. I will not forget the 1988 Cristal I enjoyed two years ago. Recently I arranged a tasting of 12 Prestige Cuvées, including many 1996s. The Cristal 2002 was voted first by the group.
Cristal is aged in Roederer’s cellars for six years before it is released. Only 400,000 bottles are produced annually (estimated to be one-tenth of Dom Pérignon’s production), Cristal makes up about 11 or 12 percent of Louis Roederer’s sales. The house will not make more Cristal for fear of lowering quality. Since it is in demand worldwide, Cristal is often difficult to find, even in the U.S., its best market (especially in December). And yet, for a Champagne of this quality, it is a bargain (at $225) compared to the other superb Champagne, Krug Clos du Mesnil, at over $900. A sublime vintage of Cristal would rate 100 points. The 2009 is merely excellent. 99
Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal Rosé ($500): Cristal Rosé is so rare that most wine lovers (including wine writers) have never tasted it. Only 20,000 bottles of Cristal Rosé are made annually, and the U.S. receives a small portion of that (much of which goes to very expensive restaurants). I was unable to obtain a sample of the current Cristal Rosé, 2009, even though I was writing a column on Louis Roederer Champagnes. But fortunately, I have tasted examples of recent vintages of Cristal Rosé (2006, 2002) so that I can make general comments on it. First of all, it is the best Rosé Champagne that I have ever tasted. It is elegant and yet intense, and so delicious. Basically, the Cristal Rosé is the same Champagne as Cristal, but with Pinot Noir wine added. It can age for decades, just as the Cristal.
I first stumbled upon the initial vintage of Cristal Rosé, the 1974, in a wine store (in the 1980s; it was probably about ten years old). I knew 1974 was not a good vintage, and I did not expect much. Was I mistaken! The 1974 was one of the best Champagnes that I had ever tasted; I can still remember it. I have been hooked on Cristal (especially the Rosé) ever since. But the very best Cristal Rosé I have tasted at this point has to be the 1988. I had one bottle of the 1988 Cristal and one of Cristal 1988 Rosé, and I decided to drink them both in one Bacchanalian evening. I couldn’t decide which was better, and I called it a tie at 100 points each. Rating for most Cristal Rosés, 100
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Cristal Rosé might be beyond the price that many wine lovers will spend on a bottle of Champagne, but the Cristal (much less rare than the Rosé), is less than half the price of the Rosé, and just as great. And then there are the bargain Louis Roederer Champagnes, the very available Brut Premier, the delicious Rosé Brut Vintage, the 2009 Millésimé Brut, and the superb Blanc de Blancs. Enjoy!