Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon is the Winemaker and Executive Vice-President of Production for the venerable Champagne house of Louis Roederer. With degrees in enology and agronomy from École Nationale Supérieure d'Agronomie of Montpellier, his first job at Roederer in 1989 was at Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley of Mendocino, California. Today he oversees wine production at Scharfenberger Cellars, also in Anderson Valley, Ramos Pintos in the Douro Valley of Portugal, Château de Pez in St Estephe and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande in Paulliac. He is forward thinking, curious, analytical and an inveterate experimenter. As he told me during a meeting at the Reims winery late last year, “innovation is key in winemaking.” He and his team are constantly trying new practices. “It takes time to know if you are on the right track, maybe 10 to 20 years.”
When Louis Roederer inherited the winery in 1833, he set the standard for generations to come by making vineyards the focus for making high-quality wine. In the 1840s and again in the 1920s the company purchased vineyards in some of the best grand cru and premier cru sites. In the 1970s they relocated vineyards to middle of the slope since they recognized that acidity drops at the top of the slope due to sunlight and at the bottom of the slope there is too much water, causing dilution. With the best vineyards in the best positions, “organic farming becomes a duty,” said Lécaillon. “You need to be
at the level of your terroir. This is why we work with such precision to capture the ideal wine for Champagne. Finesse is the only worthy obsession. Three words describe Cristal: finesse, finesse, finesse.”
“We are winegrowers rather than a Champagne House,” he continued. “Wine is crafted in the vineyard. The flavors come from the vineyard, the cellar can only capture the best.”
They own 240 hectares, (593 acres) today with 98 percent grand cru and premier cru sites located between Reims and Epernay, spread around the region to add diversity. Grower teams are assigned to each area and they care for the same rows of vines year to year. This makes it easier for them to see differences in the vines and to address problems when necessary.
The spread-out vineyard locations make it difficult to get harvested grapes to the winery in a timely manner. The solution was to create pressing centers located in Verzenay, Ay and Avise. Each of the 410 plots is handled, transported and vinified separately. Each plot is destined for a specific wine depending upon quality. After the grapes are processed, the juice is delivered to the main winery in Reims for fermentation.
Fifty percent of their Champagne vineyards are organic and a large portion of those are farmed with biodynamic practices. They keep chemical use to the lowest level possible to avoid losing terroir. “Winemaking is like cooking in that how close you are to your ingredients is key,” said Lécaillon.
The winery has a private nursery where they grow new plant material for their vineyards. Like many wine producers, Roederer develops new vines by the process of massal
selection, a French term for a traditional method of replacing old, or poorly producing wines. New vines are created by taking grafts from healthy vines that are thought to produce desirable fruit characters. “Part of the reason to breed our own vines is to get more freshness by lowering pH and give them more resilience.”
They are also developing American root stock that is grafted onto vitis vinifera
vines that include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, to protect them from phylloxera, a plant louse that kills grape vines. They are even growing some vinifera vines on their own rootstock as an experiment.
Needless to say, bubbles are important, and I learned volumes about bubble-making strategy from Lécaillon. He believes that Champagnes and sparkling wines should be crafted with the pressure that will bind with the fruit in the
wine. He varies the pressure to balance bubbles with the wine. Techniques include changing the volume of yeast or oxygen to make the yeast struggle, resulting in more glycerol for a richer mouthfeel. In the cellar differences in temperature and humidity can influence the bubbles. The cooler the cellar, the slower the fermentation and, of course, the warmer the temperature the faster the fermentation. He may decide that the bubbles need to be more prominent in the front or the back of the mouth. The sensation is not the same. For a strong wine he prefers the bubbles to be more prominent in the back of the mouth. A more classic, delicate wine is better balanced with bubbles more prominent in in the front. “It takes know-how to adapt the pressure,” he said. Their target is the smallest possible bubbles. Small bubbles are a part of finesse.
For Cristal, they do not use any vines younger than 25 years. The grapes come from 45 parcels on the chalkiest soils with vines located mid-slope. Lécaillon said his research required opening many vintages of Cristal, “a liquid archive,” to determine this the best locations to produce the grapes for Cristal. He realized that until the vines are at least 25 years old, the roots have not reached the chalk which add a mineral character and finesse to the wine. When the fruit from Cristal vineyards do not measure up in quality, they don’t make the wine. Instead the grapes go into the cuvée for Brut Premier. No Cristal was made in 2003, 2010, 2011 or 2017.
Climate change has been a topic of interest for Lécaillon since the beginning of his work with Roederer. “We have a duty to decrease our carbon footprint with genetic destruction of biodiversity,” he said. He believes organic farming is part of the answer. “We are farmers we adapt. We innovate to find solutions.” He gave the example of the 1880s phylloxera disaster and the innovation of grafting native American phylloxera-resistant root stock onto Vitis vinifera vines, a standard vineyard practice today. He reminded me that current warm years and super ripe vintages are not new, citing the great 1945, 1947, 1952, 1955 and 1959 vintages.
He noted that in the mid-1800s the Champagne region produced more still than sparkling wine. “Maybe we will have to come back to still wines.” He suggested that if Champagne became like Burgundy…it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.