Over the past year, I have been writing more articles for magazines than ever before. It has meant plenty of travelling, tough deadlines and way too much absence from my dear cats. But today, on Midsummer Day, the whole Helsinki seems to be on the country, so it’s perfect time to put together the first half of the year. One of its ultimate highlights was meeting Louis Roederer‘s charismatic cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon at Grand Champagne Helsinki 2017.
When Glorian Ruoka & Viini (the best food mag in Finland) asked me to interview him, I would have been insane to turn it down. As the printed article is gonna come out later this year, I want to share some other aspects of that interview in this blog of mine.
Being at ease with all kinds of people, I must admit there were some butterflies in my stomach as I entered Vanha Ylioppilastalo (the historical building where the Grand Champagne event is held every year). Despite my experience with champagne and numerous trips to the region, I was well aware that one does not get to meet – let alone interview – Roederer’s Chef de Cave every day.
The better the winemaker, the nicer the guy. This seems to apply perfectly to Monsieur Lécaillon. As we talk, I quickly realise he is so nice that there is no need pretending to be formal (something I’ve never been skilled at). In fact, Jean-Baptiste is one of those people who make me behave as if I had known them for years.
Our conversation meanders from winemaking to music, from childhood memories to design, from environmentalism to pleasure. The only thing I’m disappointed with is the very limited time we have, since you could easily spend a long evening with this monsieur, never running out of topics.
“As I joined the Roederer team in 1989 after making wine in California and Tasmania, I was a committed Pinot Noir boy. Today I love Chardonnay as well. In fact, I love both grapes so much that if I had to choose a favourite, it would be as harsh as asking someone which of his children he prefers.”
Whatever the grape or blend, a great champagne is born on the vineyard, and that is not possible without healthy, ripe grapes. One of the key figures in shaping Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon’s thinking has been (recently dead) Bill Mollison whom he met while working in Tasmania.
“Getting to know Bill and his permaculture vision was the turning point. From him I learnt how viticulture is about taking care of the entire ecosystem; being less dependent on chemicals, and working with nature instead of against nature.”
When young Jean-Baptiste returned to Champagne, he encountered difficulties with the old guys of the region:
“I remember how people laughed at my organic endeavours 25 years ago. Now more than 90 % of Roederer’s vineyards are farmed organically. But biodynamics is a different thing, and I admit that when we first trialled with biodynamics in 2000, we were not prepared enough. Nowadays 100 hectares of our 240-hectare total are farmed according to biodynamic principles.”
Lécaillon says he is delighted to see more and more champagne houses starting to pay attention to the wellbeing of their vineyards and ecosystem-friendly viticulture. Although organic farming is on the rise across the Champagne region, it is still minuscule. A big challenge is the cool and rainy, all-the-more capricous weather that makes organic and biodynamic farming extremely difficult.
“I love challenges, but am a realist. If you want to become certified biodynamic here in France, 100 percent of your vineyards have to be biodynamic, which is very hard to reach. But we can show our commitment by starting converting. At the moment 10 hectares of Roederer vineyards are Demeter certified.”
“Many smaller vignerons are doing a great job in organic and biodynamic viticulture. As Roederer’s Cellar Master I have proven that also champagne houses can make organic and even biodynamic champagnes. But sometimes people categorise too strictly between the champagne houses and independent vignerons. There are great, good and bad examples in both. And while concentrating on either of these, people may forget that champagne co-operatives are an integral third part in the big picture of Champagne.”
I still remember the smile that lights up Jean-Baptiste’s eyes as he speaks about Benoît Lahaye’s champagnes. And I couldn’t agree more since Lahaye‘s bottlings are among my personal favourites, and the guy… well, anyone who has met Benoît knows what we are talking about. Jean-Baptiste also admits having “a special sweet spot” for Alexandre Chartogne because “he’s so young… and so unbelievably good!”. Me too, I love Chartogne-Taillet.
Even though we often like to bond with people with similar tastebuds, I completely agree with Lécaillon emphasising the importance of personal palates and differing opinions. That’s exactly the same thing I keep telling my customers while giving them wine tastings. What pleases your palate is all that matters. If an internationally acknowledged and admired critic from a neighbouring country gives below 80 points for a champagne I adore, it does not change anything in how I perceive that wine.
“If you ask me, champagne is to be enjoyed with great emotion. Letting oneself be charmed by it, be wrapped in its sense-tickling essence. I have always believed that tasting champagne tends to bring us closer to our inner selves, to those creatures we fundamentally are.”
The interview is over. Time for the Roederer Master Class! Lécaillon starts the tasting with Brut Nature 2009, a Pinot Noir dominated blend of all three main grapes. This 25 % oak fermented champagne is the only 100 % biodynamic champagne in the Roederer portfolio – and a perfect starter with its fine, delicate nose packed with white flowers, lemony crème patisseur and sophisticated peach aromas. Fresh, utterly pure and elegant, nicely vinous yet crunchy on the palate, with some lime and nuts in the finish. Slightly lower pressure (around 4,5 bars) feels good on this champagne that Jean-Baptiste calls “The Dark Side of Cristal” due to the clay soil where its grapes grow.
“As the label says, I made Brut Nature together with designer Philippe Starck which meant intensive talks about arts with him. I decided to keep my mind open and see what happens… and the result was a non-dosé champagne. Of course we cellar masters also need to capture the prevailing spirit: the taste preferences of the consumers are drier than ever before. Many vignerons are making a great job with terroir-expressing extra-brut and non-dosé champagnes. When the grapes are perfectly ripe, there is no need to mask the fruit with excess sugar. And at Roederer the grapes really need to be ripe since our wines never undergo malolactic fermentation.”
The second wine, Louis Roederer Rosé 2012, is pure love at first sip. Seducing with sophisticated aromas of raspberry, white chocolate and floral perfume leading to a superfresh, rich and silky, spicy-fruity taste and astonishingly long aftertaste, to me this 63 % Pinot Noir and 37 % Chardonnay rosé champagne is a concretisation to the term ‘seamless’. Before this Master Class, I sometimes have had doubts whether I understand what people mean by talking about seamless texture. Now I do. The pressure is a bit higher (~5 bars). The dosage is 9 grams per litre, but without knowing it, I would have guessed around 6 grams as the wine feels wonderfully dry in mouth.
The rosé is followed by another 2012, the Louis Roederer Vintage. Its rich nose entices with classical brioche aromas, yellow plums and almonds, just to name some. The taste is a perfectly balanced combo of freshness; lime, cream, some spices and a beautiful saliva effect that brings a wide smile to your face and makes you drool for more. As I see it, the key element in the charm of this 70 % Pinot Noir and 30 % Chardonnay champagne is its crescendo-like character: playing the piano ever since I was a child, I have always thought a beautifully growing crescendo leaves much more memories behind than instantly hitting all your cards to the table.
We continue with Blanc de Blancs 2010, a bright and beautifully fresh yet complex Chardonnay champagne that perfectly reflects the spirit of Avize. Fragrant flowers, citrus fruit, crème chantilly, butter and a hint of vanilla on the nose. Airy and precise acid line. Very pleasant, purely fruity, fluffy mouthfeel.
The crescendo is approaching its climax as Cristal 2009 is poured into our glasses. 60 % Pinot noir, the rest Chardonnay. As expected, still a baby: slightly closed nose that needs time in the glass to open up with citrus cream, hazelnuts, slight menthol and vanilla aromas that later emerge from the glass. Silky in character, I would love to have an hour at least, to track the development of this wine in the glass. For many champagne lovers Cristal is the icon of perfectly made vintage champagne. The 2009 surely has a glorious future ahead, but thinking about the current enjoyability, I was blown away with both 2012’s, the Rosé in particular. Yummy stuff!
As his Master Class is over, I need to breathe for a while. The day has been so full of excitement and enthusiasm, learning and listening, tasting and talking. Contrary to my decision to leave right after Roederer Master Class, I later find myself from downstairs, chatting to Jean-Baptiste again. You know that feeling when there is so much to say? And not only because of all those bubbles running through your veins…
“My next step? My dream? Well, I would love to find a new model of bringing together organic and not-yet organic farmers. To create a win-win collaboration for all of us.”
As I walk home hours later, I find myself playing with the idea who would be the vigneron guest(s) for Grand Champagne 2018? We all know that Essi made Manu Lassaigne change his mind in 2016, so let’s see what setting of grandes marques, co-ops and small winemakers we’ll have next year!
At my home door I realise I would never have imagined that still at this age something could steal my heart like champagne has done. But it has. And I can’t wait to spend the rest of this summer in that effervescent region I so fervently love.
See you soon, JB.