It’s Monday morning in Reims and I’m running late for my first appointment. My taxi hasn’t arrived, leaving me with no choice but to walk the kilometre or so from my apartment to Louis Roederer’s cellars, just north of the township. I feel terribly embarrassed. 

As I approach, I see Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, the cellar master, standing near the entrance anticipating my arrival. My embarrassment deepens.

“Bonjour Sara,” he says with a smile, as I walk toward him.

I apologise and blame the taxi as we take a few minutes to greet each other and chat before jumping into his car. We’re on our way to the Rouzaud family mansion, seventh generation owners of Louis Roederer, for lunch before touring the vineyards.

We arrive moments later. The house, as one might expect, is grand and immaculately presented with polished marble, towering ceilings and ornate furnishings. It feels more like a five-star hotel than a country estate. In the foyer, there’s a statue of a bull embellished with abstract art wielding a US dollar note pinned to the tip of its horn. I ask if it’s a reference to Wall Street.

“No, it’s my cow that gives me fertiliser,” remarks Lécaillon with a smirk.

The table is set. It’s large enough to seat at least four, but today, it’s just for two. Gold cutlery, bone china and fine napery are laid out with thoughtful symmetry, accompanied by six champagne glasses of different proportions. Before us, a parade of Louis Roederer’s finest cuvées from the current release Cristal 2008 and Cristal Rosé 2008 to Cristal 2002 and Cristal Rosé 2002 then Cristal Vinotèque 1995 and Cristal Vinotèque Rosé 1995.

We talk, eat, and delight in Lécaillon’s superb champagnes for which there really are no comparisons. We discuss Cristal’s otherworldliness and how it is sometimes misunderstood; a transcendental beauty that can only come from careful, if not quiet, observation. There’s so much purity, it can be easy to look straight through it and miss finer, almost microscopic, details.

“Take your time, let it come to you. Don’t rush,” says Lécaillon of Cristal. “When I do a dinner with Cristal, sometimes with other wines, I always say: Look at Cristal in detail. This is the most beautiful painting. You can look at it from 3-5 metres and you will get good vibes. When you are closer, it gets better and better.”

It’s easy to get lost in the power of Cristal’s caressing sensuality and dazzling beauty of its gold label. But there is more to its story, so much more – its evolution reflective of the journey taken by its maker.

This year’s release of Cristal 2008 marks another leap in Roederer’s passage of environmental sustainability, which is more about intelligent and sensitive farming than being slavish about governance criteria. It is also about the pursuit of ID, as Lécaillon calls it, elevating the character of wines plot-by-plot to produce greater declaration of flavour and sense of place.

Forty percent of grapes used in Cristal 2008 were farmed biodynamically with the rest coming from herbicide-free farming. It coincides with the House achieving a new level in viticultural excellence, the likes of which are without parallel in Champagne. This year, Lécaillon announced that over fifty percent of their 240 hectares are now certified organic and treated biodynamically. Cristal Rosé is today 100 percent biodynamic and Cristal Brut
2012 will be 100 percent biodynamic upon release, making them the first of their kind in the prestige category from a Champagne house.

At the core of this drive for environmental excellence is the heart of Lécaillon, a man who feels as much as he thinks. However, few would know that it was in Tasmania that his passion was first ignited for alternative methods of farming.

In 1990, Lécaillon was sent there by Louis Roederer’s President, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, to sort out Heemskerk Estate at Pipers Brook, in the Tamar Valley, in which they held a third ownership, later increasing to fifty percent.  Roederer had invested there in the late 1980s, impressed by the potential for the site’s basalt-derived soils, which were well-draining like the limestone of Champagne, and the cool, humid climate capable of producing delicate wines that weren’t too tannic.

But the estate was windy – terribly windy. Climatic challenges seemed insurmountable for the plantings of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinot noir, chardonnay – and others – which struggled to ripen and produce acceptable yields. The quest, therefore, was to make an ‘unsuitable’ site ‘suitable’. At all of 23, what Lécaillon lacked in experience he made up for with intelligence, inquisitiveness and a hard work ethic. It was enough for Rouzaud, who had hand-selected Lécaillon a few years’ earlier from university, earmarking him for a big future within his family’s business.

As things turned out, Rouzaud’s intuition was prophetic. His decision to send Lecaillon was in fact a sliding doors moment, altering destiny in more ways than one. It was in Tasmania that a fortuitous meeting occurred between Lecaillon and Bill Mollison, co-founder of permaculture theory, who was relatively unheard of at the time.

A visit to Tagari Garden Farm in Stanley, where Mollison researched and experimented with permaculture concepts, was the beginning of Lecaillon’s realisation that he could work with nature and not against and that big changes could come from small things.

“I met Bill and it was kind of an amazing epiphany,” he says. “All the things I learned at university were around separating elements into small pieces, like you do in science, and then learning how small pieces work. Then you forecast how the big pieces work…but it’s wrong because it’s not the same. Understanding a system of vineyards and how everything works together – I learned that with Bill.”

Permaculture is most often regarded as the ultimate in organised, sustainable living whereby elements of production and consumption are conscientiously designed into self-sustaining landscapes. Design copies patterns and relationships found in nature to provide a permanent and sustainable culture.

“We had some issues with snails in vineyards and Bill told me that when you have a problem with snails, the problem is not the snails, it’s that you don’t have enough ducks!” he muses. “It’s so smart. Classic science says ‘fix the snails’ but you can use soft ways to fix your problems. You just need to bring the conditions together to get the result you want and not try to be too strong. Don’t rush, make it happen but observe and be smart.”

The unlikely encounter changed everything for Lecaillon who would later adopt permaculture theory as his philosophical guide.  In Tasmania, however, there was no opportunity for such progressive thinking in a business grappling to get the fundamentals right. But the writing was already on the wall, for Lecaillon, who caught the eye of his Tasmanian acquaintances on account of his penchant for new, better or more interesting ways of doing things.

Andrew Pirie, Lecaillon’s former Tasmanian neighbour and current owner of Apogee Wines, was one of his admirers. “Jean-Baptiste was outgoing. He had a sharp palate and intellect and liked taking a high-tech approach to information collection,” he says.

In response to the unsettling winds of the site, Pirie says Lecaillon adopted a Lyre Trellis system which was briefly in fashion in the 1990s, drawing on research undertaken by Alain Carbonneau from Bordeaux. It was better than the wide-spaced VSP (vertical shoot position) that had been experimented with previously.

Mark Fesq, who was a partner in Heemskerk and head of Fesq & Company, says that Lecaillon impressed from the very beginning – knowledgeable, fascinated and learning on the job. His approach in the vineyards achieved a level of ripeness uncommon for the site. The material, subsequently, became very promising, but there was still so little of it.

“Jean-Baptiste made a rather amazing 1990 pinot noir that we couldn’t normally get the ripeness to make into a wine – maybe one in 10 years,” says Fesq. “He also made a 1991 chardonnay with fantastic ripeness. From the 1989, 1990 and 1991 harvests he made méthode traditionnelle that turned into brilliant wines in the long-term.”

Lecaillon managed to achieve some success out of a lineage of failure; the result was the very first bottling, and subsequent launch, of Jansz – which has gone on to become one of Australia’s most recognised and celebrated sparkling wines.

Despite complications, those early years were successful in many ways for Lecaillon, not the least of which was turning a corner in challenging viticultural conditions and bringing about some tangible outcomes for investors. In doing so, he demonstrated his talent and worth.

In 1993, he made the decision to return to France with his young family where he joined the oenology team at Roederer.

“When I came back [from Tasmania], I realised you needed a forest, a frog, a mountain and lake and something that works together. In Champagne it doesn’t work, because you have small fields and diverse ownership. You don’t own the forest and everyone’s removing as much as possible – like the trees – to plant vineyards,” he says.

Permaculture is intensive but also extensive farming, the goal of which is to promote diversity and production from land. The theory works well in larger agricultural areas that can draw from many inputs, but in Champagne, such diversity within a single and small ecosystem is not possible.

Whilst permaculture did not fit perfectly into Champagne’s complex tapestry of land management, Lecaillon believed that biodynamics could. The practice is not as powerful as permaculture but can achieve around eighty percent of its intentions. Biodynamics takes organic farming to another level – a holistic approach based on the cycles of the moon and nine approved soil preparations. It returns to tradition, excluding use of artificial chemicals in favour of natural treatments, manures and composts but in a way that intertwines with mystical aspects based on astrology.

In 1999 Lecaillon had his first real opportunity to do something about his growing interest in sustainable farming. Jean-Claude Rouzaud appointed him chef de cave, also handing him dual responsibility for vineyards not only at Louis Roederer but across the company’s wine investments in France, the United States and Portugal. One year later, in 2000, Lecaillon instituted a reduction in synthetic chemicals at Roederer and commenced biodynamic trials, which were set-back following a mildew-inducing harvest in 2001. Trials were re-launched in 2005, with a more serious and organised plan, further to engaging a consultant.

But is wasn’t an easy path.  Biodynamics and organics were a greater charge of work because of the intensity of labour and craftsmanship that needed to be returned to the vineyard every day. Lecaillon likens the care given to vines to the care required when boiling milk.

Fast-forward to 2018 and 100 percent of Roederer’s 240 estate owned vineyards are now farmed sustainably. Of those, 122 are organically certified, but treated biodynamically. 10 hectares have biodynamic certification.

With annual production of over 3.5 million bottles, Roederer has become Champagne’s largest biodynamic producer, with plans to convert all vineyards over the coming years. Slow but steady has set the pace for Roederer’s pioneering journey, forging a path that has since become the Holy Grail for Champagne’s largest Houses. And whilst it proves that excellence in environmentally friendly practices can occur on a large and commercially viable scale, it also highlights that these things take time…a long time.

“When you own 128 hectares of grand cru and 78 premier cru vineyards, you are gifted in many ways,” says Lecaillon of Roederer’s industry-leading position. “If you don’t lead the way, [the opportunity] will go completely. You have to do it.”

As lunch draws to a close, we turn our eye to the vineyards we will visit that afternoon. We agree on Roederer’s biodynamically farmed sites in Cumières, which fascinates for its ability to produce round yet mineral wines, Aÿ for the elegance of pinot noir used in Cristal, and Cramant for creaminess and texture. The tour is impressive; a snap-shot of the massive scale of vineyard work undertaken at Roederer. But it is in Cramant, at a small parcel known as Les Bionnes, that there is a moment of clarity and serious realisation of all Lecaillon is and strives to be.

Laid-out before us are rows of vines, between them, soils recently ploughed by horse. There is a pond close by with frogs and ducks…a beehive too.

Lecaillon surveys the lay of the land and looks to me. “This is as close to permaculture as I get in Champagne,” he says with a smile.

Read ISSUE NO. 1 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY | Sara Underdown

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