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.  

40 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 50 percent of their 240 hectares are now certified organic and treated biodynamically. From 2012, Cristal will be 100 percent biodynamic, making it the first of its kind in the prestige category from a major 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 50 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.

Read the full story in ISSUE NO. 1 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.

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WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY | Sara Underdown

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