How climate change has altered the way Cristal champagne is made

Mr Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the chef de cave at Louis Roederer Champagne, implemented a plan three decades ago to help ward off the effects of climate change on the vineyards used to make Cristal champagne.
Mr Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the chef de cave at Louis Roederer Champagne, implemented a plan three decades ago to help ward off the effects of climate change on the vineyards used to make Cristal champagne.PHOTOS: NYTIMES

REIMS, France (NYTIMES) - Back in 1996, Mr Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, a young assistant at Louis Roederer Champagne, took on the daunting task of forecasting the next 30 years for the venerable house.

How would the world change for Champagne? And what should he do to adapt to those changes?

The project required a far-reaching understanding of science, politics and wine, and it meant looking both to the future and the past. Although few foresaw it at the time, Champagne was on the brink of a revolution that would transform how the rest of the world looked at the region and its wines, and how Champagne viewed itself.

Mr Lecaillon was hardly an obvious candidate to take on this study. Just 30 years old at the time, he had joined Roederer in 1989 with degrees in agronomy and oenology. He had seen wine operations in other parts of the world, working on Roederer projects in California and Tasmania.

But he had been marked as a future chef de cave, or head of the winemaking team, and had worked closely with Mr Jean-Claude Rouzaud, then the head of Roederer, whose family has owned the house since Louis Roederer gave it his name in 1833.

Mr Lecaillon produced a forecast that anticipated the wide-ranging effects of global warming. It asserted that it was imperative for Roederer to emphasise the sense of place in the wines, while carving out clearer identities for each cuvee.

As it turned out, he was remarkably prescient, not only about the increased importance of climate change, but also about how a big Champagne house would need to adapt to the changes about to sweep over the region.

Today, Louis Roederer is arguably the greatest large-scale producer in Champagne. Each of its wines — from the non-vintage Brut Premier to the prestigious Cristal — is at the top of its form, and each is among the best wines of its kind in Champagne.

Louis Roederer produces five champagnes, from the entry-level, non-vintage Brut Premier to the top-of-the-line Cristal and Cristal Rose.

For discerning consumers, who over the last 15 years have turned their attention from Champagne’s big houses to focus on the grower-producers — small farmers who make their own wine — this might seem surprising. The big houses have been dismissed by many as stodgy and dull, more interested in marketing products than producing great wine.

While some big houses have certainly been coasting for a long time, or have taken a cautious approach, Roederer is not among them. Led by Mr Lecaillon, Roederer is a progressive leader in Champagne, as if it had seen the future and positioned itself perfectly.

Roederer has blurred the line between big house and grower-producer. It now grows more than 70 per cent of its grapes in its estate vineyards, mostly farmed organically or biodynamically. Though the house still purchases grapes for its non-vintage Brut Premier, all its vintage Champagnes are entirely estate wines.

Responding to global warming and increasing the sense of place in the wines required some radical changes.

Champagne has come a long way since the mid-1990s, when the big houses unquestionably ruled. Many consumers think about it completely differently now, as a wine rather than as festive bubbles divorced from vines and earth.

Back then, the focus of Champagne was the cellar. Few people talked about the vineyards, and almost nobody in the region wanted to speak about terroir. The big houses preferred it that way.

The shoddy viticulture and the rampant mediocrity of mass-market champagnes could be ignored by talking up the skill of the master blender, who could mix a little of this and a little of that to create a house style that was repeated year after year, regardless of vintage conditions or vineyards.

Tuxedos and evening gowns were the images of Champagne, not the dirt-encrusted boots of the vigneron.

“We always knew terroir, but we didn’t use to speak of it,” Mr Lecaillon said this month as we walked through a biodynamically farmed vineyard in Avize in the Cote de Blancs, used for Roederer’s vintage blanc de blancs. “Thirty years ago, the subject was house style. Today, that’s not the question. Everybody wants to talk about terroir.”

Terroir and farming are of prime concern to Mr Lecaillon, who took over as chef de cave in 1999, on the condition that he be put in charge of the vineyards as well. Responding to global warming and increasing the sense of place in the wines required some radical changes.

He wanted the vines to have a much deeper root system that plunged into the bedrock of chalky limestone and clay; he believed that would help to protect against heat and drought, while better expressing the character of the vineyard. To accomplish this, he eliminated the use of herbicides and fertilisers, developed techniques for training the roots downwards and began trials for both organic and biodynamic viticulture.

Throughout its vineyards, Roederer has trained roots to go deeper into the bedrock, as in these pinot noir vines in the Poirier Saint-Pierre plot in Verzenay.

Biodynamic viticulture — a variation of organic agriculture developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner — was gaining popularity in the 1990s among vignerons, particularly in Burgundy, where renowned producers like Domaine Laflaive and others swore by it.

Mr Lecaillon adapted the techniques for Roederer and, for years, ran experiments farming some blocks biodynamically and some organically. Each year, he and his team tasted the results blind, then compared.

“After four or five years, we were 100 per cent able to identify the wines from biodynamic soils,” he said. “More intensity, more clarity of fruit, a velvety texture and a link between fruit and acidity."

“It’s a very intelligent way of farming,” he said. “I don’t understand Steiner at all, but I see the results.”

Nonetheless, he says that some years, his team preferred the wines farmed organically. He said organic farming produced fleshier wines, while biodynamics gave “more pixels”.

Now, Roederer has more than 100ha that is either biodynamic or organic, depending on the vintage. Each vineyard block, 410 in total, is vinified separately and can then be blended as desired.

“I would say biodynamic is more suited to warmer years, and organic to cooler years,” he said. “You need both because you never know.”