2015 in Champagne – a uniquely continental Pinot year

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon opening a bottle of Cristal 2007

Champagne specialist Tim Hall, Director Scala School of Wine, UK Champagne Ambassador 2013-14, files this report of an exclusive interview on 10 September with Louis Roederer’s celebrated winemaker about, inter alia, the small but pretty perfectly-formed 2015 vintage. He took this picture of Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon opening a bottle of Cristal 2007 for them to share after the interview.

Champagne Louis Roederer needs little introduction to wine lovers, or so I thought. But I find few realise how different Roederer is from other leading champagne houses, even though they know its range is topped by the coveted Cristal. Roederer owns 240 ha of vineyards, some 70% of its needs, and its estate includes a proud raft of mid-slope land set in the top grands crus villages. Most houses, in contrast, with little land of their own, grow few grapes and have to buy them in from growers.

Where Roederer treads an even more distinctive path is in the viticulture on its estate which rejects the use of both herbicide and pesticide. The vineyard is 98% ploughed, and 26 ha of that by horses. A full 75 ha is now managed biodynamically, making Roederer the most significant exponent of ‘biodynamie’ in all Champagne. Finally, all the wines in its range are made as single vintages bar one: the Brut Premier NV. This relatively radical approach has been introduced and is driven by Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon who joined Roederer in 1989, spent 10 years with Michel Pansu, his predecessor and was appointed chef de caves in 1999. He is very much supported by the Rouzaud family who own Louis Roederer as well as a expanding portfolio of noted international wine estates, including Ch Pichon Lalande in Pauillac and Ramos Pinto ports.

How do you assess vintage 2015?

I think it is quite a unique vintage because of the dryness we had and the very sunny weather; it’s almost an organic vintage. We had very little downy mildew and almost no oidium, some on Chardonnay, but with sulphur we did very well. Ripeness was good and I’m very happy. I think this was a rare ‘chalky’ year. It worked very well because there was a big store of water in the chalk. I’m very happy because we have been converting all our vineyards to being ploughed since 1996 and almost all of them, 98%, are now cultivated in this way. Fifteen years ago it was not quite obvious what the effect or value of this was. It was a bit strange. Some people thought it was just about stopping chemicals. But this year we could see that the vineyards worked by ploughing were much less stressed [by the drought] in June and July than they had been when they were not ploughed in the past. Because the main roots go deeper when you remove the superficial surface roots and the surface water in winter percolates when you break the soil and adds to the store in the chalk. So the chalk kept slowly giving water, the vines were not stressed, and we had perfect, even ripeness of the bunches.

The chalk also had a good store of water, a hydraulic reservoir from the winter and spring rains?

Exactly, it did. The chalk kept giving water which meant things went well, we protected the roots from the dryness and it did not stress and we have perfect phenolic ripeness today, which you don’t always have on vineyards that are not ploughed, except on very special terroirs. The chalk reservoir was full from winter and spring rain but at the same time we had a superficial dryness so it was not a deep drought. This is a year that responds to the growers who promote deep roots. I think it’s unique, this combination of a very dry year and good water table levels, but we have to wait because when I say the phenolics are good they were not that good 10 days ago. The sugar was already there but not the phenolics. And all Champagne was very smart. The decisions on the dates about picking were good but the phenolic ripening had slowed. We always have that when we have a dry year: we have a disconnect between sugar or technical ripeness and the phenolic ripeness of the skins. The ripening of the skins slows in the hot weather so you have to push the sugar high to get the phenolic ripeness. You have to wait.

I noticed some uneven ripening on bunches of Pinot Noir and Meunier.

Exactly, that’s what I call non-phenolic ripeness. You can see some Pinot Noir is still rose-skinned and you should not be happy with that. But on the whole the vast majority of the harvest has now caught up, with the skins ripe. So it’s a year of phenolic ripeness, it’s a year of no dilution, with small berries. The CIVC has officially said, statistically, this is the driest and the warmest year ever – lowest rainfall from budburst to picking and the highest average daytime temperatures. We did not have the very marked heat of 2003 but April was warm, May not that warm but July and August pretty warm and dry. In places a little grilling of bunches on the sunny side was more from the effects of heat on sulphur-sprayed grapes. There were some oidium issues so a lot of sulphur spraying has been done and if you spray a little but late in the day, say mid-morning or when the peak of temperature is there, you get burning of some berries; the warmth on the sulphur reacts and you can get burn on the bunches. More people become organic maybe, but organics fights against oidium with sulphur, so when they move to organic this is a bit of a problem.

But having said that, with all my figures in, we started harvesting slowly with Meunier on Friday [4 September] but we do not have much of that. We started the first Pinot on Sunday but really got going on Monday in Aӱ and Cumières, with an average alcohol level at the Aӱ press house of 11.1 but overall now the average is 11.7. That is high; we have pushed hard as I said. There was no botrytis. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are really fine, but the Meunier is not always at its best in a dry year. The bunches of the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are smaller because of the dryness. The yield will be down (but not the Meunier which is as big as usual, with packed bunches). There is a little ‘hen and chickens’ (millerandange) on some Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but that leaves some room for the berries to grow, but there was not so much room and aeration with Meunier and so there have been some problems with mould.

You said on Twitter that this was a ‘continental’ vintage.

Yes, the climate of Champagne is oceanic with a continental influence. I always say Champagne has three secrets. First it is made in low northern temperature. Second is the chalk but third is the modelling of the weather by the ocean and the continent. In the summer you have some heat from the continent but you also have some storms and rain coming through in the winter and in some summers which irrigates the soil, keeps moisture and mineralisation in the soil and is held in the chalk. This keeps the vines growing, slowly, but they keep growing, they do not shut down in the heat of summer – which explains why we have such a good acidity. The tartaric and especially malic acidity does not collapse because respiration does not get that desperate. That is my way to classify the vintage with this oceanic – continental continuum. We have a distinctly ‘continental’ 2015 because of the long dry period. So every year we have a dry summer in Champagne we make beautiful Pinot Noir. I’m sure we will this year. And we will also make great Chardonnay but more powerful, richer Chardonnay than in an ‘oceanic’ year when we get more elegance. So it will be a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay year.

A good way to see this issue is in the Cristal estate which is planted 60% Pinot, 40% Chardonnay and my blend is not always made with all the parcelles. I can see the parcelles work in different ways in a cooler ‘oceanic’ year than in a ‘continental’ year, so my blend will become this year perhaps more Pinot Noir, perhaps 60-65% Pinot. Pinot will be the driving force of the vintage of the Cristal, more than average, while in an ‘oceanic’ year it will shift to Chardonnay to stress the elegance of the year and the Pinot will be a little less ripe, slightly vegetal. As I do not do malolactic fermentation, there is no correction of acidity and so my only chance is to work in the vineyards to get the Pinot as ripe as I can in those cases. That’s why I am so happy in this year 2015 because my job has been done properly and it will be easy to make the wine.

So Meunier is left somewhere in the middle on this continuum model. For a house like Louis Roederer which has a lot of grand cru vineyard on chalky soils, I see Meunier a bit like Merlot in the Médoc where you need Merlot to bring some light and a smile to the Cabernet Sauvignon, which can be a little bit too austere. It brings a little bit of sunshine into a monotone blend. And I think it is the same with Meunier between Pinot and Chardonnay: Meunier brings a smile, especially if it comes from the Marne Valley. If it comes from the Petite Montagne it brings crispiness like a preserved fruit – something sappy, spicy without much weight but with good fruit.

I’ve heard some people say they are worried the acidity may be relatively low in 2015. Are you concerned?

No, I’m not concerned at all. I think this is a completely wrong vision of champagne, which is quite recent and comes from some oenologists. We have measured the acidity but it does not mean we have a measure of freshness. Acidity is not freshness. We do look for freshness in a wine, of course, but an acidic wine is acidic. I really strongly believe that the source of freshness in champagne is in the dry extract. If you have only acidity and no dry extract you go quickly to oxidation.
Acidity is a wrong vision of champagne. If you look at the history and I draw my conclusion from this history, look at 1928, 1947, 1955, 1959 and 1976. All those were low-acid years but they aged beautifully with a lot of freshness. The key is dry extract measured as phenolic ripeness, total phenolics; it’s all about phenolics. I don’t say you have to have full phenolic ripeness, but you have to reach a point where you can judge visually first, second by tasting the pips and skins and aromatics. When the pips start to be brown and start to be crispy but not bitter, without vegetal flavours, then you are there! Of course you look at the numbers you get from monitoring trials but you have to check and taste everything. In some years in Champagne, phenolic ripeness can come before the sugar is ready!

So do we need better words to use in tasting champagne? You can’t make a note that says ‘great dry extract’.

It is texture. Obviously you are looking for finesse and creaminess in the tactile mousse but the dry extract transposes in a finished champagne, in the drink itself, into the sensation of a persistent density and concentration, a sense of weight without being heavy or dull. Lively and fresh at the same time and very precise and focused. When I do my blending sessions I concentrate only on texture to begin with and then I search to stretch the sensation of texture as long as I can across the palate. It can be boring as well if it is just round and very concentrated, so I have to stretch it in my blend, to make it persistent and to increase in intensity in the mouth. The texture has to magnify, to increase. This is what I am looking for, not just flavours or power but density and a lightness. It’s an oxymoron, but the holy grail is this idea of ‘weightless density’. And this comes back to those who may complain, perhaps in this vintage, about ‘low acidity’. I say, well, you might spend your time doing malolactic fermentation, but you are decreasing acidity that way. We have a perfect opportunity to reduce or stop malolactic in this vintage.

To come back to acidity worries, I look for three things. Malic acid is the most important; I know very precisely where I have to be with the malic acid so as not to be on the green side. The second is pH and the third, very important, is nitrogen in the must. I look at it because it is my way to ensure that the yeast does a proper development. You have 40-70 million of these little organisms per millilitre and to do their job they do not have their complete food, nutrition. This can undo your quality. You need a low level of nitrogen at the beginning to encourage yeasts, with a little stress, to get them to strive and suffer to get them fit like an athlete at the beginning, and with a low temperature too. And then near the end of the race they need some fuel on board to give them the stamina to finish the fermentation.

One last question. Do vintages matter much in Champagne, because most of it does not have a vintage, it is blended, and it is years before we can drink the wines, even more so for those that are vintage champagnes?

I think this is one of the things we need to work on to improve understanding of champagne. My job, nine months out of 12, is to make vintage wines. In the vineyard, I fight against the climate or with the climate, to make the year’s best grapes I can. At the first fermentation we separate everything to make sure the identity of every terroir is preserved. So I spend my time doing ‘vintage’ single-vineyard wines. Without this devotion to terroir it’s impossible to understand how to blend those wines into the Brut Premier. Our Brut Premier NV is the only non-vintage (or ‘multi-vintage’) that we make. All our range apart from that is completely vintage wine. But it is the most complex of all our wines to make. I like very much the image of the painter’s palette; you are presented with some basic colours but you have to mix colours from them in ways that might be slightly different each year according to the vintage, in order to make something completely different.

One final note from Tim: Since I got back from Champagne, the skies opened in the second week of harvest, ending the dry period which had held since May, bar some showers just prior to harvest. Most growers were already well into their picking and it seems that most of the rains, even where substantial, drained quickly on the parched ground and periods of sun followed. And the rain was moderate, if persistent, for a day, rather than torrential. There was no hail. Last Wednesday Lecaillon sent this email about how this affected Louis Roederer: ‘The rain is not a problem as we have done 80% of harvest and the last 20% are usually a little bit behind in ripeness, therefore more "geared" to face the rainfalls. As far as Roederer is concerned, we finished Aÿ last Monday, today Côte des Blancs and Verzenay tomorrow... ‘