Saturday, April 5, 2008

Tasting Vins Clairs at Louis Roederer

I was expecting a lot from my visit to Louis Roederer, since I had already formed a rather high opinion of the 2007 vintage, and I was eager to see the wines from Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, one of the very best chefs de cave in all of Champagne. I love tasting with Lecaillon: first of all, he’s incredibly intelligent and knowledgeable, and I learn more from him in one day than I do in a month on my own; and second, the wines are simply damn good, year after year. Interestingly, Lecaillon has developed a policy of always showing vins clairs in the mid-range of quality—not the best of the cellar, and not the worst. He’s not interested in impressing you with the top wines of the vintage, but rather seeks to show you the average level of quality that the house has achieved that year. In 2007, the level of quality is very, very high.

Lecaillon is justifiably satisfied with the results of 2007, comparing it to 1988 (one of my favorite Roederer vintages of all time). “At first I was a little bit concerned,” he says. “I liked the pinot noir but the chardonnay was lacking a little in concentration.” He notes that the chardonnays stayed very firm and closed after the harvest, and it wasn’t until around January that they began to show their real potential. “In the end I’m very happy. The terroir is very much respected in the wines, and it’s become a very classic vintage, with great purity.”

With 214 hectares of vines at their disposal, Roederer often behaves more like a huge grower than a typical négociant. Their work in the vineyards is equally as impressive as the work in the cellar, and no effort is spared in the quest for quality. As an example of how far they will go, Roederer has even been attempting trials with biodynamic viticulture for the last two years, which has prompted the likes of Taittinger and Moët & Chandon to consider following suit. (So far, Lecaillon has preferred the conventional parcels over the biodynamic ones, but acknowledges that biodynamics takes time, and is committed enough to the idea to expand the original two hectare experiment to five.)

Even with such vast holdings of land, vinification is done parcel by parcel, which gives Roederer maximum flexibility in choosing wines for blending. It also makes it an absolute joy to taste vins clairs here. Many négociants deal with purchased wines, and beyond knowing the name of the village, often have no idea where they really came from or how they were grown. Tasting at Roederer, Lecaillon can tell you the name of the parcel, describe the terroir, detail the viticulture and give you the exact statistics of harvest.

As always, nearly all of the 20 wines that we tasted were from estate-owned vines. The chardonnays were precise and detailed in their expression of terroir, from a firmly structured Avize Le Bourg to a vivid, laser-like Le Mesnil from the sector of Monts Ferrés, a taut and graceful Vertus Les Amandiers to a rich, full-bodied Cramant from the outstanding vineyard of Les Bionnes. One surprising element of the Cramant was that it actually went through malo, which I wouldn’t have suspected if I had tasted it blind. Roederer’s style is based on the absence of malolactic, yet about half of the wines in the 2007 Brut Premier went through malo due to the intense acidity of the vintage—“the highest percentage ever,” says Lecaillon.

Among the pinot noirs, I loved the Verzenay from Les Potences Rochelles, vinified in oak—firm, dense and seamlessly harmonious, it showed how a judicious touch of wood can amplify the depth and complexity of a great cru such as Verzenay, especially in direct comparison with a stainless steel-fermented wine from Les Pisse-Renards, the vineyard just next door to the east. Another wood vs. tank comparison from Verzy demonstrated how different terroirs are treated accordingly: the cooler, north-facing Les Grands Montants was fermented in stainless, showing brisk but subtle red fruit aroma with a classic tension and nervy length. The southeast-facing Les Bayons, on the other hand, was fermented in oak, complementing the naturally richer body of the site and accentuating the spicy, complex minerality characteristic of this sector. With wines like these, it’s no wonder that Lecaillon says, “For me, the Montagne de Reims is the great area of 2007,” a sentiment that I have not heard expressed until now.

Of course, we don’t get to see any of these wines as finished champagne, and a house will ultimately be judged by its blends. I can’t remember ever tasting a Brut Premier blend as vin clair that was as seamlessly elegant and harmonious as this one. The 2007 vintage blend, containing 25 percent oak-fermented wines, already shows a fragrant dimension and aristocratic refinement, while the vintage rosé, based as usual on pinot noir from Cumières, is sleek and lithe, carrying itself like a catwalk model. Naturally it was the Cristal, though, that stole the show—silky, refined and energetic, with complex, subtly layered length, it made me want to drink it as is, even though I know it will be even better as a finished champagne. I can’t wait to see this in bottle.


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