Sunday, September 21, 2008

Le Vendange Chez Louis Roederer

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer, invited me to join him on Friday for a peek at Roederer’s presshouses in Aÿ and Avize during the harvest. Roederer owns 214 hectares of vines in the Côte des Blancs, the Grande Vallée de la Marne and the Montagne de Reims, and they also press about 50 additional hectares of grapes purchased from various growers. Each of Roederer’s parcels, as well as most of the growers’ parcels, if they are of sufficient size, are not only pressed separately but vinified separately as well, meaning that the entire operation has to be very highly organized from start to finish.

So far, Lecaillon is extremely pleased with 2008. “I am very confident and relaxed about this vintage,” he says. “We’ve had warm days, around 20 degrees in the afternoon, which allows for sufficient ripening of the grapes, and the nights have been cool, preventing the spread of rot. The cool nights are like natural refrigeration, keeping the grapes healthy and stable. This morning it was down to four degrees, which was perfect for the grapes.”

Lecaillon typically schedules the harvest over about 12 to 14 days, collecting data from each parcel to determine the optimum picking time. “In deciding when to pick,” he says, “I look for two factors: sugar, for the ripeness, and malic acidity, which we want to be present but not too high, as we typically don’t allow the malolactic in our wines. Ideally you want a balance of these two things. This year we are perfectly on target, with sugar around 10.5 degrees on average, and malic acidity around 4.5 to five in Aÿ and maybe 5.5 in Avize.”

Roederer uses traditional Coquard vertical presses to press their pinot noir in Aÿ, and in fact the work is nearly identical to what I saw at René Geoffroy the other day, except that here there are five presses instead of two, three forklifts instead of one, and maybe three or four times as many people involved. There’s a sense of urgency as the grapes come in, as the goal is to get them into the press as rapidly as possible in order to prevent oxidation, and so the forklifts fly madly about to shuttle the pallets in, while other people toss the bins into the presses as quickly as they can. At this facility they press all of the Roederer pinot noir from Cumières to Bouzy, and after the must has settled for 15 to 24 hours, the juice is sent to the cellars in Reims for fermentation.

The house’s 80 hectares of Côte des Blancs chardonnay are pressed in Avize, which has a distinctly different atmosphere. Here there are also five presses, but they are modern, pneumatic ones rather than the old traditional type, due to the different requirements for pressing chardonnay. “Pinot noir needs to be pressed very slowly and very gently,” says Lecaillon, “and for that we always use a vertical press. But chardonnay needs a more dynamic pressing.” Although he explained why, the reason for this only became clear to me upon actually putting the grapes into my mouth. The skins of pinot noir are slightly thicker, and the pulp juicier: when you bite into a pinot noir grape, the juice readily explodes into your mouth. Chardonnay, on the other hand, has a firmer, more textural pulp, and feels more pulpy than juicy. You have to work just slightly harder to extract the juice in your mouth, and so it makes sense that it would fare better with a different type of press, too.

Roederer is scrupulous about cataloguing each and every bin of grapes that comes through the presshouse. Upon arriving, each pallet of grapes is weighed and analyzed for potential alcohol and acidity, and given one of three ratings: Beau, Standard or Inférieur. This is done for Roederer’s grapes as well as those of the growers, and after the harvest Lecaillon will pay a bonus to those growers who achieved exceptionally high quality, rewarding those who opted for quality over sheer quantity. Ideally, he looks for an average potential alcohol of slightly over ten degrees, and this was largely achieved this year, which is surprising to me considering the lousy weather we had over the summer.

We had a leisurely lunch at the presshouse in Avize (and yes, I am a disgustingly lucky bastard, as that is a bottle of the rare and unbelievably sublime 2002 Cristal Rosé that he is opening for us to drink in this photo), and then took a drive around the area to look at some vineyards. “We believe up until now that this is more of a pinot noir year,” says Lecaillon. “The chardonnay is nice, but a little behind.” At the same time, he’s been very pleased with selected parcels of chardonnay as well. “I’m wondering if the Avize will be the best this year,” he says. “There’s a beautiful acidity in the Avize, and a very good balance.” I could have shown you photos of Roederer’s biodynamically-grown vines in Les Robarts in Avize, or of beautifully healthy and tasty chardonnay grapes in Le Mesnil Monts Martin. It would have been great to include photos of Bonotte-Pierre-Robert in Aÿ, another biodynamic parcel that is used to make Cristal Rosé, and of the tiny, concentrated pinot noir berries there that pop in your mouth with deliciously elegant and vibrant flavor (and that really do taste like Cristal). But because I am an idiot, I forgot to recharge the batteries in my camera the night before, and so my camera rendered itself completely useless shortly after taking the photo below, of one of Roederer’s harvesting teams in Chemin de Châlons in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.

Roederer has a third presshouse in Verzenay, which is used to press their grapes from the northern Montagne de Reims, but Lecaillon chose to wait until this weekend to begin picking there, even though the official start date for Verzenay was Thursday. The grapes are healthy and are continuing to increase in sugar, and with our gorgeous weather right now he can afford to be calm. “History shows that you gain more often by waiting than by starting too early,” he says. “We don’t have to rush.”

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