The five Champagnes produced by Louis Roederer. Picture by Ed Alcock for The New York Times

Back in 1996, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, 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 Roederer 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.

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.

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. Picture by Ed Alcock for The New York Times.

Looking to the future

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. 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.

“We always knew terroir, but we didn’t use to speak of it...Thirty years ago, the subject was house style. Today, that’s not the question. Everybody wants to talk about terroir.” Lécaillon says.

Terroir and farming are of prime concern to Lécaillon, 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 fertilizers, developed techniques for training the roots downward and began trials for both organic and biodynamic viticulture.

The cellars of Louis Roederer, the major Champagne house, in Reims, France. Picture by Ed Alcock for The New York Times.

The vineyards today

Biodynamic viticulture was gaining popularity in the 1990s among vignerons, particularly in Burgundy, where renowned producers like Domaine Laflaive and others swore by it.

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

“After four or five years we were 100 percent able to identify the wines from biodynamic soils,” he says.

Now, Roederer has more than 250 acres that are either biodynamic or organic, depending on the vintage. Each vineyard block, 410 in total, is vinified separately and can then be blended as desired.

New York Times