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Louis Roederer's New Champagnes
By Ed McCarthy
Nov 4, 2014
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Champagne Louis Roederer does not release new Champagnes very often--the last new Roederer Champagne was its first Cristal Rosé, the 1974--and so it’s a big occasion when a new product debuts from this august Champagne House.  Frédéric Rouzard, owner (or as he says, custodian), jokingly said to me in a recent interview that each Rouzard generation releases a new Champagne every 40 years.  As his father, Jean-Claude Rouzard, introduced the Cristal Rosé 40 years ago, it was now Frédéric’s turn.  The Rouzards are direct descendants of Louis Roederer on the maternal side, and so Champagne Louis Roederer is a family-owned business.  The House was founded in 1776 by the Dubois family; Louis Roederer took over in 1833, and changed the house’s name to his own.

I have always thought that there’s a rather special connection between Louis Roederer Champagnes and the U.S., as both were founded n the same year.  And in fact, the U.S. is one of Louis Roederer’s, best markets, especially for its prestige cuvée, Cristal.  In addition, Frédéric Rouzard and Roederer’s renowned Chef de Caves, Jean-Baptist Lecaillon, usually make several trips to the U.S. annually.  In October of this year, both were in New York twice.

The reason for one recent trip to New York for Rouzard and Lecaillon was to introduce their two new Champagnes, actually one entirely new (the Louis Roederer Brut Nature)--and the other a new version of its iconic wine--a late release of 1995 Cristal (the first time Roederer has held back bottles of Cristal for later release).

Frédéric Rouzard’s friend, the French artist Philippe Stark, who designed the label for the new 2006 Brut Nature, was an inspiration for the development of this wine.  In a conversation, Philippe told Frédéric that he only drank Nature (zero dosage) Champagne.

Louis Roederer’s 2006 Brut Nature should be a big success with hardcore Champagne lovers, many of whom prefer very dry Champagnes.  No dosage has been added.  Jean-Baptiste told me that he first tried making this Champagne with a low dosage (2 or 3 grams per liter), which would have made it an Extra Brut, but in the end his team decided that it tasted best with zero dosage, a true “nature.”  The 2006 Brut Nature also has gone though no malolactic fermentation, which should insure that it will stay young and fresh, with good acidity, probably for two decades or more. 

Jean-Baptist Lecaillon and his team decided to source the grapes for the Brut Nature from the Roederer-owned vineyards in Cumières, a Premier Cru village in an excellent part of the Marne Valley, near Epernay.  Lecaillon’s main reason was that the village is known for its intensely flavored Pinot Noir grapes, and his vision for this Champagne was that it should be Pinot Noir-dominant.  The first vintage of Brut Nature, the 2006, is in fact 65 percent Pinot Noir, 25 percent Pinot Meunier, and only 10 percent Chardonnay.  Lecaillon thinks that the Brut Nature will always be 55-65 percent Pinot Noir (for ripeness), 25 percent Pinot Meunier, and 10-20 percent Chardonnay (for elegance). 

Roederer’s Brut Nature will always be a Vintage-dated Champagne, and made only in warm, dry years, such as 2006.  The cool-climate 2008, hailed as a very great vintage in Champagne, will not produce a Brut Nature, according to Lecaillon, because it is not warm and dry enough.  He envisions that 2009 and 2012 are possible future vintages for the Brut Nature.

The 2006 Brut Nature was aged eight years before being released this year, a very long time for aging a Vintage Champagne and more typical of that of prestige cuveés. Most Vintage Brut Champagnes receive four or five years of aging.  Lecaillon wanted to make sure the extremely dry ’06 Brut Nature was ready to drink before it was released, even though, in my opinion, it will only improve with a few more years of aging.

Louis Roederer’s 2006 Brut Nature is extremely dry, of course, but not austere.  It is     medium-bodied, with vibrant fruit flavors and minerality.  It has slightly less pressure (4.5 degrees) than a typical (6 degrees of pressure) Champagne.  Lecaillon suggests that you drink it slightly less cool than other Champagnes, and he strongly suggests that you enjoy it with food.  I agree with the suggestion to drink Roederer’s Brut Nature with food; it is too dry to enjoy on its own.  However, I do really like this Champagne; it is no lightweight bubbly--Roederer does not make lightweights.  This Pinot-dominated, minerally Brut Nature would be ideal with meaty fish and seafood entreés.  And remember, it will age well.  It is currently retailing in the U.S. for about $80 to $85, just $5 to $10 more than Roederer’s standard 2006 Vintage Brut.

I happen to be a San Francisco Giants’ baseball fan.  I have followed this team since I was a young boy, when they were then the New York Giants.  When the Giants won the World Series this year, I celebrated the occasion by drinking a 1995 Cristal--which was resting in my cellar for more than ten years.  I mention this as a prelude to discuss the differences between the ’95 Cristal from my cellar and the late-release ’95 Cristal (temporarily being called “Vinothèque") that Champagne Louis Roederer will be releasing in the latter part of 2015.

The ’95 Cristal Vinothèque has been late-disgorged for 10 years (fours longer than Cristal’s usual disgorgement time) and will be aged on its cork 10 years post-disgorgement by the time of its 2015 release.  The reasons for the longer, late disgorgement period for the soon-to-be released ’95 Cristal Vinothèque is that tastings have proven that late disgorged Champagnes are ready to drink sooner than Champagnes aged in the winery (or a cool cellar) entirely in a corked bottle. 

I have been fortunate enough to taste a pre-release of the ’95 Cristal Vinothèque three times during the past two months, and have formed definite opinions about this exquisite Champagne.  The “readier to drink” factor became clear to me when I tasted the ’95 Cristal from my cellar, aged “on the cork”--not “late-disgorged.”  It was vibrant, thoroughly enjoyable, with the classic, complexity and elegance of Cristal, but still rather youthful.  I’m guessing it can still age for at least another decade without losing its vibrancy.

But the aim of the 1995 Cristal Vinothèque is to be ready to drink upon its release.  My tasting of this Champagne, once in France and twice in the U.S., proved this to me; I was surprised how drinkable and enjoyable it was right now.  For those who want to fully experience Cristal’s greatness as soon as you buy it, the ’95 Cristal Vinothèque is for you.   And it seems to me that most of today’s Champagne drinkers want a Champagne ready to drink now, not a Champagne that will be at its best with years of aging.

Both the 1995 Cristal aged in my cellar and the late release 1995 Cristal Vinothèque had many qualities in common:  They both had terrific depth and complexity, elegance, and a very long, concentrated finish.   I served my ’95 Cristal at about 45°F., which is my preference.  The French prefer their Champagnes a bit warmer; I would estimate that the 1995 Cristal Vinothèque was served at about 52-53 °F.  That could be another reason that my ’95 Cristal tasted considerably younger than the 1995 Cristal Vinothèque.

Louis Roederer’s Cristal Vinothèque program is a very good idea, because I suspect that very few Champagne drinkers have older bottles of Cristal in their cellars.  And many, I am sure, have seldom had the pleasure of drinking mature bottles of Cristal, at its best.  In my opinion, Cristal is one of the greatest Champagnes in the world.

Cristal Vinothèque will be available in magnum as well.  Frédéric Rouzard informed me that there are no plans yet to expand the Cristal Vinothèque program to Cristal Rosé.  At any rate, Cristal Rosé makes up only 5% of the Cristal production of around 400,000 bottles annually (except in poor vintages, when Cristal is not produced).

Cristal is made from practically all Grand Cru Louis Roederer-owned vineyards, and is typically 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, depending on the vintage.  Lecaillon relates that both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay used for Cristal come from chalky soils--the Chardonnay from Roederer’s vineyards on the fabled Côte des Blancs.  Lecaillon believes that the greatest Champagne grapes need chalky, limestone soils to be at their best.

Cristal is always very complexly flavored, and stresses elegance and balance rather than power.  If you buy a young vintage of Cristal (both the 2005 and 2006 are currently available in many U.S. shops), you will spend around $200 and not really experience the greatness of Cristal, which comes only with aging.  I suggest the 2009.  This is the reason that the late release 1995 Cristal Vinothèque is such a good idea.

Any Louis Roederer Champagne is of high quality.  I am especially fond of the Roederer Vintage Brut Rosé (the 2008 is fantastic) and the Roederer Vintage Blanc de Blancs--so delicious!  But if you like really dry Champagnes, I urge you to try Roederer’s new 2006 Brut Nature.  And for a real special occasion treat, try the 1995 Cristal Vinothèque when it makes its appearance in 2015.