JB Lécaillon – The Big Interview (Part 1)

He is the face of Champagne Louis Roederer. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon is both cellar master and ambassador of the renowned Maison from Reims. On the occasion of a master class in Hamburg on the new "Collection" series, he gave Sur-la-pointe.com an extensive exclusive interview. In the first part, JBL explains his special role at Roederer and why you have to embrace climate change.

7 mins read

SLP: You are Chef de cave of Maison Roederer, but also its Executive Vice President at the same time. That is unique in Champagne. What does that mean in concrete terms?

JBL: First of all, I’m Chef de cave and in charge of the vineyards, that is very important. In 1999, we had decided at Roederer to take a new step, we wanted [the prestige cuvée] Cristal to be crafted in the vineyards, so I needed to get control of the vineyards. At that time, no Chef de cave was in control of the vineyards. Now, there are some. But it is still very separated. Normally the Vineyard Manager and the Chef de cave don’t speak except at harvest time, that’s when they need to craft in the vineyards. But when Frédéric Rouzaud took over from his father, Jean-Claude [Rouzaud] wanted to have two strong positions. He created the Vice-President-position, with Frédréric as President, family owner and CEO. As Vice-President, I’m in charge of the production side and all the family՚s estates.

Responsibility beyond the Champagne

Château Pichon-Comtesse belongs to the Roederer Group since 2006.

I supervise Pichon-Comtesse, Ramos-Pinto in Portugal, Domaines Ott in Provence and all the Californian Estates. Deutz still is a little bit distant, we are getting closer now. But when I say “supervise”, I should better say “coach”. Because that’s what it is all about, getting the spirit of the Roederer-Group into a team of Winemakers and Vineyard Managers. Two weeks ago, for example, I did a family reunion in California with all the Winemakers and all Wine Directors of the wineries of the family. This is part of my duty to put as many projects of today, and maybe the future as well, on the table. Where we want to go, what are the next steps for the winemaking and the wine, we want to make, and to train and help the team to be at its best.

So, this Vice-Presidency is quite important, I have this executive position that makes me more, how to say, “officially convincing” [laughs]. It’s rare, it’s original. Vice-Presidency means more than Champagne; my role is to go beyond Champagne. If I would have stayed in Champagne, I would have stayed Chef de cave and Vineyard Manager, to focus on production side. But I have been very much involved in the development of the company since the beginning. When I joined Roederer at 1989, my job was to look after the development of the company. All the acquisitions since that time, Ramos Pinto, de Pez, that was my job. And I take care of them all, I’m lucky enough to know every single vine of all the wineries.

The new Collection series

You replaced your standard Brut Premier Champagne with the numbered Collection two years ago. What was the reason for this?

Let’s say the beginning of the idea was climate change. How can we insure, that we build the best possible blend in a climate change condition? And with the first four test editions of Collection, it was about to find “the new freshness”. We have less acidity now, so we have to find a new freshness. It took me four years to understand it. Something other than acidity had to replace it. It’s about malolactic fermentation, phenolics, dosage, pressure, many things. Once, you have ensured this new freshness, which is not acidity anymore, we should say: This is the new old freshness, because that was the freshness a hundred years ago. The released editions 242, 243 and now 244 are the second chapter of Collection, which I would call “In Pursuit of Finesse”.

244 could be the third chapter, but I put it in Chapter 2, because I think, we have this very elegant mousse here. That was the challenge: We have to make our wines the same time large enough, fresh enough, and also elegant, and I think 244 has all the three elements, very good balanced. We feel it is about concentration and elegance, with a salty finish. When you drink a glass of wine, you want another one. It is not too big, it’s in balance. All of that is in 244. And it has this amazing texture, this finesse, what we are looking for. It is held, of course, by vintage 2019, which is a very gifted vintage, but if we are looking at 245, 246, 247, which we have already made, it is going in a good direction.

Embracing climate change

You use the crisis in your favour, so to speak …

The full idea is to assume and embrace climate change, that is the real reason of Collection. In the face of climate change, you can have two positions: The first is to fight against it, because you don’t want things to change. But it’s a lost battle. Because you will never make the same wines like in the 70s. Too many people today try to harvest early, underripe, to keep the acidity. But if you look at the acid levels of the seventies and eighties, I think they are making a mistake. Because they lose the balance, the finesse. These wines are tighter, harder, some of them are burning. They are “green” in fact, with a green acidity, even when malolactic fermentation is made. So you need to embrace climate change and adapt your winemaking and your philosophy to the new conditions.

By the way, I am convinced, that what we are doing now is closer to what was made in the Forties, in terms of Champagne style, then what was made in the 70s. Less steel, more oak, riper grapes, lower yields, more concentration, more length. The new freshness is the old freshness. We are coming back to the DNA of Champagne. It’s a great opportunity, not only in Champagne, because our reputation comes from these years, not from the 70s.

We are coming back to the DNA of Champagne.

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

That is a great opportunity for my generation, that we can write a new page. It’s not about copying the 70s or 80s, we are creating the future of Champagne. And we are writing it now. For us, Collection is the last step, we have done it with Cristal, with Brut Nature, with all our wines which are all redirected. And Brut Premier was not. It was still printed in the past, in the 70s and 80s. With Collection, we bring Brut Premier in the world of contemporary Champagne, making the wines of today and the wines of tomorrow.

When it comes to Champagne, traditionally not only culture and production are important issues, but also distribution. Roederer has distribution teams and partners all over the world – and for them the Brut Premier was the most important product. On the occasion of the change to Collection, there will have been many discussions. Now about two years have passed, are you satisfied?

Yes, overall, it’s a great success. 90 per cent of the feedback was positive. In fact, there are two dimensions: There is the consumer, and there is the distribution. Of course, we have to train all of our salesforce to speak about wine and not about brand anymore. When you speak about Brut Premier, you speak about the brand. This is constant branding, this is constant style, it is always the same. When you talk about Collection, you need to speak about the blend. Each wine is different. Therefore, you need to introduce the wine dimension in your speech. And the future of Champagne is clearly more gastronomy. So, if you want to be in that direction of being more gastronomic, you need to have more wine discussion.

Goodbye to the constant style

With the Brut Premier it always went the same way: 40 % Pinot Noir, 40 % Chardonnay, 20 % Pinot Meunier. Then you stopped there. When you have the vintage, you just said, this is 2015, 2013, then you had at least the Prestige Cuvée. But there was no wine discussion, you have only a branding-celebration. So, my task was to lead the distribution team towards a wine discussion. That was the challenge. At the beginning, this was a bit hard. We had to explain a lot. I spend one full year to explain all our salesforce, what we will do. Then there is the consumer. We still have some Brut Premier followers left, and that’s no problem. But we don’t compare the same wine. It is to explain to the market, what we are doing. To the client. When you speak about wine with most of them, it does work. Because in the end, they understand, that 244 is different to 243.

Enthusiasts can drink 243 now, keep 242 another year and 244 for two years. Some restaurants in Japan have the three Champagnes on their wine list. The Sommelier says: Ah, you want an aperitif, so go for 242. 243 is more versatile, it fits better for the meal. This is exciting. But it’s a lot of work. And I’m the one in the company who decides on the mode of explanation, not the marketing. With 242 we explained a lot, with 243 we were more modest. Now comes 244, which we are currently communicating. So that people have the full story. After that, it gets easier. And we must not forget, we are not alone. There are Jacquesson, Krug Éditions, Lanson Création Black. And I talk a lot in Champagne, many more are coming.

Doesn’t the Collection compete with the Vintages?

It’s another Story. The Vintages now come from one place. 2019 is 100 Percent Verzy Pinot Noir. Avize is since 2009 100 % Chardonnay, Rosé comes from Cumières. So, I’m narrowing the Vintage Champagnes to a single village. With Collection I’m not talking about a single village, I have the full climatic expression of Champagne. I’m talking about the macro-climate of Champagne. Vintage is meso-climate, like a lens. The same with Brut Nature, the Single Vineyards and more to come − that’s for the future. Finally, Nano-Climate: Cristal is about the ground, the chalk. So, in our portfolio, you come from the whole Champagne, to village- and plot-expression to the underground. That has no competition.

[The interview took place on 12 July at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg and was edited by Stefan Pegatzky. In the second part, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon talks about the terroir of Champagne, diffrent types of Chefs de cave and why Roederer will not invest in the UK].

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(c) Stefan Pegatzky/Time Tunnel Images

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