JB Lécaillon – The Big Interview (Part 2)

He is the face of Champagne Roederer and is now responsible for his 35th vintage at the Maison in 2023. On the occasion of a master class in Hamburg on the new "Collection" series, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon gave Sur-la-pointe.com an extensive exclusive interview. In the second part, he explains why Roederer does not invest in vineyards in southern England, talks about modern Chefs de Cave and appeals to our future capability.

6 mins read
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon (right) and Stefan Pegatzky

SLP: You said the phrase last year: “The new Champagne is defined by terroir.” Can you explain that?

JBL: We know that the future in Champagne will be determined by the change in climate. So we have to look for what is stable. And that is, of course, our soil. The closer you are to the soil, the terroir, the more Champagne will be expressed. That’s why I planted new vineyards in high density, the opposite of what a lot of people do, they look for lower density. I go higher now, I do the other way round. Because I think it’s the soil that will give us the future, not the climatic conditions. So, I think it’s a question of where you look from.

But doesn’t the climate crisis present us with enormous challenges?

One more time, you can embrace the new conditions or fight against them. Both are completely different mindsets. If you embrace it, you are not fearful, you are not worried, you are taking your opportunities. If you are anxious, you look in the wrong direction. But in the moment, many people are anxious and don’t always make good decisions. The diversity of our macro-climates gives me a lot of confidence. I can look for some north-facing slopes, and these can be clay, sand or chalk. And I can experiment with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. I’m now replanting some Petit Meslier, Arbanne, even Pinot Gris, to get the full diversity. Then I use my vines obtained through mass selection. All that is a pleasure, all that terroir. What I put in terroir is soil, soil dynamics and plant memory.

What I put in terroir is soil, soil dynamics and plant memory

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

That is the large topic: Where do I put the seven grape varieties? Because our sélection massale are the vines that have gradually adapted to the site and climate. They are selected over time, they developped a plant memory. So there is a memory of what we have done. And there is resilience in this memory. Plants have resilience as well. So if we want the future of Champagne to be stylistically more Champagne, we have to dig deep into the soil and into the memory of the plants. If we do that, the climate issue will be buffered and mitigated. That’s why I think the future is terroir.

Last year you announced the Rosé Vintages as Late Releases. When will they come on the market?

I will make an announcement about that next year, I have changed a few things, more about that in 2024.

You are one of the very few houses not to offer a standard Rosé. Will that change?

No, not at the moment.

Southern England as an alternative?

Some Maisons are looking for expansion opportunities in the UK. Is the South of England also interesting for you as a possible location?

We had a look around there. I was in the UK quite a few times 20 years ago. But we decided against it for a few reasons. One was: the distance between Champagne and Sussex is 300 kilometres straight line. To make a real difference climatically in the long term, that’s not enough. Maybe in the short term, but if the vineyards in Sussex are 30 years old, it will also be too warm there. If anything, you’d have to go to Sweden or Scotland.

I see the future of Champagne not in escaping the conditions but in embracing them. The terroir of Champagne is so powerful. We have the best terroir for wine in the world in Champagne. To be clear:  We have both chalk and clay and we are on the largest underground water reservoir in Europe. The Seine and the Marne flow through the region. And then we have these slopes that form a perfect shelter against the wind. There are not many locations like this in the world, maybe the Côte de Beaune and one or two others.

So you have no reason to look elsewhere?

I think we have to look in the right direction. The climate is a thread, a risk, but it can only push you to look deeply at your roots and the strength of your terroir. Terroir is the answer. So instead of going on a wine making journey a few hundred kilometres away, we decided to stick to Champagne. We have been in Champagne for seven generations and we believe the future is bright. Don’t forget that in the Middle Ages, Champagne was called the Burgundy of the North. So, it could become the Burgundy of the North again. Maybe in 100 years we will do something else, but however, we adapt.

The second answer is: We make very good sparkling wine in California. I used to make very good sparkling wine in Tasmania. And there will be some great sparkling wines in the UK as well. But it will never be Champagne. Because: Champagne is Champagne. It’s not just a brand, this terroir is just amazing. I haven’t seen anywhere else such balance, such concentration and freshness at the same time, whatever the vintage. But apart from that, we always look around in other regions, not only to make sparkling wine.

The hype around the cellar masters

Champagne is on the move. Traditional houses are changing hands, cellar masters are being traded like football coaches…

Yes, it’s funny. Today there are Chefs de cave who have never sold their own wines. They spend five years in one house and then move on to another. By the time their wines come on the market, they are already somewhere else. So, they only promote the wines of their predecessors. Today there are two different kinds of cellar masters. Those who make the wine, who are also in the vineyard and work with the teams. And then, more recently, there are those who are actually more there for communication, for external presentation. They spend more time on planes than in Champagne.

I think the latter have less attachment with the wines and with the house they work for. If you are very involved in the wine production, if you care about the wine, then you are loyal, because it’s your wine, the wine is at your heart, it’s your baby. But if your thing is more the communication, the marketing, then you are not so attached to it. But some houses want exactly that, because it’s about a certain image, and that’s often the safer decision for them. My successor – who I hope will be my successor – has already worked with me for 20 years. And he will take over my job in a good 10 years. He will then be Chef de cave for 10 to 15 years. So, I have already hired the next generation to prepare the further succession.

Champagne and markets

Let’s move on to the markets, the first figures for the first quarter of 2023 are available. Observers expect availability problems for some Champagnes in France.

Roederer has always been export-oriented. Export has a 75 per cent share, France 25 per cent. But we don’t want to reduce that, it is important to be in France. Last year, we did not increase sales like many colleagues did. We could have sold 20 per cent more, but we said no for quality reasons. In Italy, we had to stop selling Roederer for a month three times, and then there was no bottle available. Now there is an allocation again.

But the French market is specific, in that it is close to the German market. Supermarkets play an important role. Many Champagnes, especially entry-level cuvées, are very strong here. But they are the first to suffer from inflation. So, when you look at the French figures, you have to look first at the supermarket share, and that is shrinking at the moment for sure. On the other hand, if you look at C.H.R., the restaurants and nice bottle shops, I think the market is even growing in France. But because of the overwhelming importance of the supermarkets, the result is a decline in total. So conclusion is difficult, because Champagne is such a diverse product. What we learn from this is that the clientele is changing. During Covid, internet sales boomed. 2022 is a strange year, the Americans called it “a revenge”, they bought everything, at any price. 2023 to date shows more reasonable. We are coming back to a pre-Covid logic for sales and entering a new post-Covid era. What the behaviour will be in a few years, we will see in two years, it is very hard to say.

Looking to the future

But isn’t luxury generally under a lot of pressure? It is not only in France that we are experiencing social unrest. This year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Triangle of Sadness”, in which a luxury yacht sinks, was widely interpreted as an allegory of the end of our Western lifestyle.

We live in a time where people are anxious. Everyone is super worried. But I think we have a duty to change things. We cannot let the young generation grow up in these conditions. I can’t imagine 14- or 16-year-olds growing up in a world with so much pressure, no vision, no future … We need to build strength and resilience. I am a farmer, so I know how to deal with disasters. On 2 July 2002, we lost most of our vineyards in the Montagnes de Reims to a hailstorm. But humans are stronger than that.

We should be positive. We don’t know where we are going, maybe some things will collapse, but from the collapse a new model will grow. There was 1789 and 1968, history always consists of such events. But it is not the end of the world, it is the beginning of a new one. So, let’s be in the best part of the future. And that’s what it’s all about: How to be in the best part of the future without knowing the future.

[The interview took place on 12 July at the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg and was edited by Stefan Pegatzky. You can read the first part of the interview here.]

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© Stefan Pegatzky/Time Tunnel Images

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