Winemakers sometimes like to claim that their particular discipline – red, white, fortified, sweet – is the most difficult of all. In the case of Champagne, they have a point. A Champagne chef de cave (indeed, the maker of any traditional-method sparkling wine) first has to make the base wine from different parcels of grapes; then he or she has to blend those parcels; and then predict the wine’s character when it has undergone a second fermentation in bottle and comes with additional bubbles.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer, is a master blender, and over an exhilarating 24 hours I join him as part of a small group initiated into the complex science – or is it art? – of blending base wines for Champagne. Not just any Champagne, mind you, but Roederer’s flagship cuvée, Cristal.
In a chilly tasting room just before Easter, we taste through 25 vins clairs from different parcels of vines across the region. Vin clair, also called base wine, is bracingly acidic and decidedly lacking in bubbles. Its rapier-sharp acidity is not for the uninitiated. Luckily, the ripe fruit harvested in the 2018 vintage means this tasting is unusually kind to our teeth. Lécaillon demonstrates how the subtle differences between vineyard parcels are drawn out, as we taste and tweak the blend. Each plot is harvested separately, and each one is vinified in its own tank. In total, there are some 410 parcels of vines spread over 240 hectares, more than half of which are organic or biodynamically farmed. Roederer is blessed with far more of its own estate fruit than most houses. Only the Brut Premier comes from bought-in fruit; every other cuvée comes from the same selection of plots year after year.
Normally, 45 plots are set aside for the production of Cristal, which was originally made for Tsar Alexander II in 1876 and has been commercially produced since 1945. The art of the blend is not about the multi-vintage manipulation of reserve wines; it’s about the interplay between these plots. Like an infinitely complicated jigsaw, every piece is meticulously fitted into place, Lécaillon and his team of six winemakers tasting 35 wines a day from December to April. The team is always the same: ‘They taste in such different ways, it allows for true balance in the creation of the wine,’ Lécaillon says. This year, 2018, is exceptional – so much so that 57 plots went into Cristal, with slightly more Chardonnay (43%) than usual.
Once the blend is finalised, it begins its long evolution until final bottling and release. It will undergo many changes as it ferments then ferments again in bottle, before undergoing a long maturation on its lees. Today’s work will not be ready for proper assessment for at least 10 years.
Lécaillon is chiefly a scientist, exhaustively researching everything from clone DNA and yeast populations to bubbles, pressure and dosage. But science is just part of it. It’s only through understanding the chemistry and biology of their material that winemakers can add the final, unquantifiable touch. ‘We couldn’t work without statistics and analysis,’ he says. ‘But balance and harmony are a feeling.’
The ancient art of blending has always been key to the creation of great wine, whisky and brandy. From Bordeaux to Islay to Cognac, the goal is always to achieve balance and harmony between the disparate elements, to make something more than the sum of the respective parts. But nowhere is the blending of artisanship and science more apparent than in Champagne. Watching Lécaillon at work is like watching a conductor, or a painter finessing his canvas – it’s a virtuoso performance.