European Winery of the Year - Louis Roederer
Venerable Champagne house makes great wines and can turn a profit.
European Winery of the Year Award
Champagne Louis Roederer is like many others in Reims. An imposing portico with brick and stone pillars and high gates opens onto a long rectangular space surrounded by slate-roofed, brick buildings with high doors on either side. A small brass plate not much larger than a Champagne label at one door discreetly indicates the office and reception area. Once inside, a long corridor leads past offices, an ornate reception room, a tasting room, and the occasional ancestral portrait. Calm and order prevail. From the far distance comes the chink of bottles being filled with one of France's legendary wines.
Roederer is one of Champagne's aristocrats and one of the few major family-owned companies left. It is also one of the most profitable Champagne houses, and the possessor of Cristal, one of the region's most prestigious brands. And it is an expanding company, which now controls a handful of top producers in France and Portugal, as well as its own property in Mendocino County, California.
In a world of multinationally controlled Champagne houses, where famous brands change hands at the stroke of an accountant's pen, it is hard to stay independent and successful, but Roederer has achieved precisely that.
There are many reasons for Roederer's success, but president and managing director Jean-Claude Rouzaud, 63, must be among the most important of them. Inheritor of the family mantle of 19th-century founder Louis Roederer, he is the fifth generation to run the company. And with Jean-Claude's son, Fredric, closely involved since 1996, the family succession is assured.
Seated in his large office overlooking a small private garden, a short walk from the main cellars, Rouzaud emphasizes two things that he believes make a Champagne great. One is to own your source of grapes. That's still rare in Champagne, where many of the biggest names own few, if any, vineyards. Roederer owns 500-plus acres, enough to guarantee 60 percent of its production needs. But Rouzaud would like more, which is why he has announced a plan to increase the vineyards he controls by another 250 acres over seven years. He would achieve this partly by buying land, but also by signing contracts with independent growers.
Don't Compromise on Quality
The other way to keep a Champagne great, says Rouzaud, is not to compromise on quality. He demonstrated this conviction in a most dramatic form just before the millennium. While other producers were pouring Champagne onto the world market, Roederer went the opposite way. Rouzaud decided to increase the aging period of Brut Premier, the nonvintage cuvée. That tied up stock and restricted sales. But in the kind of long-term view that the owners of a family company can take, it increased the overall quality of the company's bestselling Champagne.
Quality is now something that is synonymous with Roederer. For several decades in the mid-20th century, however, that wasn't the case. The company was scarcely profitable; to stay out of the red, it relied on increasing sales of Cristal, the famed Champagne in the clear bottle, created for the czars of Russia. Since Rouzaud's arrival in 1979, production of Cristal has accounted for a smaller portion of the company's sales mix, and more emphasis has been put on the increasingly excellent Brut Premier (which was rated at 92 points by Wine Enthusiast). At the same time, production has been capped at 2.5 million bottles, another move to conserve quality at the expense of quantity.
Quality is controlled rigorously by the Roederer winemaking team, headed by Rouzaud, himself a trained enologist. The current chef de cave is Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, who has been with the company for six years. He is emphatic that Roederer is more than Champagne. "We are in the business of making great wine," he says. "Yes, of course, our Champagne is a deluxe product, but it can only justify its reputation as a deluxe product if it is also a great wine."
Stylistically, Roederer Champagnes are dominated by Pinot Noir; a typical blend is two-thirds Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one-third Chardonnay. They are food wines, on the dry side, and all, especially the vintage Champagnes but also the Brut Premier, age well. That's also true of the company's single exception to red-grape dominance, their Blanc de Blancs.
While Roederer Champagne has been gaining in reputation, the company has reached out to the rest of the wine world. It has done that in two ways, first by focusing on the export market rather than French domestic sales (70 percent of Roederer Champagne is now sold outside France), and second, by buying a select group of wine companies. Over the past 20 years, Roederer has purchased Champagne Deutz and the Rhône still wine producer, Delas Frères. It has purchased two Bordeaux chateaus (de Pez and Haut Beauséjour in Saint-Estèphe), and a Bordeaux négociant, Descaves. In 2004, Roederer bought a controlling interest in Domaines Ott, the legendary Provence rosé producer. Roederer owns Ramos-Pinto, the Douro producer that makes Port and table wines. Roederer also owns some of its own distribution companies in overseas markets, including Maisons Marques & Domaines in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In the early 1980s, Jean-Claude Rouzaud determined that Roederer could, and should, make great sparkling wine outside Champagne. He traveled widely in search of the right spot, eventually settling in Anderson Valley in Mendocino, California. Today, Roederer Estate ranks right at the top of California's sparkling wine producers.
A global player as well as a classic Champagne house: That makes Roederer even more special in the rarified world of family-owned Champagne producers. But there's one thing more, and this is what makes Champagne Roederer Wine Enthusiast's European Winery of the Year for 2005. It is the firm's ability to stay focused on what it does best: Creating great wine, and making money from it. Roederer serves as a fitting representative of a region that often seems tempted to turn itself into luxury-goods supplier rather than wine producer. Long may this family-owned firm survive and prosper.
See the other Wine Enthusiast Wine Star Award Winners.