As the creator of Cristal, Louis Roederer produces the world’s most fêted champagne. Luxury London talks to President and CEO Frédéric Rouzaud about brand image, climate change and how he’s never paid for celebrity endorsement
Made first for the Russian tsar Alexander II in 1876, Louis Roederer’s Cristal is undoubtedly the most iconic champagne on the market today. Its striking label, wrapped in golden cellophane, is an obligatory sight at any A-list event, not least the wedding of Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter Tamara, who reportedly demanded more bottles than Louis Roederer could supply.
The tsar was certainly bowled over by Roederer Champagne – in 1873, more than 25 per cent of the firm’s entire production was delivered to the Court of Alexander II. He subsequently requested a special cuvée (blend) in 1876, an intensely sweet champagne that was presented in a special bottle of clear crystal, which, ironically, proved unviable in the longer term as it could not withstand the considerable pressure. However, the Russian Revolution threw a major spanner in the works, and no Cristal was made between 1917 and 1927. It was matriarch Camille Olry-Roederer who resurrected the champagne, taking the bold decision to commercialise Cristal in 1928, and promote it outside the confines of royal households.
Yet today this licence to print money is a sensitive topic at the brand’s headquarters, particularly when it’s suggested that celebrity association has been the overriding key to its success. “It’s important to emphasise that Louis Roederer has never paid for celebrity endorsement,” says owner Frédéric Rouzaud. “Of course, ever since the days of the tsar, Cristal has been a favourite of the aristocracy, but it’s the outstanding quality that has been key to its success, not our celebrity friends – if the quality wasn’t there, people would have stopped buying it long ago.”
Indeed, sat in the magnificent château of the Rouzaud family – now used for entertaining guests – one detects a total absence of bling, rather a seriousness and devotion to their work. Rouzaud’s right-hand man, chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, considers himself a “custodian of the soil”, and appears almost blissfully indifferent to the ‘fuss’ surrounding the brand.
“People think of Cristal as the first prestige cuvée, when in actual fact it’s the first terroir wine of Champagne,” says Lecaillon. “My predecessor selected over 50 plots of the best vineyards as the raw materials for Cristal, a formula which remains unchanged today. Cristal is about quality first and foremost – the marketing comes second.”
Listening thoughtfully, Rouzaud nevertheless concedes that the lure of Cristal today is still overwhelmingly the brand’s prestigious image, which is a tragedy as Cristal is one of the finest wines on earth. Yet one cannot deny its long history as an object of desire for the rich and famous – Rouzaud’s infamous interview with The Economist in 2006 is still talked about today. Asked whether Cristal’s association with the “bling lifestyle” might sully the brand, Rouzaud replied: “That’s a good question. But what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it.” Cue a well-publicised boycott by rapper Jay-Z, and accusations of racism on the part of Roederer’s then managing director.
Nevertheless, it is clear that this historic house is keen to distance Cristal from the bling, and further emphasise the quality of what goes into every bottle. “People’s idea of luxury has changed in recent times; today people want authenticity, roots, truth and quality,” says Rouzaud. To that end, Roederer launched a new version of the brand – Cristal Vinothèque – in October 2017. The inaugural vintage is 1995 – a champagne that has been aged for 20 years in the Roederer cellars. He also believes that champagne is “increasingly finding its rightful place at the dinner table,” rather than its traditional role as a celebratory tipple.
“One of the hallmarks of fine wine is an ability to age for many decades – something Cristal does effortlessly and gracefully,” says Lecaillon. “We launched this late-disgorged edition to further promote Cristal’s fine wine credentials, in the hope that people will perceive it less and less as a bling brand, and more and more as a fine wine.”
Interested buyers, however, should take note that just 48 bottles of brut are going to the UK, while a mere 400 bottles will be released worldwide, adding a certain poignancy to Roederer’s executive vice-president, Michel Janneau’s comment that there will be just “a dusting of wine in each market.”
The launch of Cristal Vinothèque is the latest in a long series of initiatives planned by sixth-generation Frédéric Rouzaud – unlike most other major champagne firms, Louis Roederer has remained under family control. It has been making superlative champagne for well over a century, although it started life as Dubois Père et Fils, a textile business, in 1760. Of course, there have been setbacks: the Russian Revolution of 1917 dealt a serious blow to its business with the tsar, while the new regime had no intention of paying his outstanding bills.
“Each new generation wants to do things differently from their parents and leave their mark on the business; I’m no different in this respect,” laughs Rouzaud. “I have many gradual changes planned at the house – we’re very interested in acquiring a property in Burgundy in the coming years, for example.” The owners have certainly been brilliant and savvy investors, which is exemplified by the purchase of Bordeaux estate, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, in 2006.
But business acumen and historical pedigree aside, just what makes Louis Roederer so widely admired by connoisseurs today? The house is unusual for a number of reasons, not least the fact that it owns more than 210 hectares of vineyards. This ensures that the grapes for Cristal and the vintage expressions come entirely from Roederer’s own land, something of a rarity in Champagne. Winemaker Lecaillon then selects only the finest grapes from his best plots to make Cristal – the high price being asked for a bottle permits a ruthless degree of selection, and no other champagne receives as much meticulous care and attention as Cristal.
“At this champagne house, it all goes back to the land, despite the undeniable celebrity association that has helped to promote Cristal,” says Rouzaud.
He continues: “We’re essentially farmers. That’s it. Terroir preservation is everything for us: we recently ceased using herbicides and are now the largest owner of organically farmed vineyards in Champagne. In addition, we are increasingly farming a portion of our total vineyard area bio-dynamically and intend to farm more in the coming years.”
Of course, it would be easy to cynically dismiss such ‘good life’ sentiments as yet more marketing shenanigans, until one raises the topic of global warming and climate change. Here, both Rouzaud and Lecaillon are in complete agreement: “One of the biggest challenges now facing the champagne industry is managing the effects of climate change,” they chorus.
Lecaillon cites the 2013 vintage as a taste of the challenges that may lie head, a year that threw every conceivable viticultural nightmare at grape growers: unseasonably late and uneven flowering, summer storm/hail damage and vine diseases all reared their ugly heads.
“There is no doubt that coping with the vicissitudes of climate change is now one of our top priorities,” says Lecaillon. “That’s why we’ve invested so much time and effort in the vineyards. A healthy vine in balance, [which is easier to achieve when effecting biodynamic practices] is the best way to deal with climate change and what it may throw at us.” Champagne’s regulatory body, the Comité Champagne, would appear to agree – it has invested considerable sums into researching and anticipating the possible negative consequences of climate change.
“The Champagne region was the first wine-growing region to collectively appreciate the need to address the global climate challenge over 13 years ago. We are dedicated to constantly building on our region-wide environmental initiatives to ensure champagne’s sustainability for future generations,” said Thibaut le Mailloux, director of communications at Comité Champagne. In the meantime, any long-time devotee of Roederer cannot deny that its considerable range of champagnes are on unparalleled form today – from the Rosé to the Blanc de Blancs, this family never misses a trick.
However, connoisseurs have always understood the simple truth of Roederer, which is that the NV Brut Premier is the real star, an exceptional champagne available at less than £40. Of course, it comes with fewer bragging rights than Cristal, but discerning sybarites have never been interested in making a scene in a club. They buy for pleasure, not for attention, something that Roederer offers in generous abundance.