Louis Roederer and Champagne go way back. The original French estate, set in the heart of the Champagne region in Reims, is the same age as the United States.
The label’s most recognizable work is almost certainly Cristal, the glitzy Champagne that’s enjoyed significant cameos in countless pop music videos. You know, the one that comes with its own matching bag and box or in a bedazzled 3-liter vessel for $3,500. Per the stereotype, it’s often poured frivolously next to stacks of cash and club-goers swaying in slow motion.
Today, it’s one of the leading producers of both Old World and New World bubbly. Roederer makes a family of Champagnes back home and, as of the early 1980s, a line of sparkling wines from near the Mendocino Coast of California. For generations, the producer has garnered industry respect for sidestepping norms for quality and environmental concerns. Such maneuvers involve everything from meticulously studied vineyard rows that emphasize detail and vintage variation (rows that they own as oppose to merely source from) to taking on practices that, while more expensive, are easier on Mother Nature.
The recent release of the 2012 Cristal was Roederer’s first made from fruit farmed according to biodynamics. As of late last year, half of the label’s vineyards were farmed in such a way, with the rest being organic. The label has been quite vocal about the move, saying that the sustainably minded viticultural approach is the future of Champagne. It’s been reported that Roederer hasn’t used herbicide since 2000.
You’d have to be a fly on the wall in the company’s offices to actually know what’s driving the farming approach. At the very least, Roederer is saying the right things. The brand claims the farming techniques are entirely the byproduct of global warming and an interest in more flavorful wines, not some trend. In Champagne, it’s still very much a minority move, with an estimated 2-3% of the acreage farmed biodynamically. This makes a very visible producer like Roederer taking that plunge all the more important.
Seven generations on, Roederer continues to innovate with a large slice of the industry observing and taking note. The company is looking into electrical farm equipment and has entertained some of the more out-there ideas, such as more than a decade ago when Roederer took seriously the idea of aging wine underwater. Their famous Cristal? It’s set to be fully Biodynamic later this year (although you’d never really know it as the brand don’t plan to advertise such a thing on the label).
Caleb Ganzer is a sommelier based in New York. Before becoming wine director and managing partner at La Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, he was a somm at lauded restaurant Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. In 2017, he was named “sommelier of the year” by Food & Wine.
“Roederer as a house has a solid job both positioning itself in the market and making good wine — the easiest way to keep street cred in the business,” says Ganzer.
“It doesn’t hurt that Cristal is actually a solid wine, albeit expensive,” he adds. “The Brut is also good juice, as is the Brut Nature 2009,” he says, adding that the collaborative label, made with the help of renowned designer Philippe Stark, didn’t hurt either. “Looking more inward, the Roederer estate in the U.S. has always been one of the best domestic sparkling wines for the money.”
It’s one thing for a company like Ford to release an ad showing its staff happily planting trees, or AB InBev talking up sustainability. It’s quite another to actually do these things, routinely and earnestly. At the American headquarters, in the Anderson Valley of Northern California, the approach is much the same. Roederer wanted the right fit before it moved to acquire what was Merry Edwards Winery. It sought a similar ethos, based around green framing techniques, a reduced carbon footprint, and the added attention that tends to come with family-run operations.
“They’ve been quite vocal about pushing toward more biodynamic farming on the land they own,” Ganzer says. “I’m always a bit dubious of large corporate green washing but they truly appear to be putting their money where their mouth is.”
So far, it appears the Roederer way is one of leading by thoughtful example, not just pursuing the bottom line. Coupled with the well-made effervescence that ends up in the glass, it’s a big reason why a lot of drinks pros look to the brand for consistency as well as breakthroughs.
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