A Tale of Two Champagnes: Roederer and Liebault-Regnie

It was the best of times. It was the most demanding of times. A recent foray through the region of Champagne demonstrated the prosperity and the divisions defining modern Champagne.

Liébart-Regnier makes what we Americans know as ‘grower Champagne’. The family has owned property and vineyard land for 8 generations, beginning to make their own wine in the late 1960’s. As a family, with a hired oenologist, they produce less than 60,000 bottles of Champagne every year across 10 styles or cuvées.

Alessandra Liébart-Regnier stands behind her crop in 2019.

Louis Roederer epitomizes a Champagne ‘house’, a conventional, large scale producer vinifying roughly 4 million bottles in a year across at least 9 styles or cuvées.

Aida presents the history and nobility of Louis Roederer and the family’s wines.

The great news for both of these produces is that demand for every level of Champagne’s price and production points is holding firm. The luxury drink market seems safe. Prices in Champagne for grapes, labor, machinery and bottles have not seen a dip in more than 6 years. The camps of itinerant workers harvesting the grapes have never looked as well-stocked with modern fifth wheel campers and the cars to pull them. It’s a good time to help pick grapes.

Motorized tractors lug the grapes up the steeper aspects of Champagne, but the picking is all human.

Despite positive cash flow, Champenoise are intrinsically nervous. Long production timelines, long distribution lines, sketchy growing conditions and fluid market conditions conspire to strain that same cash flow. Whether your winery is huge or tiny, large percentages are at stake every year.

Which may be why our hosts inquired after American tastes. The United States drinks the most Champagne, then Russia, then Britain – it has always been an export market symbolized in small ways like the anchor on labels of Veuve Clicquot. They are keen to know what we’re after.

An abundance of style.

Americans are pursuing both models for the time being. Louis Roederer makes capital-C Champagne, on the lighter side of texture and weight, with complexity, but with the comfortable, textbook, predictable demeanor. Open any bottle of Louis Roederer and I will happily drink it with you. While small producers make Champagne, as bubbly as any Grandes Marque, they know they cannot beat the large houses at their own game. So, they make capital-W wine.

Louis Roederer makes wine too, but the narrow scope of every large house’s wines is so narrow that they largely taste the same to most Americans.

Although they are very distinctive.

Small producers, growers, with the latitude and injunction to stand out, make distinctive drinks. Less predictable, yes. Less expensive, usually. Less quality, not usually. Less character, not by a mile, or a kilometer as it were.

Chandelier at Louis Roederer

Quick snapshots of the wines:
Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012 was my favorite for the warm depth and range of the darker flavors for which Champagne is more than capable as it comes to room temperature. One of my companions preferred the Blanc de Blanc 2011 with its depth married to nervy minerality while the rest were enamored of the bright, brilliant and food-happy Rose 2013.

From Liébart-Regnier, the L’Instinct and L’Amelie provided the nearest bridge from conventional Champagne while the Arbane/Pinot Blanc/Petit Meslier blend was created from three lesser-known grapes allowed in Champagne and provided the unique, spicy, brilliant acidity and almond/brioche character at the “this is t for everyone” end of the spectrum. Open any of these wines, I will happily join you and we will have a memorable dinner!

Tartrates, Cookies, Chemistry and Age

All the Cream of Tartar in the world comes from grape fermentation.

“Waiter, there’s glass in my wine.”

“Oh good for you! You got the diamonds!”

and easily remedied with a judicious repour

Love Snickerdoodles? Thank wine. Love light, fluffy Angel Food cake? Thank wine again. There are many things to praise in the presence of wine, from sacraments to the corrosion of high density lipids.  Since Napoleon’s era, we can add toothsome baked goods to the list.


Unfortunately, it is lost to history who discovered grinding up wine’s tartaric precipitate (tartrates) and adding it to the bread flour, but add it they did, and the world is a better place for it. By the late 18th century, it was common enough in in French cookery to make it a common item in their bakeries – and by the early 19th century it was being mixed with baking soda to make baking powder, as it is today.

Tartrates formed in a half bottle of Sauterne wine.


Tartrates are the crystalline form of wine’s most abundant acidity.  Should the winery wish to filter the tartaric acid out before bottling the wine, all they have to do is turn down the tank temperatures to 45 degrees, or open wintry doors to the barrel room.  Either one works.  The lower temperature squeezes the acidity out of the wine’s chemistry.  


This precipitation, as the chemists call it, takes the form of big chunks in wine vats or as smaller grit in wine bottles. (One will need 6-8 bottles worth, dried and ground, to make a batch of Snickerdoodles.) This grit is flavorless, odorless and has no impact on the resulting wine except that to cold-filter a wine before it is bottled also removes other, desirable flavor characters.  These little bits of grit, most easily photographed in white wine, speak of conscientious winemaking, not careless winemaking.

Red Wine tartrates are easiest to find on the cork.


Red wine sediments are also made of tannins and pigments that polymerize and precipitate out as they become too long to remain in suspension.  In red wine, that process requires years, if not a decade or two to happen.  Tartrates in any color of wine form as quickly as the wine is bottled and chilled, if they have not been previously chilled out at the winery.

Aged tartrate deposits are less well-defined and will cloud easily if disrupted.


The lesson in service is this: old tartrates require slow, gentle decanting to prevent them getting to your guest’s glass; young tartrates or ‘wine diamonds’ are almost as easy to catch as pouring slowly across the shoulders of that Bordeaux bottle, letting them collect there while the wine pours over the top. 


Look for wine bottles with these sediments; the wine you find inside will taste better than its peers – and probably better than any Snickerdoodle.

The Delicious Reward of Patience

Age displays its own savory chemistry.

Participating in a wine auction weekend is an illuminating exercise in the physical and sensory changes between newly minted wine and wine that has had a chance to mature. What it offers a taster is the perspective of how old is old enough.

A few Sunday nights ago, Corliss Winery of Walla Walla poured their 2005 Cabernet Franc; on Monday morning, they offer the same wine from 2017.  The 2005 inspired adjectives (that don’t communicate much) like “seamless”, “balanced” and “smooth”.  By contrast, the 2017 had similar texture, similar alcohol, but the “seams” were everywhere.  The alcohol was sharp, the tannins (that were so well integrated into that elder wine as to be unremarkable) were obvious and the fruit aspects of the wine were so assertive as to seem “hard” and “unexpressive” by comparison.

There was nothing intrinsically unappealing about the younger wine.  It was only by contrast to its older sibling that inspired the seductive appeal of the older wine.

The physical and chemical explanations for the changes to our perception lie deeper than this explanation; but the bulk of wine’s changes in flavor find themselves in the reactions of fruit to air.  Fruit oxidizes, flattens, turns a different shade of color with exposure to air – even faster without refrigeration – but ever so slowly in a sealed bottle. Cut an apple open and leave it on the counter for an hour to see oxidation in process.

Next, the other biggest agent of developmental change from young wine to old is reduction of the number of separate, disparate molecules and development of longer chains of similar or compatible molecules.  When we say the wine is coming together nicely, it is as literal as it is figurative.

The impression on a taster needs no such explanation, no matter how simple or complex.  Tasting mature wine is long touted by the viniferati as being “better”, while impatience and proximity to young wine often short circuits the ability to find out.   As with all matters of taste, the difference to a taster is obvious, how to communicate it is not.

If the opportunity presents itself to try the same wine old and young, especially with more than a decade of difference between them, your palate will never be the same – nor will your sense of preference – but you will know if you need a wine cellar or not.

And thank you to the Walla Walla Wine Alliance for sponsoring such an eye-opening retrospective of the region’s wines, their winemakers and the spirit of camaraderie that infuses the valley.