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!

Getting a Feel for Wine

The mere suggestion that there is a shortcut to wine expertise sells books, classes, seminars and certifications every day. It slyly borders actual myth

I am the type of guy who can’t even throw a curve on a bowling lane. Straightforward and up front are two cardinal virtues in my world. To bring this rectitude to wine, I have spent the bulk of my professional hours studying, tasting, selling and enlivening meals for myself and others with the happy conveyance of wine. I like bringing comprehension to a few principles that illuminate more about wine than the memory they require. Just enough people regard me as their “wine guy” that I accept the regard as a happy responsibility by striving to live up to it. But wine has an irritating frustration that has that has plagued my career.

Truth. There are precious few true principles, or Universal Truths, in wine.

I first learned this as a novice wine server at a local country club. I displayed an aptitude for wine service as well as an interest in the subject, so a local wine distributor invited me to join a fairly routine sales luncheon for a local winery.  At the time, I believed I was hitting it big – an unsolicited invitation to a private wine luncheon – I must be famous. At the appointed day, we were led into the mahogany-lined and naturally lit room at the upscale restaurant. I sported the only tie I owned and made pleasant hellos with the dozen other attendees.  I happened to be seated to the left of a large man in his 60’s, he wore a black wool vest and patent leather shoes that mirrored his imposing quiet; I thought his solemnity for this tasting and lunch were appropriate so I masked my un-vested role as rube with attentive nods to conversation around the table. The first wines were poured and, having some familiarity with the process of analytical tasting, I looked at the first wine, swirled it around and put my nose squarely inside the glass, as was my habit, and did my level best to intelligently sniff the Chardonnay.  My elder neighbor did the same.  I sipped the wine and let the 1/2oz. sit on my tongue for a few seconds to really grab every flavor it offered. 

My elder neighbor did not do this.  Instead, he had brought the glass down to his lap, where he believed no one could see, placed his index finger in the glass and brought it out with just enough wine to rub on his thumb.  He was literally “feeling” the wine.  Glancing around, no one else was doing this or paying attention to his clandestine technique.  He never once took wine in his mouth.  No one appeared to notice this either. The winemaker addressed him often, deferring to his expertise in wine, restaurants and the quality of the lunch.  While he offered opinions, I cannot recall a one as I was too busy putting my glass below the table and rubbing wine between my fingers.   That day, I learned Universal Wine Truth #1, wine is wet.  

However, I was convinced the secret edge of expertise for this gentleman was through the doorway of touch; in visiting his restaurant, I noted he had a plaque on the wall declaring him a certificate holder of wine expertise.  I was convinced that if I could translate this secret, I could leapfrog to wine expert in no time at all.  It would be glorious.

It took me just over six months to stop fingering my wine.

In the meantime, I looked for examples of the significance of touching wine from other sources, articles that would justify the value of wine’s tangible viscosity to the quality of the wine.  I even quietly mentioned it to a few other wine folks who looked at me as if I were trying to trick them into fingering their wine too.  

In retrospect, what I really learned was that there is much misinformation in the world of wine, especially if one guesses the answer instead of asks the question.  (Some wine does “feel” different than other wine – but usually because it is so sweet.)  As it turned out, one other person had seen this behavior from my lunch companion on other occasions, and had confidence that it was a relic of the man’s truce with alcohol.  For reasons known to him, he did not consume alcohol: the only way he would sense the wine’s texture was to feel it between his fingers.  He had been doing it for years; maybe it did offer him some kind of illustrative comparison after so much time.  I did not have the time to keep hiding my glass under the table.

However, this learning led me to Universal Wine Truth #2: wine’s half-truths and myths are far more numerous and entertaining than its absolutes.  The Society of Wine Educators and the Court of Master Sommeliers have “theory” exams so rigorous that an average 85% of attempts fail.  These are designed to weed out the erroneous, the ignorant, the untrue and the downright mythical misinformation that circulates the arena of wine appreciation. Common wine myths include, but are by no means limited to: “bottles in a cellar need to be turned regularly”, or “dangling silver spoons in Champagne bottles maintains the wine’s effervescence.”, or “sediment that stains your hand from the bottom of the cork means the wine has turned bad.”  These and many others have compiled a Hurt Locker of misinformation most often offered as helpful insight.  God bless them for trying.  The most entertaining one of late is the Napa Valley winery website promoting the science that swirling one’s wine clockwise accentuates the fruit component in the wine while swirling it counter-clockwise brings out the voices of the oak barrels and winery treatments. I wonder if that is opposite in the Southern Hemisphere.  Half-truths may be less noxious, but in this age of “alternative facts” it behooves people of wine to be as transparently accurate as vinifera grapes are to the place they are grown.  Some familiar partial truths include: “good wines have corks”, “strong legs down the glass mean the wine is excellent”, “it’s expensive, it must be good” or perhaps worst of all, “it’s supposed to taste like that.”

Through it all, through every embarrassing or enlightening moment has emerged Universal Wine Truth #3: the Magnificent Power of Suggestion wields massive influence in the appreciation of wine.  It forms both the road to understanding and the path of confusion.  It is the Jedi Power of Sommeliers, slashing it around dining rooms, bouncing it off egos and corporate credit cards with shameless aplomb.  In defense, if a guest even so much as believes that we are trying to to get him or her to finger their wine irresponsibly, they will give us the finger.  The distrust we have of our own taste is a trait that only diminishes with familiarity; it never actually goes away.  The older gentleman putting fingers in his wine had a reason for his technique.  Had I asked the question instead of running amok with the suggestion that there was a secret door to wine knowledge, I would have saved myself some time and probably headed off other hazards of the profession as well.  Old crusty Somms have learned that perceptive guests are equally good teachers if we keep our ears tuned to learning.  As humans, we see what we are primed to see and what we see is what we get.  The same principle works in all avenues of our experience from love to politics to taste.  Suggesting New Zealand Sauvignon’s more feral qualities either repulses its detractors or attracts its aficionados – same for Riesling’s petroleum-esque impressions.  If it does not make them more delicious, at least it offers honesty.  Wine is complex, but it is not complicated.  The suggestion that everyone can taste raises the bar of experience for guests and for the educators, the retailers, the service staff.  I suggest we do better.  I suggest that open curiosity serves us better than suspicious fingerings.