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  • Writer's pictureMona Elyafi

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon & The Pursuit Of Taste: One Man’s ‘Cristal’ Vision

Updated: Dec 14, 2023


Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought possible to ever find myself in the majestic tasting room of Roederer in Reims, enjoying a glass of Cristal 2015 with the very man who craftily elaborates Champagne’s most world renown prestige cuvée; Yet that is just what happened last month, on November 15, 2023, to be precise.

How magical was it that the holy grail of champagnes – one of the most recognizable names among all bubbles which has famously titillated the palates of Tsars, luminaries and stars alike - was now enchantingly swirling in my mouth transporting me on the most exceptional sensory journey?

Indulging in the crème de la crème of all tête-de-cuvées over an intimate tête-à- tête with Roederer’s acclaimed chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, is without doubt an elite club you want to be part of.

Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon made his auspicious beginnings in the Champagne world in the most natural and organic way: he was born in it!

“I grew up with Olivier Krug,” he fondly recalls. “Naturally, I would hang out in Krug’s cellars as well as Pol Roger’s. It truly was a microcosm at the Jesuit school of Reims. Back then it was mostly attended by sons of families who owned prominent Champagne houses (before they were - for the most part - bought up by big corporations).”

Although “made in Champagne”, it was a field trip to Burgundy at the young age of fourteen that served as the impetus for his extraordinary Champagne story along with one specific bottle of wine, the Clos de la Roche Grand Cru 1978, that ignited a passion he couldn’t run away from.

“My story is a real French story,” he continues. “My French teacher took us to Burgundy to study a writer by the name of Henri Vincenot, author of “Le Pape des Escargots” and other delightful books that tell the history of the Burgundy culture. Then Henri Krug (Olivier’s father) who was well connected had organized a visit in the beautiful Domaine Dujac in Morey-Saint-Denis. We tasted several bottles notably the Clos de la Roche 1978. I remember tasting it and being shocked and utterly captured by its perfumes. Something happened right then and there. And during the bus ride back home, sitting next to Olivier Krug, I vividly remember telling him that this was what I wanted to do: to make wine.”

Lécaillon comes from a long line of brewers – a family business that had been passed from generation to generation until it was sold to Stella Artois. And while Lécaillon did not come into possession of the family brewery business, he did inherit a passion for the one thing beer and champagne commonly share. “Early on, fermentation spoke to me,” he amusingly confesses.

In 1989 after graduating as Valedictorian of his class majoring in viticulture and winemaking from l’École Nationale Supérieure d’Agronomie” in Montpellier, Lécaillon was approached by then Roederer’s CEO, Jean-Claude Rouzaud who, without hesitation, offered him a job.

His incredible Roederer journey initially started everywhere else but in Champagne with adventures in California, Tasmania, Portugal, and Bordeaux. For 35 years he was vested with the mission to oversee the development of all the family properties around the world. Then the last year of the century came. While no technical glitch brought about doomsday as feared, the dawn of a new millennium ushered a new future, not just Lécaillon and Roederer but for Champagne as a whole.

“In 1999 I took on the function of cellar master and proposed to the family to also become director of the vineyards. Because of my experience in supervising their properties abroad, I came in with a very specific logic that was more focused on a grower producer mentality rather than negotiant producer one. So, I told the family that if they wanted to take things to the next level, they would have to give me the reins of the vineyards too. These are typically two distinctively separate functions; two different economic poles. I wanted to combine both. They agreed.”

He possesses a charmingly charismatic innate elegance, sophistication and allure, acclaimed qualities which in effect personify the iconic tete-de-cuvee, Cristal, Roederer is notoriously synonymous with worldwide. For him, quality is a religion.

Committed to smashing boundaries beyond limits – like transporting humans through the fabric of time – Lécaillon’s cuvées are everlasting love letters to Champagne.

With a single hashtag, #InPursuitoftaste, he has been sending waves not only across the world of Champagne but as well of Wines. More than a simple trendy hashtag, the philosophy is years in the making, commencing well before social media was even a thing.

At the very core of Lécaillon’s aspiration to achieve excellence is the genuine commitment to forge ahead not just a greener but a newer Champagne – one where every soil, every plant and most importantly every human being involved is part of a bigger story.

“Our method is very artisanal. Our approach, among many other things, focuses on “Sélection Massale” (Massal selection) to bring diversity. We perform this on our own as opposed to buying clones through a nursery. It is time-consuming and demands a lot of observation, but the results speak for themselves,” admits Lécaillon.

Not just the start of a genre; it is the birth of a movement.

A staunch advocate for viticultural change, Lécaillon sees this movement as one that fosters empowerment through empathy. A movement that presses for the urgent return to ancestral savoir-faire and traditions. A movement whose lifeblood ultimately is “man” (as in the human element).

“I talked about the soil, about the plants but there is also a third dimension which is fundamental to me, namely the human element. That is why our business is labeled “Entreprise Patrimoine Vivant” ("Living Heritage Company"). Our professions are certified by the “Entreprise Patrimoine Vivant” which means there are a series of “savoir-faire” we have developed, justified, and elaborated and makes our house today one of the only three houses in Champagne to bear that title. This illustrates the importance we give to man (as in the human element).”

The difficulty Champagne is encountering today comes from an era which absolutely needs to be purged, one that encompasses the 50s, 60s and 70s. Before the 50s, Champagne lived some 200 years, in organic mode with all growers embracing organic viticulture. Then came this wind of modernity which killed the artisanal savoir-faire skills honed by the older tradition-centric generations in the name of modernization for the sake of saving time.

“There’s a real difficulty today to come back to a Champagne of professionals, of savoir-faire – a green champagne which means a “Career” champagne and not a Champagne of dilettante,” says Lécaillon. “The Champagne of the 21st century is one focused on growers – it is a Champagne of professionals. “

Ironically, if the Roederer family gave him the greenlight to move the house into a completely new direction effectively converting their vineyards into organic and biodynamic farming with today 135 of their 245 hectares certified organic (the biggest domain in Champagne since the second ranking one is only about 30 hectares), Lécaillon’s original intention was of a different Nature.

“We did not effectuate this conversion to become organic, “he says, “we did it for taste.

“My idea was to find out how I could further singularize the cuvées by giving them a genuine champenoise signature. I know how to make a sparkling wine. I did it in California and Tasmania, but what makes champagne a champagne beyond the stereotypical focus on terroir?

Because of my international experience I had perfectly grasped the singularity of Champagne. It was my crusade to understand why this wine was so uniquely different and magic.”

Balancing the pillars of this march towards the preservation of both yesterday’s traditions and tomorrow’s innovations is no mere task, but Lécaillon sits comfortably and confidently at the helm of this quality-revolution.

“Ultimately, the goal is to preserve the singularity and authenticity attached to the taste of champagne while also amplifying it so that champagne remains CHAMPAGNE,” professes Lécaillon. “The family is lucky to be the owner of a magnificent estate with a magnificent history and magnificent wines. It is our duty to preserve it all while at the same time innovate as well.”

Lécaillon hadn’t written his last chapter yet, in fact in 2021 he turned the page on a new one with the release of Collection 242. Bidding adieu to Roederer’s emblematic flagship cuvée, Brut Premier, Lécaillon, single-handedly embarked the house off the beaten path – a seismic departure for a Grande Marque. Trading the traditional NV (Non-Vintage) – typically a Maison’s signature style - for the more characterful, colorlurful and complex MV (Multi-Vintage) counterpart, Lécaillon embraces the opportunity each year to conquer a new blank page.

“Multi-Vintage is the story of the new Champagne,” exclaims Lécaillon.

The identity of Collection centers around a Réserve Perpétuelle (a perpetually enfolding & progressing cocktail of chardonnay and Pinot Noir) created in 2012, a portion of reserve wines aged in lightly toasted oak barrels, and most importantly a base wine emanating from the most recent harvest from selected vineyard plots. The sum of it all seeks to beautifully elicit the most authentic and purest expression of Roederer’s unique terroir with a focus on sustainable growing.

Collection gives Lécaillon more latitude to put on display all of Roederer's savoir-faire and impart his savoir-être philosophy anchored in the pursuit of quality.

Continuing with the “Haute Couture” approach, another benchmark was the introduction of the 2012 vintage of Cristal made 100% from grapes grown biodynamically giving Roederer’s quintessential cuvée demonstrably more 'pixels', definition, and varietal purity.

Lécaillon's job is not lacking in the champagne glitz and glamour but his charismatic grandeur is that he remains humble and authentic. His raison d’être is QUALITY, with the “cristal" clear understanding that efforts and sweat must be invested to achieve it. In Champagne, time is of course luxury. But time is also (perhaps more pressingly) of the essence. The changing of mentalities to dramatically transform Champagne’s viticulture practices from vine to wine is deeply woven into the fabric of Roederer’s culture and history.

“It’s our responsibility and moral duty to craft tomorrow’s Champagne, today,” Lécaillon declares.

Unsurprisingly, today, Roederer’s cuvées are to Champagne what the Eiffel Tower is to France: a national pride and French patrimony. As for the native Rémois, he is to Champagne what Yves Saint-Laurent is to world of Haute Couture … a legend.

At the helm of one of the last major independent Grande Marque to remain family owned, Lécaillon undoubtedly has more to come as he continues, with audaciously bold determination, to draft more pages in his book.

At Roederer, history is indelibly written in every step we make and every sip we take, but Lécaillon has not yet revealed all its secrets.

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