Frédéric Rouzaud on creating sustainable luxury wines
All of Roederer’s champagne vineyards are now organic, and the 2012 vintage of the prestige cuvée Cristal was the first to be made from 100% biodynamically and organically grown grapes.
Most consumers, and many in the wine industry, don’t know that the owner of Louis Roederer also has a number of other famous wineries in the group. Frédéric Rouzaud is owner not only of the champagne house famous for making Cristal, the favoured drink of Tsar Nicholas II, but also another highly regarded champagne house, Deutz; Delas Frères, the celebrated Rhone wine estate; Diamond Creek, maker of some of the most highly rated and expensive Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Napa Valley in California; Provence rosé producer Domaines Ott ; and seven others.
Why has he not grouped his acquisitions together under an umbrella brand, as François Pinault has for his similarly conceived Artémis Domaines, owner of Château Latour in Bordeaux, Clos de Tart in Burgundy and a number of other estates?
Rouzaud says he has deliberately created his group as “a federation of small wineries, that have to be quite autonomous, with a manager in each winery who defends the uniqueness, the value, the history, the wine, the culture, the commercial sales, and so on.”
He continues: “The manager has to be very motivated. If we did everything as a group, there is no more motivation. If he’s just a brand manager, or whatever, or if the brand is managed by the group, the risk is you lose the soul, the motivation, and the culture of each winery.” He says that while the group has expanded under his watch, he has decided to continue what had been a strategy under his predecessors when the business was smaller. “We give each winery the chance to shine on its own. If they were too much in the shadow of ‘Headquarters Roederer’, they would maybe be a less efficient winery.”
Speaking of Roederer: the maison’s prestige brand, Cristal, is one of the most celebrated brands in the world; and prestige champagne is a high-margin business. Unlike some specific wine estates with defined boundaries, there are technically no limits to where the grapes sourced to make Cristal can come from. Is he not tempted to increase production?
“It would be an example of how to do something wrong, in order to get short-term gain. I could double the production of Cristal tomorrow, very easily. But I know that immediately the quality will decrease.”
Unlike some prestige wine principals, Rouzaud is also known for not taking a particularly strong position in any one new market. “Our export distribution has always been quite balanced between the US and Europe, and Asia, Japan in particular,” he says, adding the group is fortunate because, as prestigious estates, their production is limited and they are able to choose their markets.
One major development during Rouzaud’s tenure, which started in 2006, is a wholesale shift towards sustainability, epitomized by the conversion to organic and biodynamic vineyards. More than 50% of the Louis Roederer estate vineyards are now organic; Cristal is made from 100% biodynamic and organically farmed grapes; and the aim is to convert all of the vineyards to organic over the next few years.
This is a major feat for a producer of significant size. Organic farming prohibits the use of artificial pesticides, without which each year the grape crop is under existential threat from disease.
Rouzaud says this move has been the biggest challenge of his time in charge. “It was not an easy decision, because you need to have your own team behind you. It takes time to convince them, because they are coming from the 1980s and the 1990s when things were easy to correct. There were diseases in the vineyards then, but it was a much easier way to work [to be able to apply pesticides when needed]. So, we had to convince a lot of people that we would go in that direction. Of course, the work would take more time, more attention, more equipment, with the risk of losing a crop. We experienced some difficulties in the beginning. Today, what is very satisfying for me is that there is no one here who would now go back to the way we were working before, that really is a great satisfaction. It was a big change.”
When asked about why he felt the need to move to organic farming just after 2006, when the pressure for sustainability was far less than it is now, Rouzaud’s answer is surprising. He doesn’t immediately invoke the need to save the planet: he speaks first about the quality of the product. “It’s both a question of convictions and duty. When you say you are creating the best champagne possible, or the best Cabernet Sauvignon from Bordeaux, you need to work your terroir the best way possible. We are really convinced that sustainability is part of the toolkit to increase the quality, the brightness, the richness and the longevity of all the wines that come from this terroir. There are other tools, and of course sustainability is not only good for quality but also good for the planet.”
Rouzaud also thinks that the sustainability element will “increase exponentially in the future”. One positive to emerge from the pandemic, he says, is that “people are getting back to slow living, enjoying cooking, to enjoying taking the time to choose their products… not only will these be organic, but they will need to bring a unique experience. We are well positioned for that.”