Calm Amid the Storm Roederer's Frederic Rouzaud
- Friday 5 June 2009
Frédéric Rouzaud is relaxed, even serene. It’s bizarre. We meet at Château Pichon-Lalande during the en primeur tastings: Champagne Roederer, which he now runs, bought Pichon-Lalande two years ago. It’s a frantic week for everybody, yet here is Rouzaud, 41 and looking 10 years younger, with the air of someone who’s just emerged from a spot of reading in a better sort of library. (One with a Louis XV writing table and a few oval-framed portraits.)
Rouzaud says that if he hadn’t been born to Champagne Roederer he would have liked to have been an hotelier. But that image doesn’t fit. It’s when he says, ‘or I might have been an antiquaire’ that it all falls into place. A sleek antique shop would fit him perfectly. The 1930s are his period of choice; if he had decorated Pichon-Lalande, it would be very different from the riot of faux marble it is today.
Not that he criticises it: he is a model of tact and discretion. Which makes it all the odder that one of the first things that greeted his succession to the hot seat at Roederer (he took over from his father Jean-Claude in 2006) was a ludicrous row over, of all things, hip-hop.Rouzaud looks weary when this is mentioned: a few years ago he would hand out a printed statement when the subject was raised; now he hopes it has gone away, but it never will, not least because for the rest of us it was so absurd.
It was in an interview in The Economist. He was asked how he felt about rap stars buying Cristal, and the inevitable association of the brand with bling, not to mention (and the piece didn’t) the more unsavoury aspects of rap. It’s the sort of question journalists always ask companies like Roederer: it’s a bit of a wind-up, a response to the stuff their PR machines endlessly feed us about the immense superiority of their wines. Rouzaud’s comments were basically what his father’s had been when I’d asked him the same question some 10 years before: Jean-Claude wasn’t wild about stars drinking Cristal, though he didn’t mind if Claudia Schiffer did. Rouzaud didn’t mention Claudia Schiffer but his comments were picked up and rapper Jay-Z took offence. Google ‘Frédéric Rouzaud’ and you’ll get some idea of the hysteria that erupted. But Rouzaud seems to have behaved with perfect dignity in the midst of all this hot air, and before too long French gossip magazines were reporting rap stars turning up to parties at Jean-Claude’s house in Corsica, so perhaps there’s been a bit of kissing and making-up.
Anyway, it’s all history, and what Rouzaud is concerned about now is running the multifarious empire his father built. Ramos Pinto in the Douro was bought; so were Châteaux de Pez and Haut-Beauséjour in the Médoc; so was Deutz Champagne; so was 66% of Domaines Ott in Provence. All these were bought for cash, because Jean-Claude had an aversion to banks (ahead of his time, then), and also ran a very tight and profitable ship. Some debt was incurred when he set up Roederer Estate in California at the time when the dollar was soaring against the franc, but Jean-Claude decreed that the loan would have to be paid off in two years. It was. The purse strings were only loosened when Pichon-Lalande came on the market. Maybe owning the two crus bourgeois gave them confidence to be more ambitious in Bordeaux, but this time they took on debt and pounced. Not because it’s an underperforming property which they can turn round, because it’s not: it’s been making great wine for a long time. But it’s a beautiful estate, and it just seemed to fit. ‘I pushed [my father] a little on Pichon,’ says Rouzaud, ‘but I didn’t have to push much.’
He describes the changes they are making at Pichon-Lalande as ‘details’: better drainage in some pieces of land, more precise analysis of terroir, that sort of thing. ‘The pruning had been done by one guy, and he wanted to do it as quickly as possible. But that’s not our purpose, and now we have a team for pruning; we’re pruning for the long term. Leaf plucking was being done mechanically, and now it’s done by hand.’ The 2008 vintage certainly has more stuffing than the wine showed in the past, and has lost none of its elegance. ‘But May-Eliane [de Lencquesaing, the previous owner] did fantastic work on the winemaking and on communication, and there is no room for improvement there. We have to compensate for the fact that she is not there anymore.’ It wasn’t that they showed her the door: that is never their way. (The original families are still involved at Ramos Pinto, Ott and Deutz.) De Lencquesaing decided to make the break, and now makes wine at Glenelly, her new estate in South Africa – in which Roederer has a 15% stake.
Occasionally, Rouzaud has to be a Bordelais. How long does it take to become one? ‘It’s a very slow process, but I don’t come here very often.
Gildas [d’Ollone, the estate’s wine director] does a great job. Our strategy is on course, and the team fits well with our philosophy. You can’t just come and say, “That’s that, bye bye”. You need a long time to understand each other and talk out every frustration.’ He certainly notices differences between Bordeaux and Champagne. ‘Bordeaux has a great dichotomy between the crus classés and the rest. The difference in quality between the best and the worst is probably bigger in Bordeaux: even if you make a bad Champagne, you can sell it. In Bordeaux, even if you sell it, you will lose money. In Champagne, you won’t lose money; the appellation is more protective – putting “Champagne” on the bottle is sufficient.’
What is the main difference between Bordeaux and Champagne? ‘We are less arrogant in Champagne. In Bordeaux the châteaux sell to the négoces, and it’s over, except they might visit Tokyo or whatever. In Champagne we really do marketing.’ (As a journalist, one might put it differently: in Bordeaux they often seem to be listening but aren’t, and in Champagne they often seem not to be, but are.) Will Rouzaud become more Bordelais or more Champenois? He wants to get closer to the vineyards, and learn more about the technical side of winemaking. His education was a fairly conventional one in business administration, and before he joined Roederer in 1996 he worked for a real estate company in Paris. He was in the vineyards department, naturally enough, and one of the estates for sale was Champagne Deutz… A telephone call to Jean-Claude, and eight days later the company was in the bag.
They get on well, he and Jean-Claude. When you see them together it’s Jean-Claude who does most of the talking but, says one source, ‘Frédéric has all the decisiveness of his father. It’s just delivered differently.’ Where Jean-Claude could seem as tense as a coiled spring, his son is calm.
What does the future hold? For de Pez, membership of the Union des Grands Crus, possibly and probably. It did well, quite rightly, in the 2003 reclassification of the crus bourgeois, being elevated to Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel, and the Rouzauds were disappointed by the collapse of the classification under legal challenges from the losers. Membership of the UGC doesn’t change its ranking, but it does mean acceptance into a different club, and inclusion at UGC tastings: good for prestige and, probably and indirectly, price.
As for future shopping plans, Rouzaud decided not to venture into England after having visited and seen grapes that were still green at the end of September. Burgundy is tempting, though the 12 hectares he was offered recently seemed a tad pricey at €70m (£62.5m), and seemed unlikely to make a return. When he does decide to buy something else it will be partly on the figures, partly on strategy, and partly because it just feels right. In that respect he’s like his father. The antique shop could be a little way off yet.