Roederer Estate from Within
By W Peter Hoyne
Arnaud Weyrich was born in Strasbourg within the region of Alsace, France and grew up east of the city of Lyon. According to Arnaud “it was a very nice place of good food and good wine.” His family was not involved in winemaking and they did not own vineyards, yet Arnaud had an appreciation of wine at an early age. “What my parents had on both sides was an interest in fine wine. I always had a good bottle of wine on my parents table, forever.” While he possessed an understanding of wine, this was not the impetus which propelled him into his illustrious career as Winemaker and Vice-President of Production at Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley, California. The winery remains under the umbrella of the family-run house of Champagne Louis Roederer in Reims, France.
Convinced that there would “always be opportunities in the food industry”, Arnaud attended the renowned Montpellier school, Ecole Supérieure d’Oenologie in the south of France. The school focused on a broad understanding of agronomy, food production and agriculture. In the end Arnaud was inspired by one of his professors, and pursued a master’s Degree in Viticulture and Enology. In 1993, he arrived in California with his backpack to serve an internship at the sparkling wine facility of Roederer Estate. The six-month course of study turned into two years. As fate would have it, Arnaud wanted to return to Paris to be with his girlfriend whom he would later marry. Passionate about the wine business, he considered pursuing opportunities in Bordeaux and of course Alsace, but it was very far from his loved one in Paris. Arnaud ended up getting a job working for a large retail company called Promodes. “Think of it as the equivalent of Safeway,” he said.
Working at their headquarters, “I would have buyers buying beverages for everything under the private label, as I would be the quality manager.” I would be dealing with the producers and traveling to Israel, Scotland and the South of France. Beer, spirits, Scotch, Champagne, Sparkling wine and everything except the price. I would travel and be in the vineyards as well.
During those years, Arnaud had been communicating with the president of Champagne Louis Roederer, Jean Claude Rouzaud. In 2000, when Jean-Claude reached out offering him an opportunity at Roederer Estate to replace former winemaker Michel Salgues. Arnaud thought “I really wanted to go back and be on the other side of the fence, being the one doing it” and accepted the offer. He is now in his 21st year and working as Winemaker and Vice-President of Production at Roederer Estate. By Arnaud’s account he ended up in this position because “it is a combination of time, place and people.”
Anderson Valley is located in the western corridor of Mencino County, California, about a one and a half hours drive north of Sonoma. Roederer Estate was founded in 1982 by Jean-Claude Rouzaud and in 1988 the first wines were brought to market. All the fruit is sourced from their own estate vineyards. They own 620 acres with about 570 acres in production. The sandstone sub-soils of the valley are exposed to maritime influences and fog from the Pacific Ocean, creating cool nights and warm days.
Arnaud believes there is a sense of place in Anderson Valley. He asserts “during the day the vine makes sugar. At night, when the temperature dips, it slows down the metabolism of the vine. The organic acids are not burned up by the vine at night. It ends up making very crisp whites from Chardonnay or crisp base wine from Pinot Noir. The laser-focused acidity on some vintages makes the wine super great for sparkling and fantastic age-worthy wines.”
Arnaud admits “in the early duration the Roederer wines were austere. They needed the addition of reserve wine or longer aging on the yeast to beef up that laser- focused acidity.” He started using a small percentage of malolactic fermentation (10-20%), which converted the bright malic acid in the wine to a softer lactic acid. He accomplished this in order to “make something more comfortable and less punishing. So in the blend you can have the acidity but a little roundness with a sense of pleasure.”
“It is based on what the vintage looks like. If the vintage is more ripe and has less acid, less malolactic fermentation is used. The proportion changes with the vintage.”
Arnaud is making the wines more enjoyable with “not too much laser focused acidity or austerity.”
When asked how Arnaud would describe the Roederer Estate style, he responded “I would use three words; acid driven, delicate and long. There is a start, a middle and a finish. Terroir makes the acidity stick in the wines. With higher acidity you can let the grapes hang longer and the wines won’t get flabby on you.”
Making these wines can be labor intensive. The Roederer Estate Brut and Rosé are multi-vintage wines that rest for two and a half years, on average, on the yeast. Their L’Ermitage sparkling spends 5 years plus. It is the house style. They also believe in using 10-15% of wine from older casks for blending into the base wine. Cask wine can be more complex and layered. “There is more richness in using older cask reserves. In riper years you use younger casks. In leaner years you use older casks. You learn this by tasting with your peers. Using reserve wine is really what builds the mid-palate. It has a tactile feeling with a broader mouth-feel and it extends the finish.”
Arnaud continued, “when I started working for the house, we tasted with my predecessors; Michel Salgues, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon and others. They transmitted the knowledge and the sense of style. The style that fits. Relying on age-old traditions. The common thread is there.”
After trying the Roederer Estate Brut and Rosé from the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, Arnaud is convinced that these sparkling wines have the ageability to last over 20 years.
“Even though we are in America, we are still a French company. There is still a feeling that it is the house and the brand that is number one, before the winemaker. It is not a winemakers wine. It is the brand or house style. The winemaker is just one of the links into the story of the winery throughout the years. You make an impact, but it is not a revolution.” Arnaud concluded.