The coronavirus pandemic – and the subsequent lockdowns that have swept across the world to prevent its spread – have affected almost every corner of the planet, sweeping up people and businesses in their wake. Restaurants, bars and shops have been forced to close while strict social distancing rules mean many have not been able to go into offices or visit family and friends for months.
And while for most that has simply meant more time on Zoom and working from home, when you’re in the business of cultivating vineyards to create some of the world’s finest champagnes, taking a few months off during a crucial stage of the harvest cycle isn’t really an option.
So how has one of the world’s greatest champagne houses, Louis Roederer, coped during lockdown? “It is a strange feeling,” admits Louis Roederer’s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon. “We make something which is not essential but, at the same time, it is essential for pleasure and bringing people together. We make a wine for celebration so we decided that, in difficult times, it is important to do what we do and try and make an even better wine for the future.”
However, with France being the subject of one of the most strict lockdown measures in Europe, this hasn’t been an easy task this year. Like most champagne houses, Champagne Louis Roederer usually relies on seasonal staff from central Europe to work in the vineyards during the spring and summer months. With restrictions making this impossible, the maison turned to its 30-strong resident French head office team to bolster the workforce.
"We make a wine for celebration so we decided that, in difficult times, it is important to do what we do and try and make an even better wine for the future."
“There was absolutely no obligation for the employees to be in the vineyards so we all volunteered and, from what I have experienced, the atmosphere was great,” says Alexis Deligny, UK export manager at Louis Roederer. “There was a real philosophy of team spirit and happiness to help our colleagues. It was also very interesting to see how our colleagues really work in the vineyards and to be part of it. We all realised how difficult it is and, honestly, it makes all of us very humble and full of admiration.”
And there is seemingly nothing the team didn’t get stuck into. Their first job was the daunting task of planting 3,000 new vines that will grow to produce fruit for the house’s Cristal champagne. Add to this the fact that each new plant had to have large wooden stakes driven into the ground on either side to protect it from ploughing and that’s quite the challenge.
Then it was on to the installation of 100 non-polluting wood pellet chimneys which, thanks to the effects of climate change, have become crucial to stop vines being lost to frosts. 2020 marks the first time Champagne Louis Roederer has installed these chimneys so the fact that it has been successfully achieved by a team with little vineyard experience is a testament to their passion and commitment.
Now, with lockdown restrictions easing across most of Europe, it is hoped that the usual seasonal workers may soon be able to return. However, there is always work to be done on a vineyard and May has seen the office team dispatched to the Vallée de la Marne vineyards to begin debudding the vines. “The aim of this task is to remove some of the buds which are growing on a vine cane which will not produce any grapes,” explains Alexis. “By removing those buds, the sap concentrates on the buds that will produce grapes helping them to develop more flavour.”
So, while there are still many variables that will determine whether or not this will become a great year for champagne, should you happen to be popping open a bottle of 2020 vintage Cristal in a decade’s time – all thoughts of lockdown a distant memory – spare a moment to remember the team work and effort that went into creating that moment. Because Jean-Baptists Lecaillon is right, once the crisis has passed celebration is going to be more important than ever.
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