Michel Janneau sips from another glass of Cristal. Well, it is his job. “I remember drinking my first glass of it, when I swore that I would never drink any other kind of champagne than Cristal from that time on. And at the time I was a student in Paris with a very limited budget,” he says.
Another sip. “If you ever come across a bottle of 98 Cristal, you have to buy it immediately. It’s the most elegant champagne you can find.”
Of course, as the ambassador for the Louis Roederer champagne house – owners of the Cristal brand – Janneau might well say this. But, reclined in the company’s palatial mansion in Reims – an old family property for one of the last remaining champagne houses still family-owned – he is very convincing.
Louis Roederer, after all, has been making champagne for 237 years over five generations, its chief asset being 526 acres of vineyards, which supply two-thirds of the company’s requirements.
Crucially, this precious terroir is owned by the company. As its competitors typically sold off their lands during the 1980s to third party grape suppliers, Louis Roederer just bought more. That has allowed for an atypical quantity and variety in its 800,000 litres of maturing reserve wines.
“But being family-owned is not a benefit,” says this straight-talking master of bonhomie. A pause for another sip. “It’s a crusade against the giants that dominate the market. Every minute is a fight, but it’s worthwhile because we don’t spend a penny on focus groups but on making the wines we like.
We can decide not to make Cristal one year if the grapes don’t deserve it. Our finance director may look at us as if we’re crazy, but you can all the same. You sell what you produce.”
And that is often something special – the likes of its golden Brut Premier, a blend of four vintages distinctive for having been expensively aged in oak barrels for up to five years, as opposed to the 18 months more typical of the industry at large. “That maturity is a luxury because we could sell a lot of non-vintage wines without the aging – but it’s that that gives us our conception of champagne,” says Janneau.
“People talk a lot of nonsense about vinification and fermentation. It’s best not to interfere with the natural processes too much. All champagne needs is a good, deep nap.”
Top of the tree is Cristal – another sip – with its complex spectrum of flavours, and complicated public image. Janneau concedes that it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand is this incredible story: Tsar Nicolas II bothered by his champagne looking like anyone else’s, and so commissioning a special bottle for a wine he subsequently buys all for himself, and which mere commoners today can only buy should it even be produced. But on the other is “Paris Hilton swigging from a bottle,” as Janneau puts it.
“It’s really two guys – the one loved by sommeliers and the one who likes the nightlife, the one who uses it to shower his girlfriend,” he adds. “Cristal has this public image as the iconic wine for the very rich. And it’s indecently expensive – well, it is. But it’s also much more than that, even if its reputation probably over-powers all the other champagnes we make.”
Indeed, Janneau recalls overhearing his mother-in-law to be’s disappointment when his wife-to-be told her that he worked for Louis Roederer: “’Oh darling, I thought he was working for Cristal’, she said.”
Besides, Janneau feels that champagne in general is increasingly living something of a double life. He agrees that, as a piece of marketing, the association between champagne and occasions of celebration is “an immense success”, accounting for many of the 340m bottles sold every year.
“The only problem,” he adds, with another sip, “is that in my opinion 95 percent of people who drink it at a wedding or the opening of an exhibition just think of it as a very good lemonade from France. It’s a social drink and drunk without any curiosity.”
Champagne, he finds, is all too often drunk by people who don’t even realise that it is a wine. “There’s a global ignorance about it,” he notes. But that still leaves room for those who, like Janneau, relish every sip.
The Janneau Ethos: there is too much business in champagne production and not enough pleasure. “Wine is ultimately about friendship. Making wine is not about the survival of humanity,” he says.
“But if you’re going to make it, you may as well do it well, and do it with joie de vivre.”