Walking with giants – two Cristal tastings

Stephan Reinhardt, the new kid on the block at Wine Advocate with responsibility for Champagne, presented an illuminating masterclass in London last weekend. He took us through a vertical of Cristal from 1999 to the recently released 2006. This period corresponds with the stewardship of Chef de Cave Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, which has seen some developments in the vineyard and the production methods. We were also privileged to try a number of older vintages of Cristal at a private celebration which created the opportunity to contemplate a possible evolution in style.

Cristal Saatchi

Cristal tasting at the Sattchi gallery led by Stephan Reinhardt

The prestige cuvee was first produced for Alexander II, Tsar of Russia, in 1867. The house commissioned a Flemish glassmaker to create a unique transparent lead-crystal bottle and the name Cristal was born. When the Russian Revolution came in 1917 Roederer immediately lost their biggest market – the champagne produced for the Tsar had been especially sweet and nobody else wanted that style. No Cristal was made for ten years but the cuvee was revived in 1928 in a drier style from around 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir, although this depends on the vintage, with more Pinot Noir being used in hotter vintages, and since 1999 this has often reached 55%.

Diligent vineyard management

The star quality of Cristal begins in the vineyards, they are all owned by Roederer, 98% are grands crus, the exception being 1er cru Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, which is rated 99% on the Échelle des Crus and effectively treated as a grand cru. Selection is vigorous, a green harvest sometimes cuts up to 50% of the grapes, and the harvest takes place plot by plot to ensure optimum ripeness. Cristal vines range between 45 and 75 years of age and Roederer are moving towards farming 100% biodynamically by 2020 – currently they are 60% biodynamic with the balance organic. Jean-Baptiste believes this makes the vines stronger and gives more fruit, freshness and depth the base wines.

All the wines ferment separately, cru by cru, 30% of the base wines are now fermented in large oak vats, the rest in stainless steel. Prior to 1999 the vintage spent four years on lees, now that time has risen to six or seven year. Dosage levels which previously were 12 grams or above are now typically 8-10 grams. The liqueurs de dosage are prepared from a selection of up to ten of the very best crus from the Roederer vineyards and are aged in oak. After disgorgement the wines spend at least eight months in the cellar before release.

And how does this time, quality, care and attention translate in the glass?

2006 – 96 points
An incredible depth and diversity of aromas: ripe fruit, peanuts, sweet spice, stone fruits and floral notes. It was powerful on the palate, ripe but with balanced acidity and a long finish.

2004 – 94 points
The 2004 vintage followed the scorching 2003 which as the hottest since 1959, Roederer green harvested 50% of their grapes.
This was very pure and elegant on the nose. The palate was creamy and round, fruit driven, it was delicious but lacks backbone.

2002 – 98 points – with potential to have perfect score in future
The incredible aroma of this champagne almost brought tears of happiness to my eyes! It showed a concentrated nose with amazing intensity of dried apricots, salty cashew nuts, vanilla. The palate was powerful but also elegant, this Zen-like wine needs time to meditate!

2000 – 96 points
A toasty aromatic nose of sunflower rye bread, ripe yellow plums and caramel. Ripe but elegant on the palate with grilled pineapple, honey and caramelised nuts – delicious!

1999 – 96 points
A powerful smokey, nutty apricot nose. Intense and powerful in the mouth, showing a firm texture and strong backbone. 1999 had lowest acidity in 40 years but the wine is very well balanced, an accomplished first vintage for Jean-Baptiste.

Stepping back in time

If only we had a time machine to see how these impressive first cuvees blossom and mature… as it happens we recently had the opportunity to taste a number of older Cristal vintages. Sincere thanks to our friends Andrius and Andrej for sharing these gems.

Cristal vintage

A truly exceptional Cristal line up

The evening started with a blind tasting from magnum of 1980 Cristal, to our knowledge only magnums were produced that year. 1980 seems to have been a strong year in Champagne with other prestige releases such as Dom Perignon and Veuve Clicquot Cave Privee still drinking well. The Cristal had a rich golden colour and a perfumed and seductive nose encompassing hawthorn, dried citrus, gentle smokiness, a touch of mint and ending with a dash of white truffle – 100 points for the nose! It was rich and complex in the mouth, yet still fresh and youthful. A smooth and silky texture with beautifully integrated acidiy and a dash of lemon, medium length but balanced fruit and will continue to develop – 95+ points.

Our next treat was Cristal Rose Vinotheque, direct from the Roederer cellar. It had a beautiful pale pink hue, the nose offered and intense rush of red currants. It was lively in the mouth with tremendous concentration, and a very long slightly zesty finish. Still young it has the potential to grow into a great wine – 97 points for now.

Next was a duel, between 1982 and 1979 – normally ’79 emerges victorious, this time there was just half a point between them!

Starting with the 1982, this had a rich golden colour. The nose had a touch of autumn leaves, it was ripe and rich but still intoxicatingly fresh full of dried fruit and peaches. The mouth was round and intense with massive concentration. It was balanced and long, the finish dominated by fruit and citrus. This was a powerhouse with great backbone – probably the best 82 Cristal I have ever tasted – 96 points

The 1979 had similar colouring and an exotic nose of hawthorn and ripe citrus. All the parts were beautifully woven together, the mouth was soft and creamy, dominated by endless fruit. It was perhaps a little closed on this occasion but nonetheless still magical with endless finish – 96+ points – the victor!

We were eagerly awaiting the final flight of 1955 and 1964, alas the 55 was oxidised, but the 64 made up for it. It had a rich copper hue, and an unbelievably complex and seductive nose, in the glass you would not guess it was champagne. It was incredibly rich, almost with an oily viscosity, concentrated with tons of fruits. It had a long spicy aftertaste – absolute Burgundy! The bubbles dissipated after a couple of minutes otherwise it would merit 100 points – 98 points.

Could the evening get any better, what could crown such a distinguished selection? 1989 Cristal Rose in magnum was a glorious end. It had an intense nose dominated by red currants and floral tones. It was ripe and smooth to taste, the acidity was low signifying a hot vintage, but it had great concentration and length. It was sublime to drink today but could keep 25 years, what a great wine – 96 points.

Such a special evening, showcasing the quintessential Cristal. Juhlin describes “Every vintage as stunning” and advises his readers to “Buy all the Roederer wines you come across!” We would most certainly agree.

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