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my wine journey

Understanding Cristal, Champagne’s "Best of Best" (1)

On one Saturday evening in April, ten people gathered at the guesthouse of Champagne Maison Louis Roederer. Owned by Rouzaud Family, it is the most beautiful mansion in Reims.

Champagne is a traditional winegrowing region. It has, however, a cool climate and is located at the northern limit of the grape-growing areas. Even in mid-April, the temperature dropped below zero in the morning, and the vineyards were so cold that there was a risk of frost. The host, Cellar Master, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, said, "Please warm up the vineyard with your enthusiasm and excitement."

Every April, Champagne experts gather from all over the world to attend a number of tasting sessions and events that take place in Reims for Le Printemps des Champagnes, also known as 'Champagne Week.' This dinner was attended by those from Switzerland, Italy, Singapore, Boston, Detroit as well as local journalists living in Champagne... It was a diverse group of Champagne experts from many different countries.

2018 is the best vintage in my 30-year career as a winemaker – Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

We began by tasting about 30 types of the base wines, vins clairs, from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, in the cellar's tasting room at Louis Roederer. These were separately vinified for each plot from about 50 hectares out of its 240 hectares of vineyards. This time, we were fortunate enough to taste the final blend of each cuvée as well as the Coteaux Champenois Blanc – a still Chardonnay wine from the single plot, ‘Volibarts,’ in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger – which was produced for the first time this year.

According to Jean-Baptiste, 2018 was "the best vintage in the 30 years since I started making Champagne."

For many years, Louis Roederer has worked on the improvement of its vineyards. There are experimental vineyards where conventional, organic and biodynamic farming practices are performed side by side in the same plots in order to compare the effectiveness and outcomes of the farming practices over a long time. During this tasting, we blind-tasted two types of wines from the same plot: one was from the organically farmed vineyard and the other from the biodynamically farmed one. The difference was clear. Personally, I felt the biodynamic wine expressed more tension and concentration.

In the Champagne region, 2018 was blessed with high volume and high yields of grapes harvested. At Louis Roederer, the quality of the grapes was great, too. The fundamental improvements to the vineyards, which have been worked for nearly 20 years, have clearly made a difference.

It was also a special year for Louis Roederer and its Cellar Master, as all the wines from its vineyards dedicated to producing Cristal were blended. In recent years, 2015 and 2002 were those years in which all the wine was blended. These are the years that Jean-Baptiste refers to as "the years when nature goes beyond human wisdom." Every year, when deciding on a final blend, the Cellar Master and his team try several patterns of blends in various combinations, in addition to the blend of all wines, and select the best one through blind tastings.

The blending process – which requires sharp concentration, experience, and heightened skills – is where the Maisons' Cellar Masters really show their talents. The Cellar Masters of the leading Maisons spend many months tasting hundreds of different wines and trying various combinations to determine the best blend. Even for Jean-Baptiste, who has 30 years of experience, the blending of Cristal is "a new challenge every year; it’s like creating an artwork from scratch, from a white paper." His goal is “to interpret the characteristics of the harvest year and the sense of place, while maintaining the consistent style of Cristal, and ultimately to express the purity and finesse that are the essence of Cristal.”

The largest 'Domaine' in the Champagne region

Louis Roederer's Cristal is a prestige cuvée with a long history that represents Champagne’s tradition and shows Champagne’s greatest potential. In fact, Cristal is the Champagne that has passed from generation to generation in the Rouzaud family. Frédéric Rouzaud, CEO and owner of the Maison said, “it is the expression of the Champagne’s best terroir that Louis Roederer owns. It is a product of miracle.”

Although slightly different depending on the vintage character, the composition of the grape variety is generally about 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The 2018 final blend has 43% Chardonnay, more than in previous years. With the exception of the non-vintage Brut Premier, Louis Roederer produces wines from grapes grown in its own vineyards and, furthermore, each vineyard is dedicated to a specific cuvée. That means, from the start of viticulture, each vineyard is farmed in a way adapted and suitable to match its cuvée.

Creating Champagne from specific vineyards is one of the reasons why Louis Roederer is known as the biggest 'Domaine' or ‘grower’ in the Champagne region. Most of their own vineyards are organically or biodynamically farmed, and the Maison is also working on winemaking that respects the individuality and identity of each vineyard. For example, the vineyards for the Blanc de Blancs have been changed during Jean-Baptiste’s era and, since 2009, four plots of Avize have been used and thus it aims to express the terroir of Avize. Brut Nature, from the novel collaboration with designer Philippe Starck, is made by a field-blending of three major grape varieties from a single Demeter-certified vineyard in Cumières.

The vineyards for Cristal, called the 'Cristal Domaine', are mainly found in the Grand Cru villages and are chosen from the best areas among Louis Roederer's extensive own estate. They have especially chalky soils, distinctive to the Champagne region, which consequently produce wines that can age for a long time.

The Pinot Noir comes from vineyards in the villages of Verzenay, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, and Ay. The 'Pisserenard' plot located on the north-facing slopes of Verzenay, in particular, is important for Cristal and produces wines with structure and finesse. The Pinot Noir in Ay is grown on south-facing slopes, which gives the wines a soft, juicy and fruity flavor. The Chardonnay is harvested from prominent villages in the Côte des Blancs, including Cramant, Avize and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, known as the best terroir for Chardonnay.

The average age of the vines is as old as 45 years, and some are over 70 years old. The vines are rooted deep into the soils, are low-yielded, and produce wines with concentrated flavors.

Created in 1974 by Jean-Claude Rouzaud, the former president and Cellar Master, Cristal Rosé is made from wines from four plots. The Chardonnay is from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Avize. The Rosé wines are made from Pinot Noir from the ‘La Villers’ vineyard in Ay, located in the best position – south-facing, mid-slope. This vineyard was replanted 20 years ago and converted to biodynamic farming over a long period. It took 20 years before the wines from this vineyard were first used to blend Cristal Rosé for the vintage 2018.

Cristal can only be created in years that meet its highest standards. It expresses the characteristics of the harvest year while maintaining a consistent style of finesse and purity. In years when Cristal is not made, the base wines are kept as the reserve wine in foudres (large wooden vats) and blended for non-vintage Brut Premier after a few years. This is one of the secrets of the deliciousness of Brut Premier.

Even though Cristal is released after nearly 10 years, it may be shy and hide its full potential while young. Peter Liem, an American Champagne expert says it is "perhaps the most misunderstood wine in Champagne … It requires at least another ten to twenty years of age to reveal its full complexity and finesse” in his book "Champagne". As a winemaker, Jean-Baptiste also aims to make a wine destined for aging and able to survive for a long period. The winemaking corresponds to this; for example, wines do not undergo malolactic fermentation (MLF) in principle (although this can partially happen naturally depending on the year). The wines for Cristal 2018 have no MLF.

2018 is another turning point

As a pioneer in the Champagne region, Louis Roederer has long worked on organic and biodynamic farming and, in 2017, all vineyards for Blanc de Blancs, Cristal and Cristal Rosé (totaling about 127 hectares) were successfully farmed organically. Furthermore, they made the strong decision to start the organic certification process for those vineyards in 2018. The fact that a major Maison like Louis Roederer is going through a certification process on this scale is of great significance for the Champagne region. Jean-Baptiste also serves as the head of the Comité Champagne's Technical and Environmental Committee and contributes to raising the standards for the whole Champagne region.

Organic certification takes at least three years. These vineyards of Louis Roederer is expected to be certified in 2020 at the earliest.

[Go to the second article.] The Japanese version is published at Wine Report (here).


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