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my wine journey

Understanding Cristal, Champagne’s "Best of Best" (2)

As in other winegrowing regions, the viticulture and winemaking methods in the Champagne region have changed over time. These changes have been reflected in the wines produced, so tasting the older vintages makes it possible to understand more deeply the background and characters of the wines in those times. There is also a difference in the style of each producer, and consumer’s preference and current trends may have affected the style of wine.

In April 2019, at the dinner hosted by Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Louis Roederer’s Cellar Master, I had the great pleasure to join him in a vertical tasting of Cristal, including rare old vintages. It was an exceptional opportunity to experience and understand Cristal and Cristal Rosé which have shown their potential through maturation, and to review the vintages of Champagne over time.

[The first half of the article here.]

Cristal 2008

This is the current vintage that was released in 2018. It is a "perfect" Cristal, which has been highly acclaimed by the major media and given a full 100-point score by several prominent wine critics. 2008 Champagnes are generally characterized by a sharp and high acidity. Because of that, this Cristal was released after a nine-year of lees-aging period, which is the longest in its history, and 16% of the wines went through malolactic fermentation (MLF). Due to the long-term aging, the dosage is at the lowest level for Cristal, at 7.75 grams per liter. On the nose, it has white flower, lemon, orange, white peach, mirabelle plum, toast and chalk. It has concentration and intensity inside but is feather-like light on the palate. Mousse is fine and soft. It's a vintage that expresses delicacy, elegance, finesse and purity that are the essence of Cristal. It is still youthful and, because of its acidity, solid structure and concentrated fruits, it can be expected to mature and develop over the long term.

Cristal 2012 (Preview)

Following the 2008 vintage, the 2012 vintage will be released next year. It marks a turning point, as all the grapes for this Cristal were grown organically or biodynamically. Jean-Baptiste refers to it as a "next level" wine. (Cristal Rosé reached this stage a little earlier, becoming a 100% organic/biodynamic grape from the 2007 vintage).

2012 was the year of Pinot Noir when the grapes were well-ripened, and the wine has fuller body and power. Therefore, in contrast to 2008, the lees-aging period is 6-7 years so as not to lend too much rich and oily texture to the wine. Dosage is 7.5 gram per liter and no MLF is performed. It has rich aromas of tangerine, blood orange and Earl Grey tea as well as savory notes.

Cristal & Cristal Rosé 1999 Vinothèque (Preview)

We then tasted a 1999 Vinothèque Cristal that was disgorged seven years ago, a so-called "late disgorgement" (a wine disgorged after a longer period of lees-aging than usual). The dosage is 6 grams per liter.

1999 was a hot year, and the grapes fully ripened, which resulted in a large and open wine. It has flavors of yeast and biscuits coming from the lees, and nuances of honey and caramel from the aging. The Cristal Rosé is fresh and fruity, with flower bouquets, strawberries, pain d'épices, and white chocolate.

1999 was the year when Jean-Baptiste became Cellar Master, Chef de Caves, just before the harvest. He became responsible for viticulture in the spring of the following year. This was the turning point for Louis Roederer, as it made a firm decision to stop using herbicides and start organic/biodynamic farming. It was one of the first Maisons in the Champagne region to do so and marked the start of a period of great reform.

Cristal Rosé 1995 Vinothèque (Magnum) (Preview)

This is the magnum size version of the 1995 Vinothèque that was released for the first time in 2017. The bouteille 1995 Vinothèque was released after a total of 21 years: it was aged for 8 years sur latte, 6 years sur pointe, and 7 years after disgorgement. In the case of magnum Vinothèque, the same general theory as for aging a larger format bottle is applied; there is a lower ratio of contact between the lees and the wine in a magnum bottle, so it is released after a longer period of aging. The Rosé consists of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay. In addition to its delicacy, tension, and precision, it shows pure fruits (raspberry, cherry), ginger, biscuits, vanilla, and a hint of honey and mocha.

Cristal 1993 Vinothèque (Bouteille and Magnum)

Vinothèque hit the market for the first time with the 1995 vintage, but there are, in fact, a number of trials and experiments in the shadows. The 1993 vintage appears the same as the usual Cristal from the label, but the wines in the bottles are a result of the maturation technique used for Vinothèque, and Jean-Baptiste calls it "the father of Vinothèque."

In 1993, the weather was fine until the summer and expectations for a good year were raised, but rain continued from the start of September, resulting in a dilution of the grapes and a difficult year. The Pinot Noir did not ripen well and produced the average quality wines, but it was a good year for the Chardonnay. As a result, Cristal was produced consisting of a majority of Chardonnay (58%) which was unusual. Therefore, it now presents flavors coming from matured Chardonnay. Because of its high acidity, it remains fresh even after a long aging period, but the aromas from the maturation, such as chocolate and coffee, are also prominent.

Jean-Baptiste says Vinothèque techniques, i.e. long-term lees-aging (especially sur latte), are beneficial in such a difficult year. This is because the lees-aging gives the wine richness, weight, and additional flavors.

We tasted both bouteille and Magnum. Indeed, the Magnum was fresher and more vibrant, whereas the bouteille had more mature notes of white chocolate and subtle truffle.

Cristal Rosé 1988&1989

According to Jean-Baptiste, 1988 and 1989 are two of the best vintages from the 1980s, but they turned out to be the contrasting wines.

1988 is a cool, classic Champagne vintage that was harvested late in October. It was the year of Chardonnay. The influences from the soil are more apparent in the resulting wines, rather than those from fruits. A straight, sharp acidity forms the structure of the wine and, because of the long hangtime, grapes had concentration in flavors. The non-fruit flavors, such as licorice, spice, chocolate, truffle, and subtle roast coffee, are more evident in Cristal Rosé 1988.

1989 was a warm year and the harvest took place in September. It was a year in which Pinot Noir took a leading role, so the wine is rounded and Burgundy-like winey with plenty of fruit. In Cristal Rosé, particularly, the ripe fruit stands out, but its precision and freshness are not lost. It is a seductive wine with silky and seamless textures. Among the line-up of Cristal tasted this time, the 1989 Magnum was the best Cristal Rosé for me.

Cristal 1979 (Bouteille and Magnum)

1979 was a cool year and the harvest was late, taking place in October. Therefore, as in 1988, the wine expresses more soils than fruits. Along with 1976, it is rated as the best vintage of the 1970s, as Jean-Baptiste commented. Even after forty years have passed, the fresh and beautiful acidity structures the wine and it is remarkably focused with precision and tension. In addition to restrained fruits (apricots, lemon peel, yuzu, and dried fruits), there are abundant matured notes such as caramel, truffle, mocha, and umami. I personally found that the 1979 Magnum to be the best Cristal of the day.

The Japanese version is published at Wine Report (here).

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