Roederer Cristal – Masterclass with Wine Advocate and tasting with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon

Matter of Taste Cristal 20150228At the end of February, The Wine Advocate, the wine magazine of Robert Parker, invited to their own wine event in London under the heading ”Matter of Taste”. It consisted of a sizeable walkaround tasting, in principle featuring only “RP 90+” wines, and a number of Masterclasses. I participated in two of these, where one was a vertical tasting of Roeder Cristal. This Masterclass was led by Stephan Reinhardt, who is The Wine Advocate’s latest writer for Champagne, various Germanic wine regions, and Loire.

Roederer 20140617 Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon 1In June last year, the wine maker of Roederer, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, came to Stockholm for a visit and held a tasting arranged by the importer Vinunic. What made this tasting very special was that we got to taste a large number of still base wines, vin clair, that are used in the production of Roederer’s non-vintage cuvée, Brut Premier. We also tasted through the current range and some older vintages. Since I strangely enough never blogged about that tasting I take the opportunity to lift in the Cristal part of that tasting here.

About Roederer Cristal

Cristal is the prestige Champagne from the excellent Champagne house Louis Roederer. Roederer is usually included in most toplists of the best Champagne producers, since all of their range is of high class.

Cristal is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, usually with a bit more than one-half Pinot Noir, with 55%/45% being rather typical. The grapes for Cristal are sourced from vineyards where the vines are at least 25 years old. Grapes from younger vines in “Cristal vineyards” are instead used for reserve wines for the Brut Premier. The origin is almost exclusively grand cru, and sometimes a little premie cru. Much of the Pinot Noir for Cristal originates from north-facing grand cru villages, i.e., the area around Verzenay. Nowadays, most of the Cristal vineyards are farmed biodynamically.

Some of the base wines are vinified in oak, but I don’t consider the oak note to be particularly prominent in Cristal. (On occasion, I’ve found it to be easier to detect in young/youngish Cristal when there’s a non-oaked Champagne as reference.) The wines don’t go through malolactic fermentation, which means that the acidity is fully preserved to provide freshness, balance and longevity. However, this can make some (but not all) vintages of Cristal slightly demanding in their youth.

Cristal is a prestige Champagne of the highest class. It would be easy to believe that the eye-catching bottle and the attention it gets in some circles favouring “bling-bling”, conspicuous consumption and anything luxurious, means that Cristal is just about packaging and image, but this is not true. Stylistically, Cristal is elegant and rathe firm, but still with a lot of concentration and power, i.e., a very attractive combination. I often find a lot of citrus notes and minerality in Cristal. With these characteristics and the high acidity, it happens that Cristal gets the review “almost blanc de blancs-styled”. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon objected to this, and meant that its structure definitely comes from Pinot Noir, but that Chardonnay brings additional elegance (and acidity). Although Cristal doesn’t quite show the same “heavy” expression of Pinot as e.g. Champagnes from Bollinger or Egly-Ouriet, there’s definitely Pinot notes to be found. For example, the citrus notes can go in the direction of blood grapefruit, the apply notes often be other than exclusively green apples, and there may be bready/biscuity notes and some spicy notes that are more Pinot-styled.

The bottle and some history

A portrait of Alexander II from the 1870s painted by Alexandr Wegner, and today found in the collection of the Hermitage. Picture linked from Wikimedia Commons.

Cristal was originally crated in 1876 by Louis Roederer for the Russian Emperor Alexander II, who was already a faithful customer and who requested something more exclusive than what was already on offer.

The transparent bottles originates already from that time, although it’s not longer made of lead crystal. Distinctive for the Cristal bottle is a flat bottom, which may explain why it is made from slightly thicker glass than a standard bottle.

In those days, Champagnes were much sweeter than today, although the first Bruts had been introduced some decades earlier (primarily for the English market). Russia was the market that asked for the sweetest Champagnes, and I’ve seen figures of some 200 g/l or even more! Today’s palates would probably have found the Cristal of Alexander II to be horribly sweet and hardly have recognised it, although it is supposed to have been made from excellent raw material also in those days.

After a hiatus in the production 1917-1927, the second generation of Cristal has been produced since 1928 and has looked the sams since. From the 1974 vintage, also a rosé version has been produced.

Cristal can therefore claim to be the first prestige Champagne, although it’s more likely to have been Dom Pérignon (the first vintage was 1921) that established the prestige cuvées as a “wide concept” and something that all large Champagne houses wants in their range.

Vintages and cellaring

Cristal is launched rather young for a prestige Champagne suitable for extended cellaring from a large and well-renowned house. Cristal even tends to be first among the “big and famous” prestige Champagnes, and the 2007 was released rather recently. (However, in the 2007 vintage it wasn’t first, since Belle Epoque moved fairly quickly from 2004 to 2007.)

Despite this early release, Cristal nowadays spends longer time on the lees following the second fermentation in bottle than it used to. Today, this time is six-seven years, while it formerly (1990s and earlier?) only was four years. Cristal is then cellared at least eight months with its cork, after disgorgement, before the bottles are shipped.

Already last year, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon said that Roederer plans to launch the 2009 Cristal before the 2008. So presumably, the 2009 will appear next year (2016) and the 2008 perhaps in 2017.

Cristal from ripe vintages (such as 2005 or 2006) have in many cases been rather accessible already on release, but those from high-acid vintages (such as 1996 or 2004) and stellar vintages in general (such as 2002) can be rather young and firm on release. In my opinion, Cristal of such vintages should be cellared, and they are usually quite long-lived.

Cristal is released in rather many vintages. For example, it was released in the 1994 vintage, when very few vintage Champagnes were made at all. The most recent vintages that have been skipped are 2003, 2001, and 1998. The missing 1998 is something of a mystery, since this vintage has a style that should fit Cristal well. (I find that Champagnes from 1998 often are better than those of 1999 or 2000 when they are tasted today, although there are exceptions from the rule.) Since Chardonnay was more successful than Pinot Noir in 1998, the likely explanation is that Roederer thought that the Pinot component of Cristal didn’t quite come up to their standard. Some other Pinot-heavy Champagnes also weren’t produced in the 1998 vintage, such as Bollinger La Grande Année & R.D. That Roederer skipped the generally weak 2001, and the hot and odd 2003, is much less surprising.

Dosage

The dosagen today is 8-10 g/l of sugar, adapted to the vintage. Stephan Reinhardt pointed out that this is slightly drier than before, when the number was 12 g/l. (The upper limit fo “Brut” is 12 g/l, but used to be 15 g/l.) Further back, the dosage was higher, because Jean-Baptiste pointed out that he had tasted the 1959 Cristal which sported 17 g/l of sugar, but still tasted dry in its mature condition.

Although 8-10 g/l today is high rather than low for a prestige Champagne, I can recall having heard anyone say that Cristal is too high in perceived dosage. (I sometimes taste Champagne with people who voice such complaints about other prestige Champagnes, at least newly launched vintages, even in those cases when the producers claim the dosage to be downwards 6 g/l…) The explanation is likely the high acidity of Cristal, and that Roederer usually achieves an excellent balance. Perhaps it is also the case that Cristal is cellared sufficiently long on its cork for the dosage to integrate before it is being sold.

Cristal Rosé

Cristal Rosé is produced using the saignée method, i.e., using a period of maceration to extract colour and so on from the red grapes. (The more common alternative is to add red wine to the blend, but that method isn’t used here.) Despite this production method, Cristal Roseé is usually rather pale pink/salmon in colour. If the producer wishes, the saignée method can be used to produce deeply coloured rosées.

The rosé version has about the same varietal composition as the regular Cristal, i.e., also here just under half Chardonnay is added. However, the Pinot Noir for the rosé originates from old vines in Aÿ, i.e., from south-facing slopes rather than the north-facing slopes used to a large extent for the regular Cristal. The Chardonnay originates from Côte des Blancs.

The rosé version of Cristal has been produced since the 1974 vintage, and is noticeably more expensive than the regular Cristal.

Roederer 20140617 flaskor på kylningTasting notes

2007 Cristal
…showed up more recently than the Masterclass, and I haven’t tasted it yet. In general, 2007 is a leaner vintage than 2006 (and 2005) with more marked acidity. Presumably, this results in a Cristal that comes across as firmer and more in need of time in the cellar than the 2006. Perhaps it could come across as a somewhat lighter version of the 2004. The 2007 consists of 58% Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay, 15% of the wine is vinified in oak, and the dosage is 9.5 g/l.

2006 Cristal
60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, 20% of the wine vinified in oak, dosage 8-10 g/l.

Masterclass Feb 2015:

Elegant and big nose with a lot of citrus including grapefruit, blood grapefruit and citrus zest, ripe yellow fruit and some peach, noticeably biscuity notes with brioche. With time in the glass, some nutty notes and cocoa powder emerged. The palate is more than medium bodied with a lot of citrus, definitely a high acidity, some spice notes, red and yellow apples in the background, and a long and elegant aftertaste. Approachable now but could develop more, 93-94(+) p.

Comes across as more spicy than the 2002 or 2004, and more ready to drink than those.

Roederer tasting June 2014:

Very elegant and open nose with ripe apple, peach, citrus, bready and nutty developed aromas, nougat, some vanilla, and flowers. Palate with powerful concentration, a lot of citrus, quite high acidity, spice notes and a long mineral-drivem aftertaste. Rather young but approachable, 94(+) p.

The 2006 was surprisingly accessible already when it was launched last year, and simultaneously of high quality. The 2006 vintage is characterised by high ripeness but in the case of the 2006 Cristal it is combined with quite a high acidity, providing freshness and balance.

2005 Cristal
55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, 20% of the wine vinified in oak, dosage 8-10 g/l.

From a tasting of mixed Champagnes in July 2014:

Rather fruity, open and accessible nose with peach, vanilla, discrete bready notes, and citrus. The palate is dry and more than medium bodied with a lot of fruit notes, a lot of citrus, apple, high acidity, much minerality, and a long aftertaste with a lot citrus and minerality, 92-93 p.

2005 is a vintage characterised by high ripeness and where most Champagnes have been rather ready to drink from release. On this level of description, 2005 and 2006 are rather similar. However, in my opinion the 2006 Cristal is a notch better, and I believe there is more reason to cellar the 2006 than the 2005.

Cristal 2004
55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, 20% of the wine vinified in oak, received 5 years on the yeast, dosage 8-10 g/l.

Masterclass Feb 2015:

The nose is quite elegant and citrus-dominated including zest, with minerality, very light spice and honey notes, slightly flowery notes and a cool impression with hints of herbaceous notes. Palate with noticeable citrus, green apple, noticeable minerality, quite high and noticeable acidity, discrete spiciness, and a long aftertaste. Very fresh, still young, needs more time, 94-95+ p.

Comes across as younger than the 2006 i both nose and palate.

The 2004 Cristal is an absolute top-level Champagne and is one of the very best 2004s. Many 2004s have developed faster than the 2002s, but these two Cristal vintages seem to develop at the same pace. This means that the 2004 Cristal still has quite a bit to gain from further cellaring.

2002 Cristal
55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, dosage 10 g/l.

Masterclass Feb 2015:

The nose is rather young and slightly shy but shows some notes of maturity. Other than that, the noticeably elegant nose shows ripe yellow fruit, pronounced citrus notes including zest and lemon pie, some nutty notes including almonds, hints of vanilla, some bready notes, and slightly flowery notes. The palate shows quite good concentration and is citrus-dominated with ripe citrus and other yellow fruit, high acidity, pronounced minerality, great length with a lot of citrus also in the aftertaste. Marvelously fine balance, slightly more bready than the 2004 but still somewhat young, could develop more, 95(+) p.

Roederer tasting June 2014:

Very elegant nose with some development, showing yellow apple, some peach, citrus, hints of honey, powerful minerality, discrete vanilla notes, and some hazelnuts. Palate with powerful minerality, very high acidity, citrus, green apple, and a long aftertaste with grapefruit. A Champagne with great precision and young palate, needs more time and definitely shows potential, 94+ p.

As far as I know this was an “original bottle” and not a bottle from the Roederer “family reserve”, characterised by late disgorgement and lower dosage. Compared to the 2006 at the same tasting, the noses didn’t differ very much in their state of development, but the 2002 had a younger palate!

2002 is a truly great vintage in Champagne and the 2002 Cristal definitely performs as it should compared to its peers. In my opinion, it is not quite mature yet, but those that enjoy mature Champagnes less than I do or that have a lack of patience, are unlikely to be disappointed if they open a bottle in the near future…

2000 Cristal
55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, dosage 10 g/l.

Masterclass Feb 2015:

Developed nose with ripe yellow fruit, yellow apple, some fried apple, spices, some bready notes, slightly nutty aromas, and other notes of development. More developed than the 1999 and less citrus notes than the rest. Palate with powerful concentration, yellow apple together with some winter apples and fried apples, good acidity, slightly nutty notes, and noticeable spice. Comes across as fully developed and is the most developed of the five vintages at this tasting, but isn’t old, 92 p.

A vintage in a powerful style which is good, but that doesn’t quite reach the level of the best ones, since it doesn’t quite possess the same freshness. Based on this bottle, it hasn’t too much to gain from further cellaring.

1999 Cristal

Masterclass Feb 2015:

Fruity nose with ripe yellow fruit, yellow apple, citrus, some peach, some vanilla, slightly developed notes. Rather young impression in the nose. Palate with good concentration, yellow apple, some citrus, high acidity, spicy notes, and a long aftertaste. Rather fully mature, but not at all too far gone and has quite a long time still left ahead of it, 93-94 p.

A vintage in a powerful style that performs quite well. It has more or less reached its peak, but will definitely not suffer from some additional years in the cellar. Based on this bottle, I’d advise to keep the last bottle of 1999 Cristal until after the 2000 Cristal has been finished. For those that have a cellar where this planning problem exists, of course. 🙂

Cristal Rosé 2006
55-60% Pinot Noir and 40-45% Chardonnay, 20% of the wine vinified in oak.

Roederer 20140617 Cristal i glasRoederer tasting June 2014:

Elegant nose with a lot of mineral, red apple, wild strawberries, citrus, discrete flowery notes, and a discrete spice note. With some time in the glass, some notes of nougat and chocolate emerge. The nose gives a very elegant and cool impression. The palate shows powerful concentration, spice notes, red apple, wild strawberries, powerful minerality, quite high acidity, and a long aftertaste with a lot of mineral. In summary quite an enormous minerality! Rather young with some approachability already, 95+ p.

The 2006 Rosé is younger in its style than the regular 2006 Cristal, and shows more minerality. The difference between the two was quite noticeable. This was the first time I’ve tasted Cristal and Cristal Rosé next each other, so I can’t really say if this is how the difference between them usually shows. I do find it fascinating that the rosé version comes across as younger and firmer, and thus almost defies the vintage character, despite the Aÿ origin of its Pinot component, where ripe grapes is common!

Finally a video where Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon presents the 2005 Cristal ahead of the launch of that vintage:

Swedish version of this post.

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One Response to Roederer Cristal – Masterclass with Wine Advocate and tasting with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon

  1. Pingback: Penfolds Shiraz Masterclass | Tomas's wine blog

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