What lies behind Cristal's status as one of the most sought-after and collectible Champagnes? Giles Fallowfield explains how it's made and tastes eight recent vintages...
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon has been the head winemaker at Champagne house Louis Roederer since 1999. He joined the company just before the 1989 harvest was picked. Over that period, the winemaking approach evolved, particularly when managing director Frédéric Rouzaud began working with his father Jean-Claude in 1996 (like Lécaillon he took over after a 10-year ‘apprenticeship’). Most of the developments took place in the vineyard.
Roederer owns more than 240ha of vineyards, which provide two-thirds of the grapes it needs. The family holdings are divided into six estates, which are all managed slightly differently, with cultivation adapted to the specific terroir and the grapes from each designated area.
The Cristal-designated vineyards are all grands crus (except for Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, which is rated 99% on the Échelle des Crus and effectively treated as a grand cru, commanding the same price level for grapes purchased there as neighbouring Aÿ). The grands crus typically used are Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Verzy and Verzenay in the Montagne de Reims; plus Aÿ and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in the Grande Vallée de la Marne for pinot Noir; and the Côte des Blancs villages of Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger for Chardonnay. These vineyards are also used to make vintage Roederer, but, said Lécaillon, ‘The chalkiest lieux-dits [named vineyards] on the mid-slope, where there is least topsoil, are reserved for Cristal, as these give extra finesse and minerality.’ Cristal vineyards are also older than 30 years and typically produce 30% less fruit, he said.
Lécaillon sees the winemaking as a continuation of the work in the vineyard. ‘It’s a slalom between oxidation and reduction, trying to aerate those wines that need oxygen and protect those that don’t,’ he said. To this end, he uses stainless steel fermentation tanks for the riper grapes and oak vats for the leaner fruit. ‘Since Frédéric [Rouzaud] arrived in 1996, we have mainly concentrated our efforts in the vineyard, introducing ploughing between the vines, and then two years later we started some biodynamic farming,’ he said. ‘We now have 60ha farmed in this way and that’s over half the total Cristal estate.’ It is also the largest biodynamic vineyard holding in Champagne.
‘As a result of this work in the vineyard, which is providing more mature, stronger and richer base wines, we are also going back to more oak fermentation, as the wines need more aeration, and dosage levels for Cristal are falling by two, three even four grams per litre and are now typically around 9g/l. Fourteen years ago they used to be between 12-13g/l.’ He said a quarter of Cristal is oak-fermented while the remainder is in stainless steel.
A tasting of recent vintages:
The Cristal tasting was divided into three parts. First, we looked at the four most recently released vintages of Cristal (2006, 2005, 2004 and 2002), all of which were the original disgorgement. This was followed by three vintages from the 1990s (1999, 1995 and 1990) that were given extended lees ageing and disgorged later. Finally we had an example of a rich, mature old vintage in the shape of the 1979, disgorged after only four years lees ageing and more than 30 years on the cork.
Lécaillon drew a distinction between two different weather patterns in Champagne that affected the vintage style of any year: ‘continental’ and ‘oceanic’ vintages. The former are drier, but not necessarily hot years when pinot Noir tends to perform better; the latter, wetter but not always cooler. ‘2004 and 2005 were more oceanic, and not as dry or as warm as 2006. in such years we tend to reduce the Pinot Noir element of the blend, so it’s more around 56% to 57% Pinot Noir with 43% to 44% Chardonnay,’ he explained. ‘Pinot Noir likes dry summers and cool weather and doesn’t succeed as well in these years, so some sweetness brought by Chardonnay is added to the blend.’
He confessed to having a personal preference for the Pinot Noir-dominant continental vintages. On the basis of the three such vintages from the 1990s we tasted, that’s an entirely understandable bias.
Click onto the next page for tasting notes from the Cristasl 2006: 1979: a mini vertical
Written by Giles Fallowfield