Emperor’s New Clothes or fit for a SuperTsar?

I was recently asked to host a vertical tasting of this most prestigious Champagne from the private cellar of a generous collector. I was thrilled to be doing it but curious as to whether the group would be as enthralled by the actual wine as the reputation that preceded it.

It is famously considered a Veblen product ie desirable precisely because of its high price. The question – is it only because of the price?

In recent times Louis Roederer Cristal has been glorified in rap by, among others, Jay-Z  in ‘Hard Knock Life’ and the late Tupac Shakur’s Thug Cocktail – a blend of Alizé Gold Passion and Cristal. Frédéric Rouzaud, who took over from his father told Economist magazine that the house had watched Cristal rise to prominence in these circles with ‘curiosity and serenity’ but his further comments that Dom Pérignon or Krug might be more delighted to have the business were seen as derogatory by the rap community and Jay-Z launched a boycott campaign.

Frédéric’s father, Jean-Claude Rouzaud, commented that Cristal was made for the 3-5% of consumers who really know wine and take the time to taste it correctly. But this is at odds with the relatively chunky quantities made (approx. 400 000 btls / year though not every year) and sadly because most Cristal is drunk so very young it must be largely under-appreciated. The wine is made with a relatively high dosage (8-10g/l) and has ferociously high acidity at birth – malo-lactic fermentation is not always chosen and only sometimes for the Pinot Noir (55-60% of the blend), never for the Chardonnay (the remaining 45-40%) – all intended for long age charm.

An entrepreneurial  Louis Roederer set off for the Russian court of Tsar Alexander II in the late C19th with some bottles to tempt the court and they were so impressed that the Tsar asked him to set aside his best cuvées each year for him. Not content with this he then asked M Roederer to create an exclusive cuvée for him which would be visibly distinct and superior to everything everyone else was drinking at court.

The result was a sweet wine (as the taste of the times dictated) packaged in a lead crystal bottle which was clear so they could check for poisoning – in 1876 pre-revolution Russia the Tsar was aware he had determined enemies – and had a flat bottom, as it still does today. In an early expression of wine bling the bottle also had a decorative gold label. Sadly, none of these original crystal bottles survived, not even a photograph. The brand came to an abrupt halt in 1917 with the revolution leaving the House of Roederer with a large quantity of sweet Champagne that took some time to sell through and a substantial unpaid debt.

Eventually Cristal was re-commissioned by the widow Camille Olry-Roederer who decided to commercialise it in 1928 with the current packaging, at around the same time as that other luxury cuvée, Dom Pérignon, was being launched.

Roederer makes my favourite non-vintage Champagne which I think is remarkably good value for money and opened the evening in magnum. It was every bit as delicious as expected. Creamy yet fresh, it has lovely toasty notes under explosive citrus fruit. It’s rich and satisfying as well as refreshing.

Then followed a mini-horizontal:  the Brut Vintage 2002, Rosé Vintage 2002 then the Cristal 2002. This was a particularly good Champagne vintage and Roederer made full use of the ideal conditions. Both the Vintage Brut and Vintage Rosé have about 70% Pinot Noir. The fruit for the Brut 02 came from north facing slopes giving a sense of minerality and purity with a rounded creaminess to finish. The Rosé was made with grapes from south facing slopes in the Marne Valley but the fruit was macerated for 6-10 days without crushing giving a very delicate Pinot character with a pale colour.

The Cristal was sumptuous – just starting to give a hint of maturity without sacrificing any exuberance of fruit at all. Both opulent and racy at once it seems to embody all that the cuvée promises it can be. Wonderful Champagne. Full stop.

Then we had a run: 2000 smooth and caressing, laden with rich fruit / 1999 full and soft, buttery with grapefruit and pineapple flavours / 1997 seductive, rich, toasty / 1996 still very fine boned and racy / 1989 crème brûlée, rich.

These are very broad descriptions of course but the idea was to understand how the wines change with time and they all showed very clearly that there is spectacular weight, power, richness and complexity which are slowly revealed and should not be rushed. It was also helpful to taste the other wines to get a sense of the House of Roederer and their consistent precision.

We finished with the current release 2006 Cristal. It has an intriguing, haunting fragrance with charm already and is incredibly fresh and taut. It promises, though, to be magnificent and I will not be rushing the couple of bottles I have.

Far from the flighty image of a ‘marketing’ wine which panders to the fashion-conscious the evening showed Cristal to be beautiful, pure, extraordinary and truly worth the money – in the context of wine pricing as it stands (another subject altogether). It would be easy to misunderstand this wine because it is so austere when young, so rarely enjoyed at its best moment, because it is fragile and needs careful cellaring.

Somehow this all adds to the allure and magic. Intellectually I feel like one of the 3-5% who take the time to think about what I’m drinking and appreciate it. Financially I may not be able to do so as often as I would like to. It remains aspirational.

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The painting in the featured image shows the coronation of Tsar Alexander II by Mihaly Zichy

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