Louis Roederer’s Cristal is one of the most prestigious and widely recognized prestige cuvées from Champagne. Yet, often in my blind tastings, it doesn’t stand out.
Although the 2000 and 1999 vintages rated outstanding (91 points), I rated the 1997 88 points and the 1996 initially 90 points, before giving it 94 points a year later. These are not poor ratings, but I always have higher expectations, thinking that Cristal should rate amongst the best in any given vintage. Let’s face it, it’s an expensive bottle of bubbly, so why doesn’t it stand out when I taste it blind?
I attribute this to two factors. First, Cristal is always about refinement and subtlety rather than weight and power. It has finesse and a supple texture, with a lot of the complexity locked in when it’s young. Which leads me to the second factor: I always felt Cristal was released too soon, despite seven years of aging prior to release.
So when Roederer’s new managing director, Frédéric Rouzaud, invited me to taste a range of the house’s cuvées, including a few vintages of Cristal, I welcomed the opportunity. We met a day before the New York Wine Experience at the New York office of Roederer’s import and distribution company, Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. MM&D’s president and CEO, Gregory Balogh, co-hosted the tasting with Rouzaud. The wines were presented non-blind.
We tasted the 2000, 1996 and 1990 vintages each of Cristal, Roederer Brut Blanc de Blancs and Roederer Brut and the 2000, 1996 and 1988 Roederer Brut Rosé. (No rosé Cristal was tasted.) The Cristal 1996 was from magnum.
In each case, the 1996 cuvées showed the quality of that year, edging out the 1990s with the exception of the Brut Vintage, where I rated the ’96 and ’90 equally (92 points, non-blind).
The Cristal 1996 was terrific from magnum, complex and discreet, with dried berry and citrus peel notes that played off the creamy texture and vibrant structure. It was vinous and refined, with a long life ahead (95 points, non-blind).
The Cristal 1990 exhibited a more ethereal bouquet, with both rose and woodsy, truffle notes leading into flavors of brioche, tobacco and candied berry. Like the ’96, it was creamy, yet firm and fresh (93 points, non-blind).
I detected a difference in the Cristal 2000 in my blind tasting a few months ago that was evident here again. It’s a broader, more powerful Cristal than either the ’96 or ’90, with elements of whole-grain toast, ginger, citrus and graphite matched by a firm structure (91 points, non-blind).
Since 2000, when winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, who joined Roederer the previous year, became responsible for all aspects of both viticulture and winemaking, the house has been fermenting some of its base wines in wood.
“We use the wood in a different way since 2000,” explained Frédéric Rouzaud. “We used to use the large [oak] barrels only for the reserve wines. Now we are using oak barrels for some of the first fermentation for Brut Premier [NV] and Cristal.”
The other differences between Cristal and the vintage wines is that Cristal comes from 100 percent grands cru parcels whose vines are at least 25 years old. Specific parcels are designated for Cristal in the vineyard, and the best cuvées in the cellar are selected for the assemblage. It’s always roughly 40 to 45 percent Chardonnay and 55 to 60 percent Pinot Noir.
As it develops, Cristal retains its freshness and brilliance, while gaining depth and complexity, especially the toasted brioche and candied berry aromas and flavors found in the 1990. It will be interesting to see how the wines partially fermented in oak, like the 2000, evolve over time.