I probably should have waited another decade or two to taste this bottle of wine, but my curiosity was bound to get the better of me before the bottle was ready, so I figured best to drink the wine in good company, company that would want to discuss as well as drink the wine. (No I did not wear my booty shorts and, in fact, all references to Cristal and its connection to the hip-hop community were avoided. Interestingly, Cristal night did herald in an era of Jay-Z listening, but the events are unrelated…)
As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I traded my friend who is the wine director at Restaurant Daniel a magnum of Agrapart for a bottle of 2004 Cristal, an exchange of which I was, surely, the greater beneficiary (at least in terms of dollars). We traveled together in Champagne in January, and numerous conversations on the road revealed that I’ve been insulated from the world of négociant Champagne… also that I’d never tasted Cristal. After I acquired the bottle, I bragged to a number of cronies about it, and roughly have of them replied “Cristal is fantastic wine. You’re in for a treat,” while the other half replied “It’s a good Champagne, but I bet you’ll be underwhelmed.” Of course after these divergent responses there was no way I was going to be able to keep my hands off the bottle.So I took it to dinner at Brooklynguy’s house when I knew Peter Liem would be in attendance, along with a long time Portland client who has been collecting wine since I was middle or even elementary school age. These are fans of Cristal and I knew they’d be pleased to drink the wine with me, also to offer their own insights. Clearly I wanted to hear what Peter had to say about the wine, especially, as our greatest expert on the region. (Additionally, BK has a set of superior Champagne flutes of the Riedel Vintage Sommelier variety, and, while I’m not a huge subscriber to the theory that glassware makes or breaks a wine, I did drink some Ledru out of these flutes once, and it tasted great.) My bottle kept unusual company on the table that night. There were two vintages of Overnoy Arbois Blanc open: 2000 (Savagnin) and 2010 (Chardonnay). And we drank the Cristal as a sort of palate cleanser between courses. This may have been the first dinner party in the history of the species at which Cristal was served as a palate cleanser after Overnoy and before Lopez de Heredia. The thought tickled me: a famous Champagne that has become emblematic of luxury, quality, and opulence, rinsing away the mouth-coating and deliciously oxidative flavors of 2000 Overnoy.A few quick words about what Cristal is (for the full history, including the story of Roederer’s bottling of Cristal in a clear vessel for Tsar Alexander II, please consult Peter’s site: www.champagneguide.net): Cristal is Roederer’s Prestige Cuvée. It’s a vintage dated blend, generally of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The Chardonnay is sourced from Le Mesnil, Avize, and Cramant, while the Pinot comes from Verzenay, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Aÿ, and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. It’s important to note that Cristal is entirely estate fruit; some will argue and probably correctly, that Cristal is a “grower” Champagne. Folks tend to raise this point when they are arguing that it’s arbitrary to prefer grower Champagne for the sake of its “RM”-ness. I understand the point; it’s what’s in the glass that counts and Cristal is the result of well-tended, estate owned vineyards in excellent Crus in Champagne. Along with fabulous cellar-work, this is a recipe for top notch Champagne. The base wine is fermented 15-25% in wood and the house systematically avoids malolactic fermentation. The wine is known to be incredibly age-worthy.
I learned while drinking 2004 Cristal that 2002 was a power house of a vintage for the wine and that it was hard for 2004 to follow on its heels. (Cristal was not made in 2003.) Knowing the vintages, this doesn’t surprise me as 2002 is a powerful year and 2004 more subtle though also a great vintage. Apparently Roederer releases Cristal more often than some other houses release a Prestige Cuvée because they believe in showing the character of all but the most problematic vintages. 2004 suffered in repute purely in virtue of having followed 2002. What a shame!
All this idle chitchat and you’re clearly on the edge of your seat, dear reader, wondering if I liked the wine, and the answer is: I loved the wine. My reviews to my colleagues after the fact sounded something like this: “Cristal had all the qualities I look for in a great Champagne: stunning texture, length, intense, powerful chalkiness on the finish, burnished, golden aromas that were, I reckon, somewhat infantile (meaning the wine is clearly tightly coiled, structured, and going somewhere), perfect balance, etc…” I’ve been disappointed by many of the other prestigious Champagnes I’ve tried: Dom Perignon, Krug (my experiences with Krug have been mixed and I generally blame my palate and not the wine), etc… but I was not disappointed by Cristal and I’m extremely glad I drank it. Clearly this was a delicious experience, and it made me want to bring all my evaluations of Champagne back to the glass. So often my assessments of Champagne are theoretical, cerebral, and it was refreshing to remember that I can rely on my sense of smell and taste alone to analyze a bottle of wine so far outside my realm of experience.
(PS: The next day I had a headache; must have been the sulfur!)
The following morning I received an email from another regular Portland client. The exchange was as follows and I’ve decided to attach it as a coda.
PC: “wow…i’m surprised you like Cristal
what did you think of the dosage? i find it distinctive…almost too obvious in some vintages…and compared to the other Champagne I drink…
i usually find the wine hedonistic, balanced, well made…but not cerebral…”
S: “Well it was so flat out delicious that it was hard not to enjoy drinking it. As to the dosage, there was so much power and minerality that the dosage didn’t bother me. Would have been like criticizing an ice cream cake for being too sweet. That’s just the wine, right?
I didn’t find it to be particularly cerebral. What was thought provoking for me was finding all the elements of a great Champagne together in an unaccustomed package. But yes rather obvious, for sure.”
In fact I considered commenting on Cristal’s dosage and decided against it because the wine’s overall integration was such that all I could really have said was “I apprehend that this wine has more dosage than the Champagnes I usually drink” with no value judgement connected to the statement because I couldn’t possibly have imagined or wanted the wine to be any other way. Injudiciously dosed Champagne leaves the drinker thinking “Gee; I wish this wine were drier/sweeter…” while judiciously dosed Champagne tastes like itself, like it’s supposed to taste.