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The Golden Age of Champagne

Vins Clairs from the great 2015 vintage, some of which will go into Cristal in the current, new Golden Age of Champagne

Rather a quaint title don’t you think, ‘The Golden Age of Champagne’? Attention grabbing, too, I hope of course, but – and sorry if this comes as a disappointment – L’Age d’Or isn’t now. Or, at least, the vintages we’re drinking now are not from what one of Champagne’s most widely admired and respected winemakers, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, calls Champagne’s golden age. Jean-Baptiste is executive vice president of Louis Roederer, which includes Cristal, and has seen in 28 vintages since he joined the house as a newly graduated oenologue.

Care to hazard a guess when the golden era might have been? I hadn’t a clue when Jean-Baptiste dropped the expression into a conversation over dinner – a dinner that included no fewer than seven vintages of Cristal – a couple of weeks ago in the Louis Roederer Hotel Particulier in Reims (the Roederer family home, not a hotel). It turned out that he was referring to 1945–1969, with a final flourish – “the last exceptional vintage” – in 1971.

Surprised? I was, but largely because I haven’t drunk a great deal from those years and don’t know a lot about the growing seasons. I know there were some legendary vintages – 1947, ’49, ’53, ’55, ’59, ’61, ’64, ‘69 – and I know that the Champagne region has benefited from climate change since then, but, as knowledge goes, it doesn’t count for much. In fact it counts for even less than I might have expected, because J-B L says the weather wasn’t the key factor in the golden age.

What was different, he says, was the concentration in the fruit, and it came not from the weather but from viticulture: “There was no chemistry [i.e. no chemical analysis], no herbicides, no clonal selection and yields were much lower than today.”

"Biodynamic vines produce wines with more texture, natural sweetness and concentration"

The good news is that Jean-Baptiste believes that, around 2012, they (at Roederer) came back to the vintages of the 1940s and ‘50s in terms of concentration of fruit. They were in a position to achieve this because Roederer – family-owned and run – own so many vineyards, giving them more control over the fruit they use than other Champagne houses. The total of 240 hectares covers 70 per cent of their needs, including all grapes for Cristal and Roederer vintage Champagnes. Since 2000 they have also been converting the vineyards to biodynamie, with just over one third converted to date. Jean-Baptiste is in no doubt that biodynamic vines produce wines with more texture, natural sweetness and concentration. One other significant change has been to re-introduce oak fermentation in large casks. They had moved almost completely to stainless steel, but Cristal is now back to 30 per cent oak fermentation.

Now that we’re nearing four years from the 2012 harvest, we should soon be witnessing, in bottled form, the start of a new golden age at Roederer. Or perhaps I should say an even more golden age.

For tasting notes on the seven vintages of Cristal, see my next blog Liquid Gold.

Photograph by Joanna Simon

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