The tasting of the first two vintages, 1995 and 1996, of Roederer's ultrarare Cristal Vinothèque
When Louis Roederer released the first vintage of Cristal Vinothèque in September last year, the 1995, there was a launch for the press in France, but no tasting in the UK. When you know that the entire UK allocation is 48 bottles of the white (out of a grand total of 400) and 18 bottles of the rosé, you can see why. On Tuesday, for the launch of the 1996 (500 bottles of white produced), cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon brought the bottles from his own allocation to London. Sixteen of us sat down with him at 67 Pall Mall to "explore the ageability of Cristal" through a tasting of both vintages and both colours. We started with the current release, Cristal 2008, which Jean-Baptiste says is “the most Cristal Cristal, the Cristal of Cristals”, and a re-release of the original disgorgement (in 2009) of the 2002. The Champagnes were out of this world (perhaps it hardly needs saying) and Jean-Baptiste was as open and as illuminating as always – such openness isn’t the norm in Champagne. What a privilege to be there. It will be a while before there is anything like it again: the next Vinothèque vintage to be released is the 1999.
Jean-Baptiste describes Vinothèque as "a new chapter of Cristal, a new story where we try to push the envelope a little: where we go beyond a bit but remain the same". He talks of “the Cristal DNA”. Vinothèque is about giving Cristal extra age – 20-plus years – because he has “always loved the original disgorgements with about 20 years of age”. The working title of the project, which started in 1993, was ‘Project Eternal Youth’. I can’t have been the only person to look at J-B L as he said this and to think that the words could equally apply to him.
"Organic cultivation may be more suited to colder years and biodynamic to warm and hot years"
Vinothèque ageing is not simple. It's in three different ways and phases: sur latte, i.e. lying in bottle so that the wine has extensive contact with the lees, for the development of texture and aroma, especially umami aroma; then sur pointe – upside down with the lees in the neck blocking oxidation, for a period of freshening, reductive ageing; and then post disgorgement ageing for the softening (“caressing”) of the bubbles. The 1995 was aged for eight years sur latte, six sur point and eight post disgorgement. The 1996 was 10 years sur latte, a longer period because of the exceptionally high level of acidity of the vintage, then four years sur pointe and seven years post disgorgement. The dosage for Vinothèque is 7g/l, in contrast to 9–10g for the original disgorgements, and the wine used is the exact same Champagne, not the reserve wines from cask that Roederer uses for the original disgorgement.
All the grapes for Cristal come from Roederer’s own vineyards, 45 parcels for the white from seven Grands Crus and just four parcels for the rosé, two of Pinot Noir in Aÿ and a parcel of Chardonnay from each of Mesnil and Avize. They’re certified organic and farmed biodynamically and the next vintage of Cristal to be released, the 2012, will be fully biodynamic. Interestingly (mind you, it was all interesting and there’s much I haven’t included), Jean-Baptiste says they think that organic cultivation may be more suited to colder years because it brings more flesh, while biodynamic brings more energy and freshness, so is suited to warm and hot years.
"“I listen to the yeast, I smell it. I want it soft, fruity and clean and not too exotic"
The average age of the vines is 40–45 years (minimum around 25 years) and they’re from massal (or massale) selection, not clonal. The planting is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, which may be reflected in Cristal, as in 2008 and 2002, but J-B L says he doesn’t care what the proportions are. What he’s looking for is: “chalkiness: sometimes the Pinot is more chalky and sometimes the Chardonnay is.” What he is also looking for in Cristal is brightness, liveliness and “invisible lightness” at the same time as “super-density”. Like the proportions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, malolactic fermentation is not a recipe: “I see it as salt and pepper.” The 2002 had no malo. The 2008, which he describes as an “absolutely amazing vintage – I call it the ‘Let it be’ vintage,” had a small amount. “We adapt the winemaking to the year, to the ingredients. We’re not using a recipe.”
Cristal 2008 and 2002, Cristal Vinothèque 1995 and 1996 and the same vintages of Rosé Vinothèque
Apart from being “the Cristal of Cristals”, 2008 was apparently very similar to 1996 (a year of great ripeness and legendary high acidity). So they were able, he says, to replay the earlier vintage, but having learned from their mistakes. They picked ’08 at least a week later, with “amazing ripeness” and they picked by taste, not analysis. 1996 was the last vintage picked according to the analysis and, while 1996 had no malolactic, ’08 had 16%. 2008 had nine years on lees, to get the texture, whereas the original disgorgement of 1996 was only six years on lees.
Thrillingly fresh nose with oyster-shell and salted-cracker notes, suggestions of crème fraiche, nougat and lemon zest. Intense, deeply textured, chalky palate with penetrating sweet lemon and orange, crystalline but integrated acidity and a long saline, chalky-mineral finish. Extraordinary depth and purity – and still so young.
Disgorged in 2009 and kept undisturbed in a special area of the cellars 12 metres down. It was the first vintage that every one of the Cristal parcels was used (since then, all 45 have been used in 2015 and are likely to be used for 2018) and it was picked unusually early because of rapidly accelerating ripening at the last moment: “We had the sugar. I wanted the freshness,” says J-B L.
Biscuit, brioche and a murmur of honey, buttered toast and hazelnut on the nose. Rich, creamy and intense with a spicy note of pain d’épices (or, for Jean-Baptiste, vanilla, a telltale sign for ’02 Cristal in any blind tasting). Despite the richness and power, there is precision, vibrancy and chalky tension.
Cristal Vinothèque 1995
A striking smoky aroma with fresh, sweet orange fruit and a touch of apricot. Pain d’épices again, grilled hazelnuts, toasted brioche and gradually unfolding honey notes. Layered and complex, but effortlessly focused, balanced and fresh. At first I marginally preferred the 1996 Vinothèque, but going back to it I thought the 1995 had the edge. But, boy, it was marginal and an hour later maybe I would have changed back again.
Cristal Vinothèque 1996
A more intense, super-charged nose – mineral, biscuity and lemon-citrus aromas – with sweetness and ripeness on the palate but also more savoury bass notes. Depth and density, and all anchored by vivid acidity.
Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1995
J-B L describes his rosé method as “a real infusion technique” – neither saignée nor blending of wine. The Pinot Noir is cold soaked for ten days to pick up colour but with no deliberate extraction, so the colour is not so much pink as old gold/very pale copper. When fermentation of the Pinot Noir free-run juice starts, spontaneously, 45% Chardonnay is added – juice not wine. While it’s fermenting, Jean-Baptiste says he takes no notice of the wine, he cares only about the yeast. “I listen to it, I smell it. I want it soft, fruity and clean and not too exotic."
Vanilla, red berries and rose oil on the nose. Spicy incense, sandalwood and sweet red apple on the palate with a subtle meaty, savoury flavour, a white pepper note and a little dark chocolate bitterness at the end adding to the complexity. It shares the mineral chalkiness of the whites, but feels more youthful because of the tannins (ultra discreet though they are).
Cristal Rosé Vinothèque 1996
Less at first on the nose than the 1995 Rosé Vinothèque, but richer, tighter and more concentrated on the palate, opening up in the glass, with crème fraiche, orange, orange peel and red apple, a texture that is both chalky and luxuriously silky, then finishing with zesty orange peel and both salt and pepper. Becomes sweeter the longer it remains in the glass.
Photographs by Joanna Simon