"If I don't make mistakes, I never learn." Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon's words are hardly original but still they took me by surprise. I don't think of the cellar master of Champagne Louis Roederer as one who makes mistakes, least of all with Cristal, which is what he was talking about, as he hosted (virtually) the launch of the 2014 vintage.
To be clear, he didn't catalogue actual mistakes or cite any particular vintage of Cristal. The comment came in the context of the percentage of the wine fermented in oak, which, since the 2012 vintage, has become standard at 32%. That's high for Champagne, although, as Jean-Baptiste stresses, the oak comes in the form of large, 90hl casks of very lightly toasted oak, which liberate very little tannin. "We call it white toasting," he says.
They can do a high proportion of oak fermentation because, says JBL, "our wines can take it" – the result of conversion to organic and biodynamic practices giving healthier, thicker-skinned grapes. These allows picking to be delayed gain greater ripeness and concentration. JBL even likes to have "slight evaporation and shrivelling [of the grapes] at the end", which is not something you usually hear in Champagne. (The 80ha Cristal estate has been organic and biodynamic since 2012 and fully certified as of last year.)
"The chalk is the magic we have in Champagne"
Oak fermentation is where the putative mistake comes in. Seven or eight years ago, JBL thought that oak fermentation brought sweetness and texture, making a bigger wine. Now he thinks it brings more of the oak tannins and dryness and gives the wines more length. "Big wines love oak because they are stretched out by it... it gives them a longer finish."
So what about that headline, the essence of Cristal? Oak certainly isn't the essence of this preeminent Champagne. Organics and biodynamics aren't either, although they come into it. No, the essence, according to JBL, is chalk.
"The chalk is the magic we have in Champagne." In wet summers it keeps the vines dry enough and in dry summers it keeps them hydrated. The white soils sing more loudly in Cristal than the climate, he says. They bring a lot of finesse and at the same time character. "Cristal is a wine of the soil" – more specifically, of soils on the mid slopes of the chalky ridges, where the roots meet the bedrock before they've gone down much beyond 1–1.2 m, occasionally 1.4m. Vines for Cristal have to be more than 20 years old to ensure they're well rooted in this bedrock.
"The freshness and saltiness of malic acid is something very attached to the style of Cristal"
All this was particularly significant in 2014, an oceanic vintage, as JBL describes it; "a year of the new Champagne" where one weather extreme follows another. Spring 2014 was dry, continental and quite warm, but the summer was cool and wet with twice as much rain as normal, especially in the Côtes des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne. Prospects for the vintage were not looking at all good when, at last, the weather picked up at the end of August and there was a real summer. September was beautiful: hot and sunny with drying north/north east winds .
Jean-Baptiste delayed picking the Cristal vineyards as long as possible to get extra ripeness, finally sending the teams in on 20 September, at which point they had to harvest quickly and to start not in Aÿ and the Côtes des Blancs as usual but in Verzy and Verzenay in the Montagne de Reims, where it had been less wet. All 45 Cristal plots from seven Grands Crus were picked in seven days. (In addition to Aÿ, Verzy and Verzenay, the Grands Crus are Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Avize, Mesnil-sur-Oger and Cramant.)
"Each vintage should reflect what the estate and its soils give, rather than being a blend created from a blank page"
Both the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay came in at a potential 11% alcohol, which is what JBL likes: it means no sugar additions. There was no malolactic fermentation either. "I want to keep the malic freshness, the saltiness of malic acid. It's something very attached to the style of Cristal." (The last vintage in which there was a little malo was 2008.)
The 45 plots are fermented separately, then, when it comes to the blend (or, as they prefer to call it, the composition), they start by eliminating one or two – the point being that each vintage of Cristal should reflect what the estate and its soils give, rather than being a blend created from a blank page. In 2014 they used 39 plots, dropping three from Aÿ, which were not concentrated enough, and three from Avize, which were not up to expectations.
"Cristal is like a beautiful, cool, bright summer morning with blue skies"
"We are here to make the profile a little longer; to do some fine tuning. We try to make the domaine shine; to express itself," says JBL. He adds that it's about catching the purity of the fruit and the purity of the place... a wine that has the radiance and the concentration of the last week before the harvest. He likens Cristal to a beautiful, cool, bright summer morning with blue skies. It's the nearest he gets to flowery language – and I get it completely.
To revert from philosophy to factual: the final composition by variety was 60:40 Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, closely mirroring the estate's 58% Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay; the first disgorgement (the one I tasted below) was in June 2021, after more than six years in the cellar, and the dosage was 7g/l (one gram less than in 2013). For the first time, jetting was used to preserve the purity of the fruit (by expelling any air from the neck of the bottle before the cork goes in). Both the dry extract and acidity are very high and the pH is only 3. It all bodes well for ageing.
The inevitable question: can it be compared with any other vintage? Jean-Baptiste was reminded of 2012 – in the expressive complexity of the fruit and the richness of the flavours, but he believes 2014 has better acidity and more precision, and this he puts down to the cumulative progress of biodynamic and organic viticulture.
Tasted (and drunk) on three occasions over two days.
Streaming, tiny bubbles. Very expressive on the nose, with an opening burst of salty, chalky freshness and intense, crisply defined green and sweet red apple fruit. The apple turns to juicy, ripe pears in the mouth, then pear tart. There's some cappuccino and toasted walnut creaminess, together with a delicate walnut-skin bitterness. The bubbles seem to melt into the wine. Tangerine sweetness and acidity emerge on the finish. The acidity is a constant, powerful presence – chiselled but integrated – and, for all the wine's texture, concentration and extravagant ageing potential, there is an airiness, a springy elegance. Magnificent. Exhilarating. Keep making the mistakes JBL.
Tasted (and drunk) on the third day, 52 hours after opening.
No loss of freshness or quality; the aromas and taste have simply evolved a little. I am struck by the intense, honeyed citrus tart, lemon zest and umami saltiness, by the riveting acidity, chalky-creamy textural depth and the sheer complexity.
All good things to come to an end (or bottles do once opened)