August 30, 2012
From Tsars to Rap Stars, the Story Behind Cristal Champagne
Katie Kelly Bell chats with Cristal’s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon about the Champagne’s storied history
By Katie Kelly Bell for her Forbes "Adventures in Taste" blog, with permission from Forbes magazine
Read on to find out why Cristal got its odd bottle shape (hint: a paranoid Russian Tsar) and why this year’s release, a 2005 Cru, is a great buy
Louis Roederer’s Cristal Champagne has a long and storied history, featuring everything from paranoid monarchs to extravagant hip hop and rap artists. Originally crafted at the behest of Tsar Alexander II of Russia, it has also enjoyed intense popularity as the beverage of choice for rap stars and other musical luminaries. Cristal is one of the oddest looking bottles on the market with its clear bottle, flat bottom and cellophane wrapping. But all of those oddities have a purpose dating back to 1876. The Champagne’s original promoter, Tsar Alexander, rightly feared assassination attempts.
To better enjoy his Champagne and quell his fears the Tsar asked specifically for a clear bottle so he could detect any poison. The flat bottom was also a requirement because the Russian royal was worried someone might hide something lethal inside the ‘punt’ (the large indentation at the bottom of a wine bottle).
These two customizations also gave Tsar Alexander assurance that the wine was coming from his own cellar. Of course the wine had to have excellent taste as well and the Roederer family obliged, sourcing only 100% estate grown fruit from the oldest vines growing in the chalkiest soil. The style was to be elegant, concentrated and fine—ideal for a royal palate.
Today, Cristal is still sourced from the estate’s oldest vines, (they must be at least 25 to 30 years old minimum, some vines are as old as 60 years). And, if you’re wondering, the cellophane wrapping is a modern addition designed to protect the wine from light.
As one of the most expensive bottles of Champagne in the world, (prices range from $189 -$200 a bottle) Cristal has a lot to prove. The burden of that proof generally rides on cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon’s shoulders. The Champagne house is preparing to release the 2005 vintage of Cristal so I asked Lécaillon to take a break from his fast-paced life managing the vineyards and cellars of Roederer (which range from Bordeaux to California) to talk about Cristal and what it takes to make such a prize wine.
Why is the wine so expensive?
“The grapes are primarily sourced from older low yielding vines in selected estate vineyards and mainly grand cru designated property. We crop them at the beginning and perform traditional tilling of soil using no herbicide at all. Some parts are plowed by horse. The grapes require an enormous amount of work and craftsmanship in the vineyards. In the winery we ferment all blocks separately and at final blending we decide on a vision of the wines we want to produce from vineyard. A great wine comes from an assembly of myriad details.”
Talk about the 2005 vintage—what can we expect from this wine?
“It’s an interesting vintage. In Champagne we had two problems: heat and moisture. Those two things can mean diluted berries [grapes] and rot. We had to be extremely careful in the vineyard using fastidious canopy management to avoid rot and early picking to get clean fruit. It was a difficult year, some decided not to declare it as a vintage because they had so many grapes rot. We like this vintage. When everything is perfect one tends to be lazy and everyone makes great wine. In the difficult years you see and taste the hard work of great terroir and great winemakers.”
What should we be enjoying with Cristal?
"2005 is a very aromatically open vintage with richness and concentration, but at the same time the fine long acidity that comes from our chalky soils. I would drink this with lobster."
"The texture of lobster paired with our wine is a compelling pairing. You might also try scallops or even some white meat, possibly chicken.”
If you weren’t cellar master and making wine, what would you be doing?
“I would fly around the world and see different things and learn from all the experiences of winemaking…understanding the techniques and experiences in different countries. Or, work in some way with something involving philosophy. Maybe it’s my age now; I’m at an age where philosophy is important.”
FOLLOR KATIE KELLY BELL’S “ADVENTURES IN TASTE” BLOG ON WINE, FOOD AND LUXURY TRAVEL FOR FORBES MAGAZINE AT: blogs.forbes.com/katiebell/