Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes

In the weeks following the autumn harvest, Richard Mackichan steps inside the champagne house turning sunlight into gold

Why does Cristal hold such a magical place in the wine lover’s imagination? Why do those golden bottles glow with a lustre like no-other? And what is it about the newly-released 2008 vintage that makes it perhaps the greatest ever? Richard Mackichan discovers just why Louis Roederer Cristal is the king of champagnes…

Its history spans Russian imperialism, assassination plots and one hell of a bottle design

Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes

There’s an old Russian proverb that says ‘He who doesn’t risk doesn’t get to drink champagne’. Tsar Alexander II, however, did not wish to take risks with his beloved tipple.

Enemies were never far away during his tumultuous 19th-century reign, so he instructed the makers of his own personal champagne to make the bottles clear in order that he might check for poisons. Their bases were even crafted flat, so that small bombs couldn’t be placed beneath the punt. The house of Louis Roederer — for it was their Grand cru champagne he favoured — duly obliged. The resulting cut-glass construction gave this groundbreaking Cuvée de Prestige its name: Cristal.

It is located in perhaps the most stunning corner of the region

Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes

Standing on a willow-draped picnic spot overlooking the vineyards of Cumières, the river Marne glinting in the low October sun, it’s easy to see why Alexander’s personal sommelier would have been convinced by the value of Cristal. Among the here-to-the-horizon quilt of gold and green and amber, a fertile-looking patch of mid-slope vines stands out in the distance. There, gestures our dapper guide Olivier, is where the chardonnay grapes that go into Cristal are grown; its natural sun-trap position augmented by the river’s reflective surface bouncing rays right back at the ripening vines.

Around the valley to Hautvillers and another vineyard vista opens up, this time enlivened by great squadrons of ladybirds: a signifier of the House’s ever-expanding biodynamic efforts that flit about right on cue. Alighting in Ay, home to a sweeping natural amphitheatre where pinot noir grapes grow with plump confidence, some sampling is in order. These are the grapes that make up 60 per cent of a typical Cristal (to the chardonnay’s 40) and, despite the harvest a few weeks prior, a few bunches still hang invitingly among the neat green rows. They’re small in stature but from skin to seed they’re sweet, satisfying and sophisticated.

It believes in the power of nature

Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes

The vines that populate Cristal’s plots — the very finest 45 among the Roederer estate’s 240-plus hectares dotted among the rural swaths south of Reims — are all at least 25 years old, their characteristics known in forensic detail, their grapes plucked at perfect maturity. Each and every Cristal plot has been organically farmed and wholly biodynamic for the past 18 years — a quiet but significant revolution in champagne-making terms. Larger houses beholden to shareholders aren’t always quite so willing to make bold decisions that may impact production, but Louis Roederer is defiantly a family business, and dedication to the land is in its DNA.

At Roederer HQ, a pale stone building on Reims’ champagne strip, I meet revered chef de cave, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon under the domed Cristal-base-studded ceiling of its grand entrance hall. There is something of the younger Arsene Wenger about his appearance and, as it turns out, his philosophy.

“The first step is to be organic; to drop all the chemicals. Then let nature take control and use its strength to get what you want — play judo with nature.” He cites Goethe, reveals the influence of the Australia-born permaculture movement and explains in fascinating detail the power of the moon on natural growth. Agriculture has never sounded so captivating.

“It can appear very strange,” he concludes, “but it is mostly simple good sense; to be more sensitive to nature. Maybe it’s the challenge of our civilisation today?” Quite.

The 2008 vintage was a near-perfect example

Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes

Given the feverish reaction to the recently launched 2008 Cristal, it’s hard to disagree with such methods. Jean-Baptiste is on record claiming it is his “best to date” but here, as we descend into the cellars, he’s more modest. “It is, in a sense, the Cristal of Cristals in terms of the concentration of its qualities. We took the right decisions at the right time,” he says.

Down in the vast labyrinthine cellars — 7.3km of them in total, currently housing 22 million bottles in various states of ageing — you get a sense of the baton being passed from nature to man. Cristal is aged here for six years in tightly controlled 12-degree, 80 per cent humidity, carbon-filtered aroma-neutral brick-arched stores. The distinctive clear glass bottles — crafted for the last 40 years in Normandy by specialists in perfume and cognac bottling — are stored in ‘riddling’ racks: wooden A-frames that let the sediment from the fermentation process settle. Each morning the bottles are turned, or riddled, by hand.

“The real art is to know what the wine wants and to know that you’re riddling not the visible but the invisible part. That’s why we turn so slowly and it takes so much time. It is a very complex thing to look at.” They do most of it by candlelight, too.

Soon, we move through to the contrastingly modern research and development lab where a young technician is tending to a wooden barrel. He holds up a small medicine bottle and exclaims “Valerian!” — a herbal remedy to banish impurities. I guess nature is never far away. “50 per cent of our innovating is innovating backwards,” jokes Jean-Baptiste.
I ask what drives a good chef de cave: “Every day; a better wine,” he replies .

Does he ever get time to reflect on a job well done? “My only question is: would I do the same if I were to redo the vintage? And I don’t think I would. I think this is the beauty of our job, that nothing is written in concrete, everything is in the moment. And the House is a moment by itself. Nothing is taken for granted, everything is challenged. Even the 240 years of history and practise, we can challenge that. We must, in fact.”

It's still family owned

Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes
Frédéric Rouzaud, the seventh-generation boss of Louis Roederer

I meet Frédéric Rouzaud, the seventh-generation boss of Louis Roederer, at the family’s hôtel particulier, set back behind grand gates. It’s bathed in the most beautiful pink light; the doorway opening to the arresting sight of a lifesize bull piercing a dollar bill with its horns that commands the lobby: a 2015 sculpture by French artist Karl Lagasse.

More modern art, and photos of famous friends of the Roederer dynasty, play off against the classic portraits and antique furniture across the house’s three floors. It is, I say to Frédéric, a perfect reflection of the House’s old-meets-new philosophy. He smiles. “What is important in our world is that we all share the same name: champagne. The danger of that is [having] no difference.”

Frédéric, now a resident of Paris, grew up in this very house and has fond memories. “I remember my father coming back here from a tasting session in the cellar and the smell of his clothes – probably when I was four or five. He let us do the harvest when we were 12 years old, something like that. I tasted some Cristal for the first time at my Communion…”

As a seventh-generation head of the House, I ask how much his predecessors stamped their personality on the business. “Each of them has brought an idea, an energy, some creativity, in a different way,” he says. “It has always required strong family character and long-term vision.”

The original Louis Roederer, the one who inherited Dubois Père & Fils and re-christened it in his own name, “put the feet of the House in the vineyards” by acquiring some of the region’s Grand Cru plots and focusing on the importance of soil quality. His son, Louis Roederer II, only managed the company for 10 years before his passing, but it was he who began to ship the House’s champagne overseas and attract those with expensive taste, including, yes, Tsar Alexander II of Russia. “He created Cristal!” says Frédéric with a reverent shrug.

By 1933, though, the company was in peril. The war had taken its toll and Léon Olry-Roederer had died unexpectedly leaving his new wife, Camille, with an entire champagne house to manage. “I was nine years old when my great-grandmother died so I remember her quite well,” explains Frédéric warmly. Many assumed she would just sell up. “She was a woman — in the wine business, even today, it’s more masculine than feminine.” Instead she saved the house from bankruptcy. “She had a lot of character and a lot of energy so it wasn’t a problem for her.” Her flamboyant receptions, held in the very house we’re sat in, became legendary and introduced a new generation to their champagnes. A horse-racing fanatic, it’s the colours of Camille’s stable that are used to mark Roederer vineyards to this day. 

Back in rude health, it was Frédéric’s father who pioneered Roederer’s global expansion — “a small federation of contemporary artisan winemakers around the world” — before he took retirement and handed the reins to his son. So what might Frédéric’s legacy be? “I’d love to leave the company in a better energy. I’d like biodynamic to succeed in the long-term. It’s very natural; being what we are. Our work is so connected to nature from the beginning. All the people in the company feel connected. In our DNA we are very focused on the product, the sense of place.”

It tastes exquisite

Why Cristal will always be the king of Champagnes
Chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon

The sound of a cork popping on a bottle of that famed Cristal 2008 means it’s time to move into the ornate, portrait-lined dining room for lunch. Though not quite moved to tears as some guests apparently have been, it’s been more than worth the wait. It is deep and long, with notes of nectarine pirouetting through each mouthful, ending each time with what Jean-Baptiste had earlier called an upward comma of “what’s next?”

Not everyone gets to sample Cristal in the family home of its maker, though, so I ask Frédéric what I should picture when I take my first sip.

“A blue sky with no clouds,” he says, the sunlight glinting off our empty bottle. “That for me is a perfect balance of all the elements that make
a great wine.” 

Now find out why Cristal is the ultimate Christmas wine, too…

Further Reading