Enter the 36 Chambers of Cristal
A friend of a friend who tended bar near Houston Street in lower Manhattan likes to tell a story about a night, in the mid-nineties, when the late Notorious B.I.G. decided to stop in. “You got Cristal?” the out-of-breath rapper inquired; the startled bartender replied that he had no champagne. “What about Dom Perignon?” No champagne, the bartender said again. “Then give me a Long Island Iced Tea,” wheezed the former Christopher George Latore Wallace, not at all sotto voce. The friend of a friend began to mix tequila and triple sec when Biggie ordered him to stop. “What are you doing—don’t you have the mix that comes in the bottle?”
Admittedly this is a peculiar anecdote with which to preface some thoughts about Cristal, the very expensive and excellent champagne made by the firm of Roederer in Reims. Lest you think I’m trying to make Big Poppa sound like an outer-borough rube, I’m merely envious—I, too, would prefer to drink champagne whenever I get thirst-ay, especially if it’s Cristal. Yet probably no truly great wine is purchased by more people who know so little about it. The beverage is lodged in popular culture as a signifier of conspicuous wealth so firmly that it is difficult to talk about it without having some fun at the expense of its most voluble consumers, a lineage that begins with my countryman Tsar Alexander II, an ambivalent, Francophilic tyrant (pictured above). So for a moment let’s set aside the question of how much Cristal, by volume, ends up soaked into the carpeting of Navigators and Escalades; let’s not delve into how many liters get left on the dance floor at Les Caves du Roy in St. Tropez after navigating the swale between Tara Reid’s buttocks; let’s not mention the corks popping at Connecticut investment-banker barbecues to the sounds of Pearl Jam and Creed (thanks, TARP); and let’s not even touch the dust-up between Jay-Z and Roederer managing director Frédéric Rouzaud, who made comments that sounded, to some among the hip-hop yacht set, as being borderline racist and, worse, ungrateful.
Because Cristal is a tremendously serious wine that is worth your time and maybe even your money. I discovered this firsthand in July at the Trump Soho hotel while seated around a conference table with about a dozen besuited wine directors from big-time Manhattan restaurants, a Master of Wine, and some folks from Roederer importer Maisons Marques & Domaines—if I squinted, the room could pass for a boozy CIA briefing. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillion, the Roederer chef de caves and the man who makes Cristal and the rest of the house’s champagne, presided at the head of the table. If I expected a fussy, supercilious Frenchman, I was disappointed; Lecaillion turned out to be funny, unpretentious, and warm. He was uncommonly informative and candid as he spoke about his wines, all the while making the unlikely case that Cristal, in terms of its raw materials and construction, may actually be something of a bargain. How’s that? Well, Lecaillon makes it only in top years and sources the grapes from the oldest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines in grand cru villages like Verzenay, Cramant and Aÿ. Most unusually, these grapes come from mid-slope vineyards that are owned entirely by Roederer—in fact, only Roederer’s nonvintage blends include purchased fruit, most of it Pinot Meunier. After release, Cristal is known to improve for upwards of thirty years. And, lastly, the clear glass bottle looks to be exceptionally well-made, though not so sturdy as to be unsuitable for boat christenings.
It probably won’t jar your world from its axis when I tell you that the wines proved fairly spectacular. Lecaillon poured eight Cristal champagnes from seven vintages, a study in the irremediable effect of time on fermented grape juice. 2002 was a near-perfect season, the best since 1990, and the current-release ‘02 Cristal is a near-perfect wine that will reach its peak in twenty or twenty-five years. Today it tastes almost like liquid chalk, precise and electric. “You have to blend for austerity instead of immediate pleasure,” Lecaillon remarked when we tasted it, “or the wine will not age.” Conversely, Cristal from 2000, with its hot spring and hail-plagued summer, is more pleasure-giving today; it smells so opulent and buttery that you want to spoon it over pasta, and it is still findable on shelves. While I’ve never been a fan of pink champagne, finding most of it disconcertingly fruity, the ‘96 Cristal Rosé turned out to be the afternoon’s biggest surprise: nearly golden in color, with the leathery note of an aged rosé, it was so dry, lingering and complex that I sat staring at it mutely. And then there was the 1990. Already showing oxidation on the nose, with the mellow, knit-together irreducibility of a huge wine entering its prime, it offered every conceivable flavor in a kind of mysterious, Catholic-festival procession. I could compare drinking it to the moments after getting hit by a car, when time appears to slow to a crawl, or maybe to a snail-paced George Eliot novel, but instead I’ll admit that it was one of a handful of truly indelible wines I’ve tasted.
Champagne continues to have its detractors. Some argue that it’s a sugared-up cocktail made from unripe grapes; others complain that big-house product, with its large volume and multitude of parcels, is incapable of displaying a genuine sense of place. I wish some of these folks could have tasted the ‘96 Cristal; on entry it showed the figgy richness of Montrachet that gave way to the salinity and aching acidity of Chablis that works the nerves like a sad pop song. Though made from the soils of more than a half-dozen villages, it’s a wine that can come from no place other than the chalky hillsides of Champagne. And while a single-grape, single-vineyard grower champagne, like Pierre Péters’ terrific Les Chétillons from Mesnil-sur-Oger, reminds me of a trumpet solo, the Cristal is redolent of a jazz orchestra while remaining no less expressive of its origins. For me, Roederer is one of the few houses that manages consistently to pull off both delicacy and power, complexity and specificity, and do it on a large scale, a feat that makes Lecaillon as gifted a winemaker as Coche or Raveneau.
Of course a bottle of newly released Cristal still sets you back $200; a bottle with some age can cost as much as a weekend at the Ritz on Place Vendôme. It may be fairly priced, but like most of us I don’t have the means to open Cristal even on special occasions, and likely never will. Simply getting to taste these wines reminded me of what a blithely corruptible vocation wine writing can be. Luckily, at a third of the price, the vintage-dated brut and blanc de blancs are occasionally affordable and nearly as good. My favorites come from the hot, maligned ‘03 vintage; Lecaillon calls them his “new-world” champagnes. Rich, yet with good acidity and finesse, they are drinking like a dream. And that’s what I like best about champagne—drinking it, as often as possible, a pursuit I’m proud to share with R. Kelly and Sean Combs. Can’t stop, won’t stop.
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