A Survey of Cristal: 1979-2002

1979    Roederer Cristal                       96

1982    Roederer Cristal                       98

1988    Roederer Cristal                       94

1990    Roederer Cristal                       97

1996    Roederer Cristal                       96

2002    Roederer Cristal                       96+

Cristal, first created in 1876 for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, is one of the most iconic wines of Champagne. Sometimes lost in the glamorous image the wine has acquired over its long history is the fact that Cristal also happens to be a serious Champagne that is capable of aging extraordinarily well. I recently sat down with Chef de Caves Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon to survey a collection of vintages. The wines were grouped in pairs meant to represent Cristal in three distinct stages; mature, peak and young. This was an incredible opportunity to compare some of the legendary Cristals side by side, and to revisit a few personal favorites, like the 1979, which was one of the standouts in a recent horizontal tasting that included nearly all of that vintage’s top wines.

Lecaillon’s goal with Cristal is to make an ageworthy Champagne that is fresh and floral when young, but that is also capable of considerable development with bottle age, qualities the finest Cristals have in spades. Unfortunately because of its rabid following the vast majority of Cristal is drunk upon release, which is ironic, if not downright tragic, considering Cristal is a wine that starts peaking around age 15-20, and that can last much longer under ideal storage conditions. 

Much of Roederer’s success with Cristal (and the other wines in the lineup) can be attributed to a reliance on 214 hectares of estate-owned vineyards that supply all of the top bottlings. In recent years the focus has been on consolidating plots within the best appellations as well as a move towards a more natural and sustainable approach to viticulture. Cristal is always a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from the house’s finest plots, with Pinot playing the leading role. For Cristal the Pinot comes mostly from Aÿ, Mareuil, Verzenay and Verzy, although on occasion a touch of Bouzy fruit is used as well. The Chardonnay is sourced from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Avize, a pretty impressive collection of villages, to say the least.

In most vintages a portion of the wine is aged in oak, with frequent stirring of the lees, a technique used to give the wine an added dimension of richness. The exact amount of wood aging is a function of the qualities of the fruit each year. The estate takes a similar approach to malolactic fermentation, which may or may not take place, depending on the vintage. Dosage is generally around 12-13 grams. In recent years dosage has come down slightly as Lecaillon believes that today’s weather conditions allow for better ripening than was possible in prior generations, and therefore the wines require less dosage.  Roederer does not believe in a late-disgorged approach, but some bottles are kept on hand for tastings such as this one that have been disgorged relatively recently. Lecaillon says these bottles “preserve the memory of the vintage.” Recently disgorged bottles of Cristal see about 8 grams of dosage, which is quite a bit less than what is used for current releases. Fans of Cristal can look forward to vintages 2004, 2005 2006 and 2007. At this early stage it is too soon to tell, but 2008 will at the very least be a vintage year at Roederer.

The 1979 Cristal remains one of my favorite vintages of this Champagne. This bottle is fully resolved, with pretty suggestions of honey, cinnamon, smoke, ash, menthol, hazelnuts and dried apricots. The bouquet remains deeply expressive and melds seamlessly into a succulent, expansive palate. Although the wine is mature, the mousse retains surprising elegance and finesse with a velvet-like softness. This bottle is an original disgorgement from around 1985/1986 and saw 13-14 grams of dosage. 25% of the wine was aged in oak. Drinking window: 2009-2012.

I was completely blown away by the 1982 Cristal. This towering, monumental wine possesses incredibly vibrancy and delineation in its white truffles, honey and hazelnuts. This bottle shows some of the tertiary notes found in the 1979 but married to an intense expression of ripe fruit. While the 1979 is fully resolved the 1982 has another decade-plus of fine drinking ahead of it. The 1982 is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. 20% of the wine was aged in oak. This bottle is an original disgorgement from 1987 or 1988 and received 12 grams of dosage. Drinking window: 2009-2019.

The 1988 is a strapping, powerful Cristal. Ripe tropical fruit, butter, spices and smoke are some of the nuances that emerge from this energetic, focused Champagne. This is a rather monolithic Cristal that lacks the elegance of the finest vintages. The 1988 Cristal is unique in that it is the only vintage in which Chardonnay, at 55%, plays the dominant role in the blend. 1988 was a cool year and picking stretched into October. The late harvest largely favored Chardonnay over Pinot Noir. According to Lecaillon, the lesson learned in 1988 was that the estate needed to seriously lower yields on the Pinot in order to achieve proper ripeness. The wine was partially fermented in oak (25%) and 30% of the Pinot Noir underwent malolactic fermentation. This bottle was disgorged in late 2007, and dosage was 8 grams, quite a bit lower than is the norm these days. Drinking window: 2009-2019.

The 1990 Cristal is a dramatic, sweeping wine endowed with masses of apricots, peaches, flowers and minerals. A large-scaled Cristal, the 1990 combines size with clarity and focus in a remarkably complete style that recalls the 1982. The wine remains generous on the palate, with stunning length and a finish that lasts forever. The 1990 Cristal is 62% Pinot Noir, 38% Chardonnay. Just a small portion of the wine (7-10%) underwent malolactic fermentation. This bottle was disgorged in late 2007 with 8 grams of dosage. Drinking window: 2009-2023.

The estate’s 1996 Cristal, from a legendary vintage, does not disappoint. Like the 1979, there are elements of austerity that will require some time to sort themselves out, yet the 1996 is an insanely beautiful Cristal loaded with floral, perfumed fruit and vibrant minerality. The wine turns delicate in the glass, yet this is a sublime, fresh Cristal that is in need of further cellaring. In 1996 Cristal is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. According to Lecaillon 1996 is a vintage that did not respond well to oak aging, so only 3% of the wine was aged in wood, while 10% of the wine saw malolactic fermentation. This bottle was disgorged in 2007 and dosage was 8 grams. Drinking window: 2013-2026.

The 2002 Cristal is a gorgeous, sculpted wine of extraordinary elegance. Graceful, well-delineated aromatics lead to ripe pears, spices, flowers, minerals and mint in this precise Champagne. Today the 2002 appears to have slightly more fruit than the 1996, and perhaps slightly better overall balance, although that is splitting hairs at this level. The wine remains fresh and in need of several years of cellaring before it hits its stride. In 2002 Cristal is 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. 20% of the wine was aged in oak, and dosage was 10 grams. This bottle was disgorged in December 2007. Drinking window: 2010-2032.

--  Antonio Galloni