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Champagne Roederer launches Cristal from ‘year of clear extremes’

Champagne Louis Roederer has launched its latest vintage of Cristal, which hailed from a ‘year of clear extremes’, according to the producer’s chef de caves, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.

In a virtual presentation on Monday, Lécaillon unveiled the 2014 vintage of Cristal – the famous prestige cuveée from Louis Roederer – which was disgorged in June last year, and comes with a dosage of 7 grams per litre and a retail price (in the UK) of around £275 per 75cl bottle.

Speaking about the character of this, the latest release of Roederer’s top-end expression, he focused on a number of aspects that made it distinctive, from the winemaking, to the bottling procedure, and, importantly, the weather during the 2014 harvest it comes from.

Calling 2014 “a year with clear extremes,” he said that the “weather changed very strongly”, adding that this was a feature of “the new Champagne” – a term he used to describe variable weather patterns in the region since 2006.

“We have this succession of extremes, where one week it can be so sunny, dry and beautiful, and the next, so grey and rainy, so we need to be very agile in moving from one type of viticulture to another – we do the viticulture of a continental [climate] and an oceanic one – and they are the opposite,” he said.

This was true of 2014, where he recalled “a beautiful spring, which was very continental, it was dry and warm, and then a very oceanic summer, with a lot of rain, twice more than usual, which was mainly in the Côtes des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne – there was much less rain in the Montagne de Reims – and then a beautiful September that changed everything.”

Continuing, he said, “we could have lost the vintage in mid August with a very difficult summer but finally, thanks to beautiful weather at the end of August and all of September, we had a real summer and we had ripeness.”

For Lécaillon, he added, “The game was to wait and pick as late as possible to benefit from this sunshine and a north-easterly wind which dried the atmosphere and concentrated the flavours.”

The result was “an expressive wine” because “we delayed the harvest and picked in late September for all the Cristal vineyards – later than most of our other vineyards – for extra concentration and ripeness,” he said, noting that his picking team harvested the grapes in just seven days from 26 September.

Such a late start was “risky” but necessary to achieve a desired level of ripeness, with more than 11% potential alcohol for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reached in 2014, “which is what I like and it means no chaptalisation”.

The grapes were also picked late enough to gain additional “dry extract”, which Lécaillon said “is so important for the texture of Cristal”.

Because there was less rainfall in 2014 in the Montagne de Reims, Lécaillon took grapes from this area of Champagne first, because there was a higher level of concentration in the berries, whereas normally he would harvest from this sub-region around one week later than other prized parts of the appellation, such as the Côtes des Blancs.

Indeed, due to the less diluted nature of the grapes from the drier Montagne de Reims in 2014, he increased the proportion of bunches from this area in this harvest, while noting that 39 plots were used to make Cristal in 2014 out of a potential of 45 that are designated for the prestige cuvée.

“We eliminated those plots that were a bit diluted,” he said, although he stressed that Cristal 2014 has its usual 60:40 split between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which loosely reflects the planting proportion of the vineyards used to make the expression – a domaine that achieved organic certification in March last year, although one that was already being farmed organically in 2014 (Roederer has been experimenting with organic and biodynamic viticulture since 2000).

Commenting further on the wet summertime conditions, he said that vineyards with a chalk bedrock performed better than others because they were able to draw down and drain away any excess water, reducing the risk of swelling the berries.

“We are trying to capture the energy and freshness of the soil, the chalk, which is the Cristal story, and in 2014, the soil was even more important,” he said, due to its ability to “percolate”.

Continuing he said, “The chalk is the magic tool we have in Champagne that allows us to have enough water for the vines in dry years and in wet ones to keep the roots dry enough so vines don’t suffer from too much dilution,”

As a result, he said that 2014 was “a year of chalk and chalk is the essence of Cristal,” pointing out that the Cristal plots are located on “chalky ridges”, where sloping vineyards feature this white bedrock at just one metre below the surface.

He added that it takes at least 20 years for the vine to root deeply into this layer of chalk, which is why Roederer only takes bunches from vines that are a minimum of 20 years old when making Cristal.

“Before 20 years you can taste beautiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but never the Cristal expression,” he stated, which he said should be “perfection”, like “a beautiful summer morning with a blue sky when it’s cold.”

As for the 2014 Cristal specifically, he said it was one marked by “lots of chalk and lots of Montagne de Reims.”

In terms of further influences on the style of Cristal 2014, he said that the wines for the Champagne had not – as is traditional at Roederer – gone through the malo-lactic fermentation, which sees the firm-tasting malic acid converted to softer lactic acid.

This is because “we want to keep as much freshness and energy”, he said.

Meanwhile, around one third of the wines were fermented in 90hl oak casks to give “a dry tannic finish” to the Champagne, which he said “makes the wine longer”.

Finally, he said that he had used the process of ‘jetting’ when disgorging and corking Cristal 2014 “for the first time”.

The technique, which ensures any oxygen in the headspace of the bottle is expelled before the cork is inserted, was employed by Lécaillon for the 2014 cuvée because he “wanted the purity of the fruit protected.”

He also said that the expressive nature of the vintage needed “shutting down”, comparing it to a “strong” and “gifted child” who needed to be “restrained”.

When asked by db if jetting would be used on subsequent vintages of Cristal, he said that it might not, commenting, “maybe I won’t do it with the 2015,” adding that while some children need restraining, others “need to be pushed.”

He also said that organic farming practices had increased the “precision” of Cristal, giving it more “definition” than previous releases, commenting that the 2014 “has a bit more pixels than in 2012” – which was Roederer’s first Cristal to be made from 100% biodynamically farmed grapes.

According to Lécaillon, the approach to viticulture also brings more “dry extract”, mentioning an increase in “proteins and phenolics” in the wines since turning to organic practices, which, when combined with a low pH, ensures the Champagne “is built for ageing”.

Summing up, he said that all the hard work, experimentation and improvements have altered the nature of Cristal for the better.

“In the past Cristal was lean and discrete when it was young, and would develop with time, but thanks to organic farming and what we do in the winemaking, it is much more delicious when young, it has more texture, without touching the ageing potential,” he said, before concluding, “We have increased it.”

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