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Celebrating an occasion? Here’s why you should pop a bottle of Cristal 2008

Champagne maker Louis Roederer's move towards organic and biodynamic winemaking and longer ageing in the cellar has made the bubbly a real treat.

The Cristal 1996 vintage is considered one of the finest bubblies to emerge from the renowned champagne house of Louis Roederer. But Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Louis Roederer’s chef de cave or cellar master, was candid enough to tell CNA Luxury that it wasn’t that great. “During the blending, the acidity was very high, and the wine also lacked a little weight or density,” recalled the 53-year-old. “It was a good [vintage] but we were a little disappointed with it – everything wasn’t well put together. Something was missing.”

Lecaillon headed back to the vineyards to find out what went wrong. Realising that their use of herbicides could have been part of the problem, he decided to start organic farming – a rare practice from big champagne producers then. In 2000, he started getting rid of chemicals such as herbicides and synthetic fertilisers, and shifted to greener methods like using organic composts from a cattle farm.

Today, more than 50 percent of Louis Roederer’s 243 hectares of vineyards are certified organic, while 10 hectares are certified biodynamic. The latter is an esoteric form of organic farming that embraces astrological ideas like pruning and harvesting according to moon phases. Lecaillon is in no rush to certify more biodynamic plots. Biodynamic agriculture remains a strange yet fascinating concept to him: Some field preparations, such as spraying the vines with a mixture from manure buried in a cow horn, still bemuse him despite their efficacy.

“I don’t want to be dogmatic about [biodynamic winemaking]. Some of its ideas sound a bit crazy to me,” he said. “I’m a pragmatic man so I stick to what works. I think the organic certification is already a good base for us. It all starts in the vineyards: 80 per cent of the winemaking happens there.” Louis Roederer’s flagship Cristal, Cristal Rose, and Blanc de Blancs are made from grapes from organically certified vineyards.     

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For the much-anticipated Cristal 2008, which was launched in Singapore in June, 40 percent of its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes came from the maison’s biodynamic vineyards. The 2008 is the eighth vintage of Cristal to be released over the past decade: Previous vintages were 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009. (Yes, the younger 2009 was released in 2017, before the 2008. But more on this later.)

The Cristal 2008 is nothing short of spectacular. Aged on the lees (yeast sediments) for nine years, the bubbly offers a lovely amber hue and that distinctive Cristal bouquet of ripe apples and toasted almonds. On the palate, acidity is lean and pleasant, while the intense notes of citrus and candied fruit are wrapped up in smooth and round textures. It is simply hard not to love this wine. It has much ageing potential ensconced within its lush structure, but you’d be forgiven for immediate gratification. Anyway, the future doesn’t look cheery, what with trade wars and economic doldrums on the horizon. Oh heck, enjoy this ambrosia now while the sun is shining.

“The [Cristal] 2008 and 2002 are, in my opinion, the two best vintages from 2000 to 2010. It certainly ranks among the top ten vintages I have done in the past 30 years,” said Lecaillon. “The 2008 is about finesse. It has everything I am looking for: Precision, elegance, and freshness. I wouldn’t call it the best Cristal, but it is the Cristal of Cristals.” He recommends pairing it with seafood like scallops, oysters and lobsters – without heavy sauces – and sashimi. Over a wine-pairing lunch at Madame Fan, we found out that it also worked very well with chicken rice. Just go easy on the chilli.

For Lecaillon, the 2008 was also a redemption of sorts for the 1996 vintage, which he thought was “too acidic and tight” and should have had more time on the lees instead of just six years. When he was preparing the 2008 for disgorgement (the removal of dead yeast deposits in the bottle) after the wine had spent about seven years in the bottle, he realised that it was still acidic and austere, much like how the 1996 had been prior to its release. Hoping to avoid the same mistake, he held off the release of the 2008 and let it age on its lees for a few more years. It was a wise move.

“The vintage conditions for 2008 were cool and dry, so the grapes had a long ripening process and, like the 1996, were also very acidic when picked. When it is an acid-driven and less ripe vintage, it needs more time on the lees to add texture to it,” said Lecaillon.

The Cristal 2009, on the other hand, was born from a ripe year, and thus required less time on the lees because “you already have a lot of texture and roundness in it”. This explains why the 2009 was released before the 2008.

The next Cristal will be a 2012, which is slated for a January 2020 launch, and will be the first to be made entirely from fruit from biodynamic vineyards. (There wouldn’t be any Cristal 2010 and 2011, as those vintages were not good enough.) Lecaillon considers the 2012 a significant release for the maison’s flagship cuvee, and believes the wine’s 100 percent biodynamic origins will help the bubbly to age very well. “It will have more complexity, more of everything,” he said.

Louis Roederer’s Cristal 2008 is available from Grand Vin.

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Source: CNA/ds