If you like a good story, the tale of Louis Roederer is irresistible:
Established in 1776, the house was known early on for quality, being one of the first Grande Marques to make Champagne exclusively from their own grapes. Champagne became popular with Russian nobility during the 1800s, and by mid-century Roederer was shipping one-third of its production to that country. In 1876, exactly a century after its founding, Cristal was created as a private cuvée for Tsar Alexander II. That wine probably bore little resemblance to its modern counterpart, as the Russian court preferred its Champagne roughly ten times sweeter than what we would drink now.
The political situation in Russia was unstable, and Alexander was paranoid: Cristal was the first Champagne to be produced with a flat-bottomed bottle, so that no assassin could conceal explosives in the punt. His son, Nicholas II, also nominated Roederer as the official supplier to the Imperial Court, but the political turmoil persisted. Nicholas was executed in 1918 along with his entire family, and the Russian era of Cristal came to an end. It was not offered to the public until 1945. Even though Dom Pérignon came to market earlier, in 1921, Cristal is generally regarded as the precursor of the modern luxury cuvée.
It gained momentum within the hip-hop community in the 1990s, becoming a favorite of rappers such as Sean Combs, The Notorious B.I.G., 50 Cent and Jay-Z. The popularity lasted until 2006, when Roederer managing director Frederic Rouzaud gave an interview to The Economist. Asked if he thought the association with hip-hop would harm the brand’s image, he replied, “that’s a good question, but what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it. I’m sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” In the wake of his comments, many rappers boycotted the wine (Jay-Z, in fact, went on to purchase his own Champagne brand, the stellar Armand de Brignac).
2012 Cristal ($275) is a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. The nose is low-key and relaxed, giving up whiffs of minerals and citrus with coaxing. The wine enters the mouth with a profusion of extremely tart green apple flavors, along with marked acidity; in the midpalate, the apples give way to flavors of lime and vanilla, with hints of red fruits emerging on the finish coupled with an assortment of citrus and hints of tropical fruit. This is a Champagne that makes an aggressive statement on the palate, and probably should be reserved for poultry, veal or seafood in cream-based, luxurious sauces.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.