Champagne Louis Roederer Cristal 2012: Biodynamic Viticulture At Its Very Best
by Ken Gargett
If we go back a few years, the idea of biodynamic wines was akin to fairies at the bottom of the garden. Critics were quick to note that this was a philosophy of agriculture developed by Rudolf Steiner, whose views have ranged far and wide, sometimes inviting controversy, sometimes strong advocates.
Steiner’s critics will also point to what often seemed like his fruitbat ideas including using compost buried in cow horns and harvesting according to astronomical events like the phase of the moon, but so many of the world’s greatest wineries have adopted his principles that he is now acknowledged as the father of the biodynamic wine movement.
Steiner passed away in 1925, a year after he proposed the concept of biodynamic agriculture. He was keen to mix science and spirituality, but there is a degree of irony to all this – Steiner was a committed teetotaler.
Today, Steiner’s ideas seem much less far-fetched as the science behind many of the concepts becomes more apparent.
Biodynamic viticulture aims to produce much healthier soils, conducive to growing better vines. Some see it as simply a version of organics, but it goes further. The differences can be difficult to easily identify as winemaking is an international pursuit and different countries have different regulations. Both forms of viticulture avoid the use of chemicals, but biodynamics treats the vineyard as an entire incorporated ecosystem and seeks to draw influence from lunar cycles. Until an international standard and set of rules is put in place to govern these forms of viticulture, the boundaries between organic and biodynamic will remain blurred.
What is most compelling is that a large number of the world’s finest wineries have either adapted the principles of biodynamic viticulture (often called BD) in part or in full – Cullen, Leflaive, Zind Humbrecht, Domaine Leroy, Chapoutier, Lafon, and (to an extent) even the fabled Domaine Romanée-Conti.
It does raise a chicken and egg argument. These were among the world’s elite wine producers before the move to BD: so did BD improve their wines even more or is BD riding on the coattails of these superstars? Speak to the producers and there is no question that they believe in biodynamics, but this is largely a topic for a separate piece.
Vineyards around the world have joined the movement, and producers from Champagne, while slow to jump on the bandwagon, are slowly getting there. Fleury and Leclerc Briant were two early pioneers, the latter since the 1950s (or 1990, depending on your source.) Still, none have been as large or as influential as Louis Roederer, which has been transferring much of its extensive vineyard holdings to BD. Half is BD and the rest is now organic.
Louis Roederer Cristal 2012: biodynamic haute couture
The release of the thrilling 2012 Cristal heralds the culmination of Roederer’s efforts. The vineyard has released champagnes in the recent past that have been BD, or part thereof, but this is the first time the flagship, the legendary Cristal, is 100 percent biodynamic.
The decision to trial and then move to BD was made 20 years ago, and it has finally come to fruition. Trials began in 2000; these things take time. Cristal comes from 45 discrete parcels from Louis Roederer’s own vineyards, all of which have been converted to biodynamics.
And what a vintage to do it with! The 2012, as we have seen recently, is one of the most exciting vintages of the century.
Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus outbreak has devastated the champagne market: wines, beers, and especially spirits have all enjoyed increases in sales, but it appears that champagne is not something most of us drink at home and, so, sales are very much reduced. May I suggest that it is time for everyone to do their bit and drink more fizz!
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Roederer’s brilliant chef du cave, has described biodynamic champagne as “haute couture,” noting it as “time-consuming and very expensive.”
He believes it brings “different textures and deeper density. My only goal was to make delicious wines. They just happened to be biodynamic.” As mentioned, trials began in 2000; it is no coincidence that Lecaillon took up his position as cellar master in 1999.
I have discussed the greatness of the 2012 vintage in Champagne previously. It sits with 2002 and 2008 as the best of the century (2018 is expected to join them, but it is too early to have tasted any of those releases as yet).
Lecaillon has thoughts on the vintage: “2012 was one of the most challenging and complicated years ever experienced in Champagne. However, difficult conditions often lead to great things. The low yields, due to the unpredictable weather, combined with continental conditions toward the end of the season, gave us exceptional levels of maturity, resulting in rich, full-bodied, and structured wines worthy of the greatest vintages in Champagne.”
In the early days after harvest, the quality was already evident to Lecaillon: “Somewhere between 1959, 1990, and 2002.” Subsequently, he noted that it is “probably better than 1996 and close to 1990 on average, but in some special locations it could well be better than that – closer to a 1947? The quality is outstanding. It is a great vintage.”
Most see it as a vintage where the Pinot Noir was particularly successful. Lecaillon noted the “full ripeness of Pinot Noir, which is typical of a continental summer, and a perfect final ripeness of Chardonnay and Meunier. Acidity is balanced and pH quite low for such a level of sugar.”
Yields were only 6,000 to 7000 kilos/hectare. For Pinot Noir, the sugar content was exceptional – 11.5° to more than 12° — which was higher than years such as 1976, 2000, or 2003. And the acidity was “even better than in 1996.”
For many, Cristal is the epitome of great champagne, the essence of elegance, the quintessence of class. It is released more often than most prestige cuvees, but Roederer is able to do this as it controls a very high percentage of its own vineyards (rare in Champagne), and those vineyards include many of the region’s best.
This century already, we have seen 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 (which was released before the ’08 as that wine needed all the time it could get, such was the style of the vintage). Now we have 2012 (there is also the very rare 2012 Cristal Rosé – this is actually the fourth release of the Rosé as a 100 percent BD wine).
This gap of three years is the first time that has happened since 1993 followed 1990.
Louis Roederer Cristal 2012: the epitome of great champagne
The 2012 Cristal (AUD$400) is a blend of 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay; three percent was vinified in oak barrels. There was no malolactic fermentation. Dosage is just 7.5 grams/liter, the lowest ever for Cristal. The 45 parcels that contribute are in seven different Grand Cru villages.
The first question many are asking is whether the 2012 Cristal is as good as the 2008?
It really comes down to one’s preference for styles. The 2012 is more open, more forward, more richly flavored, and more exuberant.
The 2008 is classic, refined, taut, precise, reticent, and yet intense, elegant, with great length. Both will age extremely well; the 2008 probably for longer than the 2012. I absolutely love the style of the 2008 but I would drink either of them any day of the week.
Whenever I have tasted the 2008 I have scored it 99 or 100. For me, the 2012 is 98. Others might reverse that.
The 2012 offers an enticing golden hue with a minute bead. It opens with alluring stone fruit, toast, and hazelnut characters. White peaches, orange rind, tropical notes, cinnamon, guava, and vanilla.
It is wonderfully intense and yet immaculately balanced with great length. The texture is seductively silk and satin. Vibrant acidity, a champagne with a great future ahead. More approachable than the 2008 at this early stage. A fabulous champagne.
For more information, please visit www.louis-roederer.com/en/cristal2012.