Louis Roederer Cristal 2014: Does It Match All The Hype?
by Ken Gargett
I was recently given a bottle of sparkling mead. Previously, I did not even know such a thing existed. It came from a winery that I will not name situated in what might not be considered prime winegrowing territory, the searingly hot, humid tropics. Sadly, I never got the chance to try it (even though I was curious). Came home the other day to find a large mess in the kitchen: smelly liquid everywhere and shards of broken glass. Seems my mead had exploded from, I presume, an unplanned refermentation in the bottle.
Not even such an occurrence could diminish my mood, though. I had been at a Zoom (or whatever they are now calling them) event where a fortunate few of us had the chance to talk with Louis Roederer chef du cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon about the latest release of Cristal, the 2014 vintage.
This is one of the earliest releases of a prestige cuvee from the major houses (Louis Roederer used to release Cristal after just five years, but Lécaillon has extended that to the benefit of the wine). Some houses have not yet released their standard 2014 vintages, so in terms of an assessment of this vintage, early days. It certainly was not a year that enjoyed the benefit of the sort of hype that blessed 2008, 2012, and 2018, but champagne vintages do have a history of sneaking under the radar.
The 2013 is a perfect example: 2012 was a glorious wine and its merits were shouted from the rooftops; 2013 was expected to be, if released, a solid effort. Instead, it was a mindbogglingly good Cristal for many – and this includes Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon – I believe topping the ’12.
I have tasted several Cristal vintages over recent years and covered the wonderful history of the wine in depth, so there is little point in rehashing here. But how did the wine fare in 2014? Could it match the 2012 or 2013? The most important point here is that they are all different and it really does come down to personal preference in many cases.
How Louis Roederer sees the 2014 Cristal
Louis Roederer has dubbed the 2014 vintage a “weather waltz,” a lovely term but it does suggest that conditions might have not always been optimal. The house noted “clear, sharp contrasts! The spring was sunny and dry and ended with a heatwave in June; summer was autumnal, cool, and rainy; September was hot, sunny, and very dry . . . weather we would usually associate with the month of August.”
Lécaillon has described the spring as “beautiful, dry, continental” followed by “a very oceanic summer with lots of rain, twice as much as usual, mainly in the Côte des Blancs and the Vallée de la Marne, much less rain in the Montagne de Reims.” Fortunately for Louis Roederer (important to remember that these conditions, while applying across the region, will have been handled differently by different houses and others may not have been as successful), the vintage was saved by a “beautiful September that changed everything.”
This allowed Lécaillon and his team to harvest the grapes “as late as possible to benefit from the sunshine of the last moment. Northeasterly winds dried the atmosphere, so we had a beautiful concentration of flavors, which we waited for. We delayed harvest and picked Cristal as late as possible: we wanted the extra concentration, the extra ripeness, the extra-dry extract that is so important for the texture of Cristal.” He says that this delayed harvest, to ensure phenolic ripeness, allowed them “to get the sunshine into the Cristal.”
In the end, the vineyards were harvested over a seven-day period. The grapes had a potential alcohol of over 11 percent, so no chaptalisation – adding sugar to the unfermented grape must with the goal of increasing alcohol content – was considered.
If we look at thoughts on the vintage outside those from Louis Roederer, the general consensus seems to be that this was a vintage in which Chardonnay excelled and the best vineyards in the Montagne de Reims gave forth some very fine Pinot Noir. If there is an issue with the vintage it is that the rains in the Marne led to some dilution.
This could have been a concern for Louis Roederer, but certainly does not appear to be so thanks to rigorous site selection for the final composition. It all means that the vintage is highly regarded in general but not as an overall superstar. That does not mean that there won’t be some truly stellar champagnes produced.
As I have discussed previously, the great advantage Cristal (and Louis Roederer) has is that the house owns a staggeringly high percentage of its own vineyards. Not only are many of these vineyards in the finest sites in the region, Louis Roederer has been meticulous in ensuring that they are cared for as well as they possibly can and they have moved to an organic/biodynamic regime. Cristal 2014 is only the third fully biodynamic vintage.
Louis Roederer makes specific mention of the “good drainage properties of the chalk,” notably on the lower middle part of the hillsides, which allow summer’s excess water to drain away harmlessly. This prevents any unwanted vigor in the vines. The 80 hectares that are the core of this wine now are divided into 45 discrete plots that provide fruit of the caliber needed for Cristal.
Lécaillon talked of how he and the team keep learning every year in the search for “permanent improvement” and the “pursuit of taste.”
His view of the 2014 is that it is a “wine of the soil, not a wine of climate.” Louis Roederer’s Grand Cru vineyards are mid-slope with shallow topsoil. He sees it as a “wine of character, elegance and freshness,” noting the intensity, ripeness, depth, dry extract, and aromaticity. He defines it as “perfume-y and refined,” pointing out how crucial the choice of chalk is. He looks for very poor soil with low nutrient and a high pH. For Lécaillon, the chalk is a “magic sponge” and this allows the vineyard to take all the water that the vintage can throw at it.
Louis Roederer Cristal 2014
Louis Roederer’s Cristal 2014 comes from what the house terms one-third “La Rivière” (the Marne), one-third “La Montagne,” and one-third “La Côte.” The main Crus included are Verzenay, Verzy, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Aÿ, Avize, Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Cramant. The final composition – Lécaillon is careful to note that Louis Roederer does not blend Cristal, but rather composes it – is 60 percent Pinot Noir and 40 percent Chardonnay, which, coincidentally or not, largely reflects the division of grapes in the vineyards.
As noted, Louis Roederer has 45 discrete plots available for Cristal, but that does not mean that 45 are used every year. For 2014, only 39 of the plots made the cut (up from 30 in 2013); three plots from Aÿ (that issue of dilution mentioned above) and three plots from Avize were excluded. For Louis Roederer, the conditions in Montagne de Reims meant all plots from there were included.
Lécaillon starts by blending/composing all 45 plots and then works backward, seeing if the removal of any improves the final wine. The aim, as he says, “is the purity of Cristal.” He believes that winemaking in the twenty-first century is all about the “purity of fruit, place, and terroir.”
Lécaillon believes that the 2014 is “an extreme style of Cristal, more intense, more radiant, so much energy. A bit more of everything.” He sees the exuberance as similar to that of 2012 and the freshness as similar to that in the 2008. In discussing texture, he uses words like “delicate, elegant, integrated, all together.” As for the aging potential, he sees the wine growing more and more minerally with time in the bottle, but believes that the freshness will stay.
Thirty-two percent of the wine was oak fermented, which was the same as the percentage in 2013. Dosage was seven grams/liter and there was zero malolactic fermentation. It spent seven to eight years on lees. Disgorgement for the bottle sampled was on June 3, 2021.
The 2014 marks the first time Louis Roederer has used “jetting” (it has been used with the Rosé but is now part of the process for both the Blanc and the Rosé). Jetting is the process of oxygen management, whereby a fraction of wine is injected under high pressure into the bottle immediately before the cork is inserted. This helps to expel any oxygen in the neck of the bottle. It is also popular with houses such as Bollinger.
The process is considered to improve consistency and to enable the winemaker to use less sulfur dioxide (SO2), although not all use SO2 at this stage. Lécaillon has made comments in the past suggesting Louis Roederer would not persist with the technique, but with the 2014 he believed it would assist in taming the exuberance. Whether we will see it for future Cristal releases remains to be seen.
The price will vary, not least because bottles sold on premises will not be gift-packed. Off premises, expect £275 to £300 (AUD$450 to $505). Markets will vary but availability should commence by mid-March. I understand that we will, in due course, see a 2015 and a 2016 Cristal, but not a 2017.
Lécaillon has some really interesting insights when it comes to discussing dosage. He stresses that the type of sugar is vital and has conducted many trials over the years as they need the type of sugar that will “respect the wine and bring something to it.” The final choice was quite light in style, organic cane sugar.
For those wondering – and weren’t we all? – there will be a 2014 Cristal Rosé, but it will not be released until next year. More time needed.
So does the Louis Roederer Cristal 2014 match all the hype? Tasting notes
Oh, yes! A lovely delicate pale lemon/straw color. This is pristine and fragrant, perfumed if you prefer. There is citrus, notably lemon, oyster shell notes, fresh pastry, the merest whiff of almonds, and an entrancing chalk. A textural note like crème brûlée and yet the finest of mineral backing. Immaculate balance, finesse, and length. Bright acidity, almost like biting into a green apple. A champagne bursting with life and freshness yet remaining refined. Glorious.
A joy now but will become an orchestra of brilliance over the next decade and more. Imagine a perfect Queensland winter’s morning (the temperature will probably drop to around 22°C, but there will be minimal humidity – if you have not visited in winter, put it on your bucket list). You are on a yacht slicing through the crystal-clear blue ocean and someone opens a nearly perfect bottle of champagne. And we have the 2014 Cristal. 99.
Now, it seemed inappropriate to drink the 2014 Louis Roederer Cristal without comparing it to the 2013, as one does, so we did that as well. It is another spectacular wine. We have the pin-prick focus and acidity with sea breeze and oyster shell notes, the delightful stone fruit and dried fruit notes, and that wonderful peaches-and-cream note with the finish of coffee beans and grilled nuts. Tense, taut, terrific, and yet generous.
And, yet, in comparison to the 2014, at this stage, the 2013 seemed a little closed: the ’14 is simply bursting forth (reminds me a little of Boh, the giant baby in Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece Spirited Away).
Cristal has always been a brilliant wine, but the last decade has seen it reach previously unattained heights. Whether you select 2008 (mine by a whisker but will happily drink any of these), 2012, 2013, or this wonderful 2014 as the Cristal for you it really is a matter of personal preference. They are truly special wines and confirm Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon’s status as a magician, not just a great champagne winemaker but one of the finest winemakers on the planet.