The Truth behind Cristal; the story of a misinterpreted champagne
Many people will have heard of Cristal champagne but few will be aware of the origin and history of this extraordinary champagne.
Believed by some to be a marketing invention designed to appeal to the nightclub inhabiting glitterati, a designer bottle of champagne with a gold label sold at a premium price to cynically exploit a culture of ostentation. As is so often the case, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cristal came into being at the request of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876. The Tsar had long been a lover of fine champagne, and was a particular fan of Champagne Louis Roederer. He approached the Maison and asked them to create a special champagne for his personal consumption, a champagne that would represent the absolute pinnacle of quality. Louis Roederer were in the unique position to be able to fulfil this wish because, unlike the other champagne houses who bought the majority of their grapes from a multitude of small growers, Louis Roederer had purchased their own vineyards in the 1830s. This meant that not only did they have complete control over how the grapes were grown and therefore their quality, but also, having worked intimately with their vineyards for 40 years, knew exactly which parcels consistently provided the best quality grapes.
The Maison was thus able to isolate these parcels of grapes to make what was to become the original prestige cuvée exclusively for the Tsar and his court. In the nineteenth century, a system of colour coding would denote quality and gold was understandably used to signify the finest wines, hence the iconic gold label and capsule. With a final flourish, the Tsar asked that each bottle be a crystal decanter as (or so rumour has it); the clear rather than dark glass would allow him to see if poison had been added to the champagne. He also requested that the punt, the deep indent at the base of a champagne bottle, be replaced with a flat bottom to prevent bombs being hidden in it. To give him his due, his paranoia was not without foundation since half of the previous 12 Tsars had been assassinated, a fate which was also to befall Alexander II himself despite his caution.
And so Cristal was created, the finest possible champagne sourced from the best plots belonging to Louis Roederer in what were to later be classified as Grand Cru vineyards, at the behest of a genuine champagne lover and connoisseur. When the reign of the Tsars came to an end following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Louis Roederer decided to continue making this champagne, the summit of quality for the house, and it was eventually commercially released in 1945.
Today Cristal is still a study in terroir, elegance, purity and power. It is made from 45 plots in 7 grands crus in the Champagne region and a blend of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay. Its signature gold cellophane is there to protect the champagne from UV light penetration due to the clear glass and should be kept on the bottle until it is served. Cristal is one of the most age-worthy champagnes in the world, and the most recent release, the 2008 vintage received an unprecedented 100 point score from 3 different critics. It is a champagne made for true lovers of fine wine to reflect these incredible, unique chalk soils and which most definitely rewards patience.