NOVEMBER 2013 – Created to flatter a paranoid tsar, Roederer Cristal remains one of the most desirable (and expensive) Champagnes in the world.
On a Friday in June 1867, three emperors sat down to a feast at Café Anglais on the corner of the Boulevard des Italiens and the Rue de Marivaux. In Paris for the World’s Fair, Prince Otto von Bismarck, King William I of Prussia and his nephew, Tsar Alexander II (who was accompanied by his son, the future Tsar Alexander III) were in high spirits and looking forward to an eighthour banquet of 16 courses prepared by the unsmiling but generously gifted Adolphe Dugléré, once chef de cuisine to the Rothschild family and a pupil of the renowned Marie-Antoine Carême, the godfather of grande cuisine.
The meal, in what was then Paris’ leading restaurant, would be accompanied by eight of the greatest wines in the world, including a Champagne specially bottled for the occasion by Roederer, official wine supplier to Russia’s Imperial Court. A Flemish glassmaker had been commissioned to make flat-bottomed bottles from clear lead glass, ostensibly so that Tsar Alexander II could admire the bubbles rising in the golden liquid. But the real reason was just a touch more sinister: having narrowly escaped an attempt on his life the previous year, as well as an attack on his carriage just days earlier, the tsar feared that a bomb might be hidden inside the traditional dark green bottle or inside the punt, the dimple in the bottom.
The tsar (who would survive four more assassination attempts before being felled by an activist’s bomb in 1881) came to no harm as a result of the dinner and, if he suffered a little from heartburn the following morning, it was more likely due to chef Adolphe’s famously heavy hand with buttery sauces than the elegant blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir sourced from the oldest vines on the Roederer estate.
Cristal, as the Champagne came to be called, remained the drink of kings and emperors through wars great and small – several of them started by the emperors at the aforementioned table – until 1945, when the end of World War II provided a cork-popping occasion of historic proportions. Only then did Cristal finally became available to the man in the street. But not just any man in any street, mind you. Cristal entered the market as one of the most expensive Champagnes in the world, quickly joining the ranks of über desirable luxury goods, such as a Rolls Royce Phantom or a Hermès bag.
It became seen as such a status symbol that it was almost no surprise when, in the mid-90s, rappers such as Puff Daddy and Jay-Z started name-checking Cristal in their lyrics and swigging it straight from the neck of its iconic bottle.
But after 10 years it emerged that hiphop’s love affair with ‘Crissy’ had been rather one-sided, and it came to an abrupt end in 2006 after Roederer’s new CEO Frédéric Rouzaud conceded, in an interview with The Economist, that the company wasn’t all that thrilled about its cuvée prestige being the toast of rap royalty.
Rouzard took the reigns at Roederer when management of its vineyards was handed down to the sixth generation of the family. The fi rst Champagne he says he ever tasted was the Cristal Rosé 1974, the fi rst vintage of Cristal Rosé created by his father. It was, he told wine writer Tim Triptree, the ‘perfect start in my wine life’.
Cristal’s fortunes held steady until the recession of 2008. ‘Champagne is celebration. And if you have nothing to celebrate, then the Champagne business is declining,’ Roederer’s global sales manager Frédéric Heidsieck told The Globe and Mail in October 2010. But by then the brand was well on its way to recovery, thanks to the growing Asian appetite for high-end bubbly.
Asian food goes ‘extremely well’ with Champagne, Roederer’s executive vicepresident, the genial Michel Janneau, told reporters in Hong Kong where he hosted a wine-pairing to introduce Champagne lovers to Roederer wines. ‘I have always been fascinated with Japanese gastronomy and Japanese food but I have the feeling that Champagne will match extremely well with Chinese foods,’ Janneau declared before going on to extol the health benefi ts of an elegant sparkling wine. ‘It is certainly one of the best wines for health,’ he asserted, suggesting that Blanc de Blanc was ‘best for breakfast, either a vintage or a nonvintage, or a non-vintage with lunch, and one needs to discover the beauty of Rosé or Cristal for dinner.’
Rouzard is even more specifi c about matching food and Champagne, recommending Cristal 1988 (‘fantastic refi ned acidity and elegant vinosity’) for drinking with grilled scallops, the 2002 (‘great concentration’) with some good foie gras and the 2004’s ‘seductive minerality’ as a partner for smoked salmon.
But for all its refi nement, and the passionate men who create it, Cristal continues to benefi t from its association with so-called ‘conspicuous consumption’. Just ask the barman at the Kitsch bar in London’s Embassy Club in Mayfair, who, in October this year, witnessed a Champagne war between two oil tycoons from Russia and Azerbaijan who, between them, spent £131 000 (around R2 million) trying to outshine each other. Cristal was by far the most expensive item on the bill, accounting for two-thirds of the ‘winning tab’ of over R1 million.
These thirsty billionaires will be pleased to learn that 2013 has been a particularly good year for Champagne. Pricecomparison website wine-searcher.com reported in October that winemakers in Champagne were upbeat about this year’s harvest, with Louis Roederer cellarmaster Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon particularly confident. ‘I was very excited when I tasted the grapes and the juice, and I am looking forward to tasting the wines in a few months – right now I feel 2013 could be a great Cristal year,’ he declared.
That’s not the only good news. Next year will see the release of the 2009 vintage, the result of a bumper crop that saw the Cristal output peak at twice its usual average of 400 000 bottles per year. That’s 800 000 bottles of very exclusive, very expensive bubbly to partner with your grilled scallops and foie gras. But the discerning Cristal drinker isn’t only concerned with what is on his plate – he is also, like the emperors at Café Anglais, picky about the company. Roederer’s Janneau shows himself a connoisseur of more than Champagne when asked with whom he’d most like to share a bottle of Cristal: ‘Alors, I have big problems with my memory and naturally I have forgotten the name of this actress… alors!’ But then the vice president collected his memory: ‘She is a beautiful South African actress who has done advertising for Dior. She’s a great actress and comedian, intelligent and without a drop of snobbism. Alors… Charlize Theron! That’s who I’d love to share a bottle with!’ – Annelize Visser
FIT FOR AN EMPEROR
The dinner that witnessed Cristal’s debut in 1867 was a lavish affair that, in today’s terms, would’ve run to almost R500 000. Chef Adolphe’s menu included sole, turbot and lobster, a warm pâte of quail, saddle of mutton, roast duckling and a delicacy not yet outlawed in 19th-century France – ortolan, a tiny songbird considered the height of gastronomic pleasure , which chef Adolphe served on toast. The eight-hour feast culminated in a bombe glacée, a dessert of ice cream frozen into the shape of a cannonball that would not appear on restaurant menus for at least another decade. An awkward silence reportedly descended on the table shortly after midnight when Tsar Alexander II was heard grumbling about the absence of foie gras from the menu. It was left to cellarmaster Claudius Burdel to explain, as tactfully as he could, that foie gras wasn’t eaten in France during June. A terrine of foie gras delivered to the Winter Palace four months later helped smooth things over. Burdel’s winelist was a triumph, and included Château d’Yquem 1847 (a sweet Sauterne), and three legendary Bordeaux blends destined to become among the most expensive red wines in the world: Château Margaux 1847, Château Latour 1847 and Château Lafi te 1848. Cristal appears on the menu as Champagne Roederer frappé. ‘Frappé’ merely signifi es that it was served chilled.