On the Trail

Cristal Dinner with Roederer Chef de Cave Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon

Gary Westby
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Last night, Cinnamon and I were invited to the Hotel Particular, a private residence at Champagne Louis Roederer, for a wonderful dinner with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon. Jean-Baptiste is not only the chef de cave of Roederer, he is also the chief of all winemaking operations for MMD and oversees everything from Pichon-Lalande to Domaine Ott. I don’t think it is an understatement to call him one of the world’s most important winemakers. He is perhaps the deepest of all the Champenois on world wine, with an excellent, well-traveled palate and enthusiasm to learn more and more.

The occasion for the visit was the release of the 2008 Louis Roederer Cristal, which has been one of the most anticipated releases in the 20-plus years I have been in the Champagne business. Jean-Baptiste thinks it is the best that he has made, and unlike the Bordelais, Champenois like him are not prone to hyperbole. He certainly gave Cinnamon and I some context to think about his statement at dinner — a vertical of Cristal!

We started off with an excellent bottle of Louis Roederer Brut Premier on the terrace. The weather was perfect outside, and Jean-Baptiste explained that they are very happy so far with 2018, despite some of the hail problems in the Aube and a little bit of extra rain causing some early crop loss. As usual, the Brut Premier was a perfect aperitif, fresh, chalky, but not at all austere or angular.

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When we sat down to dinner, he served us the 2009 Cristal first, which was the first ever to be released out of order. It has been on the market for a year, while our 2008 is just being released at the end of this month. We paired this with crab ravioli, and he served the 2008 alongside. They share in common the fact that they are the first two Cristal vintages to be grown organically, and in fact are 40% biodynamic. Since Jean-Baptiste farms the plots for Cristal specifically with this cuvée in mind, they were the first to go back to organics. In fact, even though Champagne Louis Roederer is not farming all of their vineyards organically, they are now the largest owner of organically farmed vineyard in Champagne.

The 2009 and 2008 Cristals really show off the difference between these two vintages. Where the 2009 is very full bodied, round and soft, the 2008 is focused, concentrated and bright. I cannot remember ever having a young Cristal that was as impressive as the 2008. It will be hard to keep this wine in the cellar if you like Champagne — it is overwhelmingly great to drink right now, but will be even better in a decade and should last as long as anyone reading this will. It was the second time for me having the wine, and I cannot overstate how much it lives up to all the hype and crazy high scores. The 2009 showed fabulously as well, and with both in the market at the same time, I think this is the one to drink — scratch the Cristal itch with this, and keep the 2008 at the bottom of a heavy pile of other wine in your cellar! I will be keeping mine in my off site wine locker!

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For the main course, we had a duck and root vegetable dish with the 2002 Cristal and the 1995 Cristal “Vinothèque.” The 2002 was from the last disgorgement that was released years ago, but Jean-Baptiste held some back for extra ageing on the cork. It was disgorged in 2011, and has now had seven years on the cork. This was Cristal in its power age, full of Verzenay hazelnut concentration, leesy richness, and open-knit expressiveness. I hope that we will get a small allocation of this re-release! The 1995 “Vinothèque” was Cristal at its peak — it takes two decades from vintage to get to its best for me, and this had arrived. The 1995 was special in that, at 23 years old, I did not get even a hint of the truffle-like savor of an “old” Champagne. It was still vivacious and spry, but had the silky texture, elegance, and refinement of maturity. The “Vinothèque” release has been given extra ageing sur-point, meaning riddled during the last disgorgement run, but left to stand upside down with the yeast acting as buffer for the oxygen that enters through the crown cap. This bottle had been aged for eight years sur-lattes (on its side) then six years sur-point, and finally eight years on the cork.

We finished the evening with the 2008 Cristal Rosé, which I hope we will get an allocation of as well. Cristal rosé comes only from four plots, two in Ay, one in Avize and one in Mesnil. It not only had the crystalline purity of the brut, but also a haunting red fruit character that is nearly impossible to describe. What a treat… This was dinner that I won’t ever forget!

-Gary Westby

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