Screw It: The Deal With Cristal

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Cristal Champagne is very famous and very expensive. Does it deserve this fame and price tag, or is it just another pretty face? Mike Supple travels to Champagne, France to visit the cellars of Louis Roederer (makers of Cristal) and get the full story.
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Mike Supple: You're watching Screw It on SuppleWine. I'm your host, Mike Supple.

Cristal Champagne: what's the deal behind this incredibly expensive bottle of wine? I took a trip to Champagne, France to visit the cellars of Louis Roederer - the makers of Cristal - to find out the deal behind their amazing bubbly.

What is Cristal? Cristal is a sparkling wine made by the Champagne house Louis Roederer and it comes from Champagne, France. It's composed of two different grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir - usually about 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir, but that can change depending on the year and the quality of each grape. Even though Pinot Noir is a black grape and is usually used to make a red wine, the juice is clear. When they don't let the juice touch the skin of the grape you end up with a clear (or light gold) colored wine like most Champagne.

What makes Cristal so high quality? The first thing has to do with how long Champagne Louis Roederer has been making Champagne. If you look at the bottle of Cristal on the back label it states that it was founded in 1776. They've been making Champagne for as long as the U.S. has been a country. And in that time period they've undoubtedly picked up quite a few tricks and secrets, and figured out what they're really doing.

Cristal has only been made since 1876. It was made at the request of the Russian tsar Alexander II. He wanted something special just for him and this is what they came up with.

Cristal is also only made with the cream of the crop grapes. Louis Roederer is one of a very few large Champagne producers that actually own almost all of their vineyards. Almost everybody else has to buy grapes. The vineyards in Champagne are spread out in small parcels among many different owners and growers. Roederer owns all of the vineyards that go into Cristal. This gives them a lot of leeway when it comes to picking quality. They get to control the entire process of the growing and they can make sure only the very best grapes go into each bottle.

Beyond that, they only make Cristal in the best years. Look at the front label here: vintage 2002. The grapes for this bottle were harvested in 2002. There was no 2001 - they skipped that year because they didn't feel that the grapes were of high enough quality to produce Cristal Champagne.

Further contributing to the quality is what they do in the cellar. French law requires that Champagne be aged a certain amount of time before being released. [For vintage Champagne the minimum time is 36 months.] Aging helps to increase the quality, smooth out the flavors and bring it all together. Cristal goes well beyond the minimum, and they age each bottle in the cellars for an average of 6 or 7 years before releasing it. What that does is increases the complexity of flavors, makes the wine smoother and more elegant, and really refines the bubbles making them smaller and finer which makes the wine feel smoother and creamier in your mouth.

Why is Cristal so expensive? When you start with the best of the best raw material, you've got expensive grapes that are going into each bottle of Champagne. So you're talking a high cost before you even get started. Also, they do all of the harvesting in the vineyards by hand [no machines] which costs a lot of money in labor. In the winery they also do a lot by hand that some other places do with machines. This extra labor costs money. But one of the biggest expenses comes from the aging process. When they age the bottles in their cellars for 6 to 7 years, it costs a lot of money. Not only are they not recouping losses from the costs of making the wine during that time period, but they also have to pay for the space underground to hold all of those bottles of wine.

And is there anything to the packaging besides appeal and looking unique or different? There is a back story behind it. Most Champagne bottles are dark green or brown glass with a big punt (the indent in the bottom of the bottle). Cristal is made from clear glass with a flat bottom. This goes back to the tsar Alexander II. He was a little paranoid and always afraid somebody was trying to assassinate him. He asked the Champagne be made in clear glass so he could see that there was nothing in the bottle that could harm him. The clear glass they used was leaded crystal, hence "Cristal." The leaded crystal was so much stronger than normal glass that they could use the flat bottom on the bottle. The round punt in the other bottles actually helps to support the glass. Champagne bottles are under a lot of pressure from the gas inside them (that makes the bubbles). The punt helps to spread the pressure out. With the leaded crystal you don't need the punt.

Why the weird yellow cellophane? Champagne is very sensitive to light. UV rays can damage it quite a bit. Clear glass doesn't block the UV rays - dark glass of other Champagne bottles does block the UV - so they wrap the bottle in cellophane that blocks the UV to keep the wine nice and safe. If you're going to be spending this kind of money on Champagne, you want to make sure it hasn't been damaged by light.

Is Cristal expensive? Yes. Is it delicious? Yes. Is it worth the money? That's something you have to decide for yourself, because for the price of one bottle of Cristal you can get several bottles of something else that tastes great. If what you're looking for is something that's truly elegant, refined and will truly make any occasion special, you will be hard pressed to find anything else. Cristal is definitely at the top of the game with just a handful of other great Champagne houses.

Cristal in the cellars of Louis Roederer.

Cristal in the cellars of Louis Roederer.

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