By The Glass
Cristal champagne defines elegance of sparkling wine
I SELDOM celebrate my birthday. It's just a few days short of Christmas -- those of you whose birthdays fall near major holidays will understand.
As a kid, I learned to share my birthday and it was a bummer. Parties attended and presents received were for Christmas -- oh, and my birthday. By the time I was an adult, the occasion often slipped my mind amid the hustle and bustle of the holidays.
That was the case until a close friend reminded me to take a little time for myself on my birthday and since then I've managed to find a way to make the day special -- lately, that's meant indulging in traditional caviar for breakfast or a special wine in the eve.
This year was extra special: a Halekulani champagne dinner featuring a seven-course menu by La Mer chef Yves Garnier paired with a rare and pristine vertical tasting of Cristal champagne direct from the family-owned cellars of Louis Roederer (established in 1776).
With its signature yellow-wrapped clear bottle and limited availability, Cristal has become an icon for platinum living. Although the champagne's pedigree is more than 120 years old, its bling status today may be credited to rapper Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. the Notorious B.I.G.), believed to be the first performer to mention "Cris" in song. No celebrity party is complete without Cristal in voracious quantities.
Louis Roederer II (son of founder Louis Roederer), created a special vintage dated cuvee from his finest vineyards for Tsar Alexander II, a champagne connoisseur who was often disappointed that the champagnes poured at his table were no different from those served at the homes of his courtiers.
Roederer commissioned a Flemish glassmaker to fashion a custom bottle out of lead crystal (where the "Cristal" name originated). The unique clear bottle was also an assurance of safety -- it would reveal any sediment from poison or any weapon that could endanger the tsar.
That first Tete de Cuvee, presented to the tsar in 1876, contributed much to the early success of Champagne Roederer. The tsar was so delighted, he appointed Roederer as official court champagne with the right to bear the Russian imperial coat of arms on its label.
Opportunities to drink aged champagnes are rare, but should you have the chance -- and if you can afford the $400-plus prices -- here is what you can expect:
Cristal 1988: Fresh, youthful, zesty, with a long finish --will be great for another 10 to 20 years.
Cristal 1985: Crisp and bright with playful fruit and a rich finish -- wonderful over the next 5 to 10 years.
Cristal 1983: Tastes wonderful, like warm sunshine, with rich red apples, toast and the classic creamy Cristal mouthfeel of velvety elegance -- will get better with 5 to 10 years of age!
Cristal Rose 1982: Long, silky flavors linger on the finish. Tastes fabulous now and will over the next 5 years, possibly more.
THESE VINTAGES are current and a little easier to find (prices run $200 to $400):
Cristal 1999: Vibrant, with flavors of toasty golden apples, citrus zest and a rich mineral-like finish -- young and great, but will be wonderful in 15 to 20 years.
Cristal Rose 1996: Vibrant, creamy, cherry and plum pie, with hints of rhubarb preserve. An amazing wine with at least 15 to 25 years of great drinking ahead.
For a gift, the 1996 vintage is exceptional and the full-flavored Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV is a personal favorite. You could be making someone's ultimate Christmas -- or birthday -- wish come true.
Kevin Toyama is manager of the Beretania R. Field Wine Co. and an advanced certificate holder from the Court of Master Sommeliers.
This column is a weekly lesson in wine pairing written by a rotating panel of wine professionals. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org