Sunday, 29 November 2009

Cristal: hip or hype?

Last weekend we hosted our Decanter Fine Wine Encounter at the Landmark Hotel in Marylebone. It was a great turn out - just under 100 producers from around the globe came to show off their wines, including Château Palmer, Chapoutier, Seghesio and Craggy Range. Château Palmer were showing their 1996, which proved such a hit queues around the stand were five deep with tweed-clad gents jostling one another, glasses aloft, in hope of a drop.

A number of the wine world glitterati flew in to present masterlcasses, from Michel Chapoutier and Christian Moueix to the charismatic Angelo Gaja, who provided the highlight of the weekend by comparing Cabernet Sauvignon to John Wayne as a lover and Nebbiolo to Italian screen legend Marcello Mastroianni. Wayne, he argued, would be strong and powerful but a bit boring, whereas Mastroianni would bring something different to the table (or bed) every night.

I got to try some sensational wines over the two days, my highlights being Angelus 2004, Chryseia 2007, and Gaja 1976 Barbaresco, which was to die for. I'd been looking forward to the final masterclass of the weekend – Louis Roederer, as we were going to be serving Cristal 1999 in Jeroboam. They were brought into the kitchen in their bright orange wrappers like giant Christmas presents. Three of them; the three kings. We unwrapped them and left them to chill in the ice box until we received orders to pour.

Created for Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1876, Cristal gets its name from its crystal clear, flat-bottomed bottle. Fearing assassination due to a rocky political situation, the tsar ordered the bottles of his favourite fizz to be made clear and flat so they couldn't be laced with poison or planted with a bomb.

In the late 1990s, with the emergence of 'bling' culture, rappers like the Notorious BIG, P Diddy and Jay-Z chose Cristal as their Champagne of choice, ordering it by the case load in clubs and boasting about their conspicuous consumption of it in their lyrics. Cristal became a byword for cool in the hip-hop world; the Champagne holy grail. Moët just wouldn't cut it anymore - it had to be Cris.

But the love affair with Cristal ended for Jay-Z at least in 2006, after Louis Roederer managing director Frederic Rouzard made the following comment in an interview with The Economist when asked if he thought the association with hip-hop would harm the Cristal brand: "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business." Jay-Z quickly boycotted Cristal, moving on to Armand de Brignac or 'Ace of Spades' as it's been nicknamed, which is quickly replacing Cristal in hip-hop circles as the trophy bottle to be seen sipping from.

But what of the Cristal 1999? How did the cult cuvée perform on the night? By the time I got some in my glass, after two of the three bottles were poured in the masterclass, it had gone flat. It was like arriving at a party an hour too late. As I sipped it, I imagined what it might have been like, had I tried it as soon as the cork popped. It was certainly light and elegant with a complex and alluring honeyed nose, but worth £2,200 a bottle? Of course not. No wine is.

Panic grew in the kitchen post-masterclass when doing the routine bottle count. Where was the third Jeroboam? The masterclass leader sent a search party out to the Champagne room, while we combed the kitchen fearing the worst. Could an opportunistic ticket holder have crept in and shoved it up his lambs wool jumper? Surely not. The search party returned empty handed. We were still a Jeroboam down. Retracing the bottle's last steps, I rushed to the ice box and flung open the lid - there it was, laid back, luxuriating in the ice.

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