News from Champagne

Jean-Claude Rouzaud of Roederer considers '95 one of the great vintages, and prefers '89 to '90 which can be very irregular.

There's always bit more Chardonnay in Cristal than in Louis Roederer Vintage. Most vintages there are four or five GrandsCrus of the Côte des Blancs, two or three of the Vallée de la Marne and Verzy, Verzenay and other Montagne de Reims Crus. No Meunier because, in theory at least, Cristal is designed to age. In practice of course many Cristal enthusiasts are an impatient bunch and can pop those corks as soon as the wine is released at five and half years. (The '95 was launched in summer 2001.)

Rouzaud says they make 500,000 bottles of Cristal a year on average though the total can vary from 900,000 to none, as in '91 and '98 – and just 250,000 botts, the smallest production ever, in 2000.

'When my friends ask,' claims Rouzaud, 'I say don't buy Cristal. The price is ridiculous. There's no point. What you should do instead is buy Brut Premier non-vintage and leave it in your cellar two or three years. You'll be surprised by what you get. But now we're trying to age Brut Premier an extra year so that it makes it above the rest of the pack. We started this even in '98 when there was a shortage of champagne. In three years we have increased our stock by 2m botts, so from this year [Dec 2001 or Jan 2002 when the Brut Premier based on the '98 vintage is released] Brut Premier will be 12 months older than it was in '98.'

Sounds good to me. Maybe it will even make the price seem less painful. (Roederer is rarely discounted – and is even more expensive in Britain, like all champagnes, than in France.)

This tasting took place just before the 2001 harvest which was ridiculously, dangerously large (Richard Geoffroy of Moët/Dom Pérignon has more recently described it, after fermentation, as between 1974 and 1977 in quality, which doesn't sound very inspiring). Rouzaud acknowledged this somewhat gloomily. 'In early July I sent a letter to all the growers who deliver to our own pressoirs explaining that yield will be much too high and offering a payment of 3000 francs a hectare to do a green harvest. Just two out of 40 growers on the Côte des Blancs accepted. I don't like these people.'

This came up in the context of the point chaud that the vineyard classification in Champagne is less than rigorous. A percentage rating is given to a whole commune rather than specific sites within it.

'We're going to make it mandatory to pick all the grapes [growers are currrently leaving grapes unpicked once they reach the maximum allowed] to try to encourage lower yields overall. Nature is playing tricks on us. Yields are far too high nowadays. Every year now bunches weigh 150-160 gm. It used to be difficult to reach 100.

Producing so many tonnes of sugar per hectare was unthinkable before '82. We can afford much higher yields in Champagne than in any still wine region. We don't need the same sort of concentration as is needed in still wines. But above 13,000 kg (88hl) per ha there's serious dilution.'