There are luxury goods that last forever, and then there are luxury goods that you can literally swallow. Among the latter, Cristal champagne is the crème de la crème of lavish consumables. Just look at the price tag! But why exactly does it cost $269 and up for just a few narrow, fizzy, delicious glasses? Alongside Bridget West, a certified sommelier, French wine scholar and Champagne Master who works at The WineSellar and Brasserie, we’re popping the cork on some answers.
Seriously, how can any fermented, effervescent grape juice cost more than $200?
First of all, these aren’t just any grapes. This is champagne literally fit for kings: It was first served in 1867 to the king of Prussia and the czar of Russia as part of what sounds like a modest meal: It lasted 16 courses and eight hours (the year of the grapes in that champagne was 1847).
In 1876, Czar Alexander II asked that same winemaker, Louis Roederer, to craft a custom champagne for his royal family. Roederer responded with Cristal, served in a clear crystal bottle (which was commissioned by a Flemish glassmaker, West says). Like many royals, Alexander was wary of being assassinated, and he asked for a clear bottle in order to better detect poisoning, and a flat bottom, so that bombs(!) couldn’t be hidden inside the indentation on the bottom of the bottle, known as the punt. To this day, Cristal bottles have both of those things — and although Alexander was still assassinated five years later, at least he didn’t fall victim to a champagne booby trap.
So, Cristal’s got a lot of history on its side. Even the vines that produce it are the Roederer estate’s oldest: 25 to 30 years old at a minimum, and as old as 60 years.
History, got it. Anything I should care about as someone who’s basically going to be pissing it out again in a couple hours?
As West explains, the reason any good champagne is expensive is the time it sits in a bottle, maturing. Such a winemaker is sitting on their profit for longer than one who release wines yearly. That’s another thing that sets Cristal apart from other champagnes. “Cristal is a vintage product,” West says, “so that means that they only release on good vintages.” In the 21st century (up to 2012, the most recent vintage you can buy), Cristal wasn’t released in 2001, 2003 and 2010 simply because it wasn’t deemed good enough. So there’s a real supply-and-demand issue at play.
What about the hip-hop factor?
Well, rappers had been rhyming about other bottles for some time: Moet, Asti, Dom… anything, really. There’s some debate over who was the first to rap about Cristal: It’s thought to have been Rakim, although Raekwon was the first to really popularize it (here’s his full explanation on how he was introduced to the clear-bottled bubbly). After that, it became a hip-hop trope, as Diddy and Jay-Z seemed to always find a way to insert Cristal into every one of their tracks. Think about all that free exposure Cristal got from hit song after hit song!
Yes, Cristal had a great thing going with this demographic — until 2006, that is, when Louis Roederer’s director expressed ambivalence about Cristal’s popularity in the hip-hop world, going on to say, “But what can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it.” That was enough for Jay, who perceived it as a racist remark and vowed never to drink or promote it again, and others followed.
Also of note: Before Tupac Shakur joined Jimmi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain in the great gig in the sky, he was an aspiring mixologist who shared a truly horrifying cocktail recipe in a song named after his creation: 1 part Cristal, and 1 part Alizé.
Indeed. Let’s move on, shall we?
So is Cristal actually any good? Or is it just conspicuous consumption?
Oh yes, it is, West assures. “The 2008 is one of the most highly regarded vintages of the century,” she says. It was released only last year, and scored a perfect 100 points from Wine Enthusiast, which is a really big deal. “It’s hedonistic — in the best sense of the word!” she continues. And Cristal gets even better the longer you hold onto it. “If you’re drinking it too soon it’ll still be beautiful, but you won’t have the full composure of it till later,” she explains. “With age you’ll get more of brioche, the caramel notes, the orange — all those things you really love about champagne.”
How long should you wait to drink it?
“You could go 20-plus years, if not more,” West says. That perfect-score bottle from 2008 is already 11 years old, which means it’s got a long way to go to get even better. There’s a long timeline to top champagne, which feels almost charmingly out of sync with our warp-speed, instant-gratification way of life.
What’s with the gold wrapper?
That was originally for protection from sun and light. Since it’s not in a dark green bottle like most wines and champagnes, Cristal is prone to being “light-struck,” which is, in a nutshell, when wine (or beer) turns to shit due to sun exposure. West says it’s similar — the smell, at least — to when flowers sit in the same water for too long. The gold foil still serves that protective purpose, but it’s also become a signature part of the brand — an extra little flourish on an already lavish item. The clear bottle still serves to reveal the champagne’s clarity, and the wrapper ensures the integrity of it.
So is Cristal worth it, or not?
In the same way that any nice, i.e., expensive things are “worth it,” yes — it’s a rare and special wine, it’s got a unique history, and when people see a bottle, they know you mean business. If you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, why not buy yourself a pricey hangover?
“I think it’s worth it,” says West. “Champagne is one of those things that can make any day really special — and Cristal, it turns heads.” So if your idea of a good time is more about being seen to have a good time than it is actually having one, well, Cristal seems like a safe bet.