Beppi Crosariol's Decanter

Cristal has the last laugh in bubbly brouhaha

The Globe and Mail

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Champagne executive Frederick Heidsieck has a message for rapper Jay-Z: Cristal is alive and well, thank you very much.

The global sales manager for Louis Roederer, maker of Cristal, the iconic $300-a-bottle super-luxury bubbly celebrated in numerous hip-hop anthems, says sales are surging once again. More to the point, he claims they never suffered because of the African-American musician's boycott of the purportedly "racist" brand in 2006.

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"Cristal is the oldest cuvée de prestige in the Champagne region," said Mr. Heidsieck, dressed in a neatly tailored blue suit and shimmering pink tie, on a promotional swing through Toronto last week. "So we cannot accept that somebody - hip-hop or not hip-hop, doesn't matter - says, "I made your Cristal.' "

In fact, in the wake of the much-publicized denunciation, in which Jay-Z announced he was pulling the brand from his U.S. sports bars, importers from more than 50 countries inundated Mr. Heidsieck's office with e-mails and phone calls requesting any excess inventory not taken up by the U.S. market.

The brouhaha was sparked by comments from Roederer managing director Frédéric Rouzaud in The Economist magazine. Asked whether Cristal's association with the "bling lifestyle" might sully the brand, Mr. Rouzaud said: "That's a good question. But what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it."

Mr. Heidsieck says the racism charge "was obviously not true," and, for the record, he seemed gleeful in our conversation about the wine's cachet among wealthy young rap artists. But that market is a drop in the bucket for Cristal with the entire United States accounting for just 15 per cent of sales.

More tangibly painful for the brand - dubbed "Cris" by its rap-star devotees - was the recent recession, which took a swig out of Champagne sales generally after more than a decade of heady expansion. Cristal sales plunged 20 per cent in late 2008 and the first half of 2009, and Champagne over all was down 15 per cent in 2009 over the previous year, Mr. Heidsieck said, as wealthy consumers tightened their Gucci belts and formerly free-spending scenesters stayed home in droves.

But the sparkling tide has since turned, Mr. Heidsieck said. Global shipments of Champagne are up substantially, and statistics just compiled by the Champagne Bureau in France show a 43-per-cent spike in Canada for the first six months of this year over the same period last year.

In fact, for pundits who may question whether a recovery is in full swing, Mr. Heidsieck's take on the global situation may be more reliable than the statistical prognostications of some bearish economists.

"I am always saying to my friends that there is a very strong link between the economy and Champagne," said the Frenchman, who holds an MBA from the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne in the heart of the Champagne region, just east of Paris.

"If the economy is coming back, then people start to celebrate a little bit more," he said. "Champagne is celebration. And if you have nothing to celebrate, then the Champagne business is declining."

And let's face it, it was hubris to think Jay-Z's otherwise estimable way with words could shatter the fortunes of Cristal - even if you deemed his outrage justifiable.

Created in 1876 at the request of Roederer aficionado Tsar Alexander II, the top brand of the Champagne house was bottled in clear Baccarat crystal to distinguish it from the more pedestrian stuff the regal Russian served to his court.

To this day, the wine, pronounced kris-TAHL, comes in a clear bottle, though one made of plain glass. To shield the contents from harmful ultraviolet rays, the company began wrapping it in UV-resistant orange cellophane shortly after the Second World War, adding a sort of gift-wrap lustre.

That innovative packaging, though pragmatically motivated, was perhaps the company's biggest marketing coup. But free endorsements hardly began or ended with hip-hop. Mr. Heidsieck proudly cited his favourite ka-ching moment, a conspicuous appearance by a three-litre Jeroboam of extremely rare Cristal Rosé (approximate retail price $2,600) on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2004. Actor John Travolta strode on set with the behemoth to help celebrate Ms. Winfrey's 50th birthday in front of millions of viewers.

"Cristal is her favourite Champagne," Mr. Heidsieck said. "And that was for me very, very emotional. It was totally unexpected."

Produced from only the finest old vines on Roederer's estate-owned land in the heart of the chalky Champagne region (as opposed to most other big-name brands, which are blended from purchased fruit sourced across multiple sites), Cristal shares its recherché status with only a few other top names, notably Dom Pérignon and Krug.

Like those vintage-dated counterparts, produced only in good years and given several years of cellar time to develop additional complexity, Cristal can age beautifully. The wine's classic brioche core tends to develop nuances of honey, toast, roasted nuts and a Sherry-like tang 15 or 20 years after the harvest date on the label.

Recovering economy aside, this has been a relatively good year for Cristal. The soon-to-be-released 2004 vintage, which I tasted last week along with two other previous releases, displays an uncommon concentration of fruit as well as delectable roundness. It's less austere and not as perceptibly high in acidity as most new vintages. It's the kind of accessible, early-drinking profile that should delight wealthy wine newcomers in Asia, an exploding Champagne market.

And the good-quality 2009 harvest, now safely maturing in cellar and slated for release in five years, yielded a bumper crop, with 800,000 bottles produced. That's twice the average Cristal output of 400,000 bottles. Enough to give Jay-Z one very big hangover.

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