Ringing It In

Cristal

Louis Roederer
Cristal Champagne Brut
1996
Current price: about $350

Last night, to ring in the New Year, we pulled the cork on this elegant bottle of vintage Champagne. It's not every day we drink a three hundred dollar bottle of wine; in fact, it's unlikely to happen again anytime soon.

This wine was a gift, in a roundabout way. It has history. Five years ago, or maybe six, my coworker D. received it from his supervisor as a thank-you gift for a job well done. He stood it on his office bookshelves and promptly forgot all about it (he's a single-malt guy, not much for wine). There it languished for a few years, under the blazing fluorescents, until one day, after a particularly harrowing week, he decided we should crack it open. He pulled it down and waved it at us. "Somebody get some paper cups from the kitchenette. Let's have a toast!"

I threw myself in front of him. I'd just gotten my first good look at the bottle, and asked him for a stay of execution, a couple of minutes to do some research. I emailed him the results: 1996 was a good year—hell, every year's a good year for Cristal. Tasters had reported the wine was smooth and balanced, but also quite powerful. Parker gave it a 95, and Wine Spectator a 94 (blah blah blah). It should be good through 2015.

"Put away the paper cups," I told him. "Take this bottle home and let it settle for a day or two. Chill it down, but not too much. Pull the cork and pray the abuse it has suffered by your own hand was not enough to kill it. If it is still good, drink it with your beautiful partner, and thank your lucky stars."

"Here," he said, offering me the bottle with an outstretched arm. "Take it. You did the research. You earned it. And you'll enjoy it more than I will." I protested, I couldn't. "No, really, take it," he said. "I insist."

And so I brought it home. But a few days later, our house was struck by lightning, starting a fire in the walls. The firemen worked quickly to contain the blaze, but the home was left uninhabitable, a charred and gaping mess. After the fire trucks pulled away, we re-entered the structure to collect a few belongings. I grabbed a bagful of clothes, my toothbrush, my computer, a small sheaf of papers, and this bottle of Cristal. It was a small piece of civilization I could take with me, a reminder of good days, and of luxury, and hope.

That was two years ago. The fire is behind us, a memory. The new year is ahead of us, and it was, at last, time. We invited two friends to share the bottle, and, gathering in the kitchen, we gingerly pulled the cork. It came out clean, with no pop. The cork had dried to a taper; not a good sign. But we poured a few ounces into each of four Burgundy glasses, big glasses so we could experience the nose to the fullest, then we swirled the deep gold liquid, then sipped, then smiled.

It was a blossom in the glass, toasty with the scent of almonds, fresh, but also a little flowery. On the palate it offered tiny, refined bubbles and a supple mouthfeel. At first the taste was subtle, almost closed, austere. But it opened after a moment, bringing on more fruit and toast and an even, full body. It had a huge, lingering finish, like a struck bell ringing into quiet. It was even, smooth and integrated; masculine, but with a strong feminine side; long and strong and clean.

Happy New Year.

 


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