Champagne's Brightest Stars
Your guide to the best wines in the best vintages.
In the past 12 years, Champagne has had a succession of great vintages—some glorious, some immensely ageworthy, others ready to drink now. From 1996 to 2000, every year was a vintage year for a majority of producers. From 2002 onwards (with the strange exception of 2003), it's been the same story.
Call it global warming, climate change or just plain luck. But the fact is, Champagne drinkers have never had such a great choice of vintage Champagnes: not only the prestige cuvées, but also the straight vintage wines that represent great value by comparison. These wines are a reminder that the art of blending in Champagne is not just across years (for nonvintage), but also within years, as master blenders pull together their best wines from a vintage to showcase not only their own skills, but the quality of that year's grapes, as well.
And the process isn't taken lightly. Champagne houses don't make the final decision about a vintage until the March after the harvest; and until then, it is a matter of tasting and observing how the wines are evolving. "For a vintage, we look for solidity and complexity, because the wine has to stand on its own without any reserve wine," says Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, director of Vines and Wines at Roederer. "A great wine is a great wine from day one. I have never seen an unbalanced wine, which becomes balanced later. It's not like Bordeaux."
Not every producer makes a vintage Champagne every year. It's a question of personal taste, of house style and the demands of the sales force. And, it does make for lively discussion around the tables in Champagne. Jean-Hervé Chiquet, owner of Jacquesson, says "apart from four vintages since 1996, two (1996 and 2002) of which are the best, two (2001 and 2006) the worst, we can spend many happy hours talking about the merits of each year."
As we move through the vintages, I've cast the Champagnes in the roles they will play—on the table, in the cellar and on the palate, beginning with the starring roles. After all, if "all the world's a stage," then what's a curtain call without Champagne?
This was a truly great year but the people of Champagne say it is not a classic. "The wines are great, but bizarre," believes Jean-Hervé Chiquet, summing up the puzzlement the local Champenois feel towards this wine: they know it's great, but it just doesn't fit into a normal greatyear pattern, with its higher-than-normal acidity from perfectly ripe grapes. The effect has been attributed to cold nights just before harvest. Currently the wines are all tightness and closed, edgy flavors. This is just a stage and requires patience. But these 1996 Champagnes are ripe, rich wines with a searing core of steel, and they promise an immensely long life. When I first tasted 1996 (in '04), the wines showed white fruits, but the acidity was already the dominant factor. Already they were wines for aging, and the last few wines to be released show minerality and a flinty quality.
Every producer made a 1996 vintage. While some of the greatest—Salon le Mesnil, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne—are Chardonnay-based, this is a year for all styles. From growers (De Sousa Extra Brut) to the largest houses (Dom Pérignon), any 1996 deserves respect and admiration today.
Final call: A great experience in 5 to 10 years' time.
97 Bollinger 1996 RD Extra Brut; $190. The R.D (disgorged in June 2006) is Bollinger's answer to a prestige cuvée. Keeping the wine long on its lees yields a wine that is very much in the rich Bollinger style. This is a beautifully balanced wine with acidity, intensity and structure in perfect harmony. It is still so young and certainly could age for years. Imported by Terlato International. (11/1/06)
96 De Sousa & Fils 1996 Extra Brut; $130. Impressively young, this wine shows both the open, tropical side of De Sousa's Champagnes and the firm, closed nature of 1996 bottlings. There is some toasty character and lively acidity along with flavors of pineapple. Has great aging potential. Imported by Metrowine Distribution. (11/1/06)
The folks in Champagne get irritated when the world assumes a mediocre Bordeaux vintage means a mediocre Champagne vintage. Vintage 2002 is a case in point: not good in Bordeaux,but magnificent in Champagne.
Talk to any Champagne producer, whether big house or grower, and they will tell you, as Frédéric Panaïotis of Ruinart does, "it was an exceptional year." It is classic in the best sense. So far, there are only a few vintage 2002 wines on the market, including some superb Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs from growers in the Côtes des Blancs (Jean Milan, Pierre Gimmonet) as well as from growers who make the classic Champagne blend on the Montagne de Reims and the Marne Valley (Aubry, Henri Goutourbe). Only a few of the major houses, Veuve Clicquot and Taittinger among them, have begun to release their 2002s. And then there is a stunning Cristal 2002.
What these 2002 wines have in common is their complete balance. They bring together a mineral, chalky character with impressive power and concentration. In their current youthful state, they show flowers, fresh fruits and a structure that shows great aging potential.
Final call: What we have seen of 2002 is just the beginning. As more producers release 2002s, you should buy them, cellar them for a few years and then relish them.
98 Louis Roederer 2002 Cristal Brut; $289. This is an exceptional wine, as is the vintage. The fruits—grapefruit, crisp red apple—are balanced with a fine yeasty character. There is a great depth of flavor, the fruits going in a pure line of freshness. The one problem is that it is much too young, the result of the demand from the market for the next vintage. Age this wine for at least four years. Imported by Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. (12/1/08)
95 Taittinger 2002 Brut Millésimé; $NA. With its aromas of very pure, crisp fruits, this ripe wine from the great 2002 vintage is so complete. It has flavors of dried fruits, apricots and pear, and a texture that fills the mouth with a tight, mineral character. Impressive now, it does need to age, or even be decanted before serving. Imported by Kobrand.
Looking for a vintage that demonstrates all the qualities of fine Champagne? Then 1998 is for you. It brings together the more austere side of Champagne, but still has produced some beautifully rich wines, layered always with the true Champagne acidity (a k a freshness).
Initially the 1998s were opulent and full of delicious fruit. After about five or six years, the wines began to show more serious structure, and the Blanc de Blancs wines especially shone with a chalky, flinty character. The aging has taken two paths, bringing out either maturity (Ruinart's Dom Ruinart) or crisp minerality (Taittinger Comtes de Champagne).
Many of the top Champagnes have only just been released. Krug, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill and Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses are just arriving. They show just a degree of drink-me maturity while promising more aging. That's particularly true of Krug, which is teetering between young fruit and maturity.
Though, not everyone agrees with the quality of 1998. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Roederer says that he decided not to produce a Cristal 1998 because "the wine's too heavy for the precision and delicacy we look for in Cristal."
Final call: 1998 is a year for lovers of rich, opulent Champagne.
97 Pol Roger 1998 Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut; $275. Even at 10 years, this is still just getting started. While it doesn't have the immensity of the 1996, it has a great, intense grapefruit, pear and fresh apricot series of flavors, which come through with toast, ripeness and a suggestion of almonds. 7-8 years aging. Imported by Frederick Wildman & Sons Ltd. (12/1/08)
95 Krug 1998 Brut; $350. At 10 years, this Krug vintage is showing some maturity, especially from its toast aroma. But certainly not too much maturity. On the palate, the fruit remains young at heart, a crisp burst of freshness coming through the more mature acidity. All the elements are in balance, making a finely shaped wine that impresses as much from its elegance as from its richness. Imported by Moët Hennessy USA. (12/1/08)
The French use the word charmeur for this vintage, and what they mean is delicious, friendly and approachable. The 2000s are relatively low in acidity for Champagne, rich and generous. And yet they have a core of minerality that gives them more purpose and structure than their surface ripeness suggests at first. It is a great combination, and one that makes these wines appealing to lovers of California sparklers.
This is a year for the Pinots—Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A great example is Philipponnat's 1522 cuvée (that's not the year, but the date of the earliest records of the Philipponnats in Champagne). This Champagne is ripe and soft, and the structure is so dense that it is also powerful. Or consider Mandois' Cuvée Victor Mandois, a Champagne that isn't just bubbles, but is definitely a quality wine. There are apricots and plums balanced by apple skin structure and yeastiness; it's rich and structured at the same time.
Final call: These 2000s are not for long-term aging; not like 1996. They will be great in four to five years. The Champagnes that will be released over the next two to four years will probably have a shorter time span in their journey from Champagne cellar to the table.
95 Moët et Chandon 2000 Dom Pérignon Brut; $150. This is a classic Dom Pérignon vintage. It's big and fruity initially, a mouthful of ripeness. Then the texture and structure of this dense wine come through. It's as much wine as Champagne and is rich, the apple and fresh pear flavors vying with yeasty, tense crispness. Worth aging, it will be even better in 3-4 years. Imported by Moët Hennessy USA Inc. (12/1/08)
94 Jacquesson et Fils 2000 Avize Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Brut; $125. Jacquesson is a proud possessor of top quality grand cru vineyards in Avize. This vintage is subtle, a wine that takes a while to show all its richness, balanced with elegance. The fruit is ripe pear, peach and orange zest. It has a great streak of minerality. Worth aging. Imported by Vintage 59 Imports. (12/1/08)
This is not a great vintage, but it is an enjoyable one. After the austere, serious 1996s, the wines from 1997 came in like a favorite uncle, all bonhomie and generosity. The best of the wines are rich and ready to drink before the 1996s.
In fact, in this year it's hard to decide which style of Champagne is the most drinkable. The Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs are rich, almost like Chablis. Wines like Salon le Mesnil and Pascal Doquet's Grand Cru Le Mesnil-sur-Oger are full of ripe apricots and peaches as well as the chalky character associated with top Chardonnays.
By contrast, the classic Champagne blends, such as Louis Roederer Brut, are powerful, and you can taste the red fruits from the rich Pinot Noir. Maybe this is one of those years when all vintage Champagnes have the style of the year, rather than the style of the grape or the producer.
Nearly all the growers have released their 1997s, as have many of the big houses. Salon released its wine this year, and that is normally the last great name to bring its vintage to the market. It makes sense, considering the drinkability
of the wines.
I would put the 1997 on the total pleasure side of the scale. Don't age them (except for some occasional, probably Chardonnay-based wines).
Final call: Great pleasure, delicious wines, ready to drink.
96 Salon le Mesnil 1997 Blanc de Blancs; $NA. The fabled Salon's latest release is much riper and softer than the great steely 1996 vintage. That suggests it is likely to be ready to drink soon. In the meantime, the acidity is supremely fresh, with grapefruit edges and green apple flavors. And then there is minerality and a tight structured aftertaste as a reminder that this great Champagne is always going to be more than its fruit. Imported by Wilson Daniels. (12/1/08)
95 Jacquesson et Fils 1997 Brut; $165. With a majority of Chardonnay in the blend, this has turned into a wonderfully expressive wine. It is more open than the great 1996, more generous, giving some mature toast and nut flavors, but still retaining ripe apricots and mulberry. In the Jacquesson style, this is very dry, but its richness keeps it well in balance. Imported by Vintage 59 Imports. (12/1/08)
"This was a year of big yields and dilute wines. They lack depth" says Jean-Hervé Chiquet at Jacquesson. And he's almost right about many of the 1999 vintage wines I have tasted. But if a producer kept yields in check, then he would be set up to make a big, bold vintage Champagne.This is especially true with the Blanc de Blancs. Pierre Gimmonet's Special Club is soft, fresh and open. The Deutz Amour de Deutz is rich and toasty while retaining its normal apéritif style. Both wines have brought together the floral character of Chardonnay with tropical as well as citrus fruits.
Of the Champagnes dominated by Pinot Noir, some of even the very best wines are almost ready to drink. Bollinger's La Grande Année is an example: yes, there may be enough acidity for aging, but the dry fruits and richness from the Pinot Noir all make it drinkable now.
Final call: Choose 1999 with care and the reward will be powerful wine with maturity.
96 Louis Roederer 1999 Cristal Brut; $188. A powerful Cristal, which has all the richness of the 1999 vintage. The aromas of white flowers and cocoa lead to a palate that is rich, intense, concentrated, but restrained. It is already drinkable, but should mature well. Imported by Maison Marques & Domaines USA. (11/1/06)
94 Gosset 1999 Grand Brut; $85. An attractively perfumed wine, with white flowers, cut grass and thyme. To taste, it is soft with the delicacy of Chardonnay giving an elegance to the intense green, crisp flavors. This should be a long-lived wine, at least 10 years. Imported by Palm Bay International. (11/1/06)
The Champagne people talk a lot about 2003. It's still recent and a few houses have released a 2003 vintage. More importantly, it's a one-off, probably unrepeatable year.
The heat of 2003 was exceptional, with a heat wave that lasted for weeks. And with springtime frosts, the final quantities of wine were, in some cases, a quarter of normal. And the Chardonnay was low in acidity, posing a question about its usefulness in the blend.
At first, it seemed unlikely that any producers would offer a 2003 vintage. They needed the wine to make up their nonvintage blends, the lifeblood of any Champagne producer. But, it seems a spirit of adventure got the better of a handful of growers and houses who are already releasing 2003 vintage wines produced in small quantities.
The wines are as atypical as the year and don't seem destined for long-term aging. Bollinger, in fact, produced a 2003 outside its normal vintage range because they wanted to put the character of the year on record.
At Moët et Chandon, chef de cave Benoît Gouez released a 2003 vintage because he wanted to respond to the challenge. His answer to the low acidity of Chardonnay was to add in Pinot Meunier, often regarded as too lowly a grape for vintage.
Richness is a word that will be applied to any 2003 vintage Champagnes. Terry Theise, who imports many grower Champagnes, calls it "Chablis with bubbles." Aubry's Le Nombre d'Or cuvée is typically rich, although with the addition of the rare Arbanne and Petit Meslier grapes, has managed to retain minerality as well as bring in some exotic flavors.
Final call: The 2003 is a vintage for those who want to taste a year which may never happen again.
93 Moët et Chandon 2003 Vintage Brut; $65. Moët's vintage, from the hot, low-yielding 2003 vintage, has an unusually high percentage of Pinot Meunier (43%), which suggests there is a distinct character to the year. It's certainly powerful and intense, soft initially, hinting at toast and yeast, the fruit almost sweet, even though the wine is a brut style. It is the rich strawberry flavor that's most surprising on a wine that really has integrated impressively. Imported by Moet Hennessy USA. (12/1/08)
93 Louis Roederer 2003 Vintage Brut; $70. What a creamy Champagne. Its mousse bursts around the mouth. Impressively, all this creaminess is well balanced by full, dry fruits, flavors of pear and fresh bread, and finished with crisp apples. This is not a wine for aging, but it is ready to go with many meals now. Imported by Maisons Marques & Domaines USA. (12/1/08)
In any sequence of great, delicious or fascinating vintages, there just has to be one that breaks the flow. That's where 2001 comes in.
It's significant that so far I have only tasted eight vintage wines from 2001 and, with one exception, all were made by growers. It is also significant that the best are Blanc de Blancs. Put these two facts together, and it's apparent that the Côte des Blancs had the best of a bad year, when rain just tore through the region at harvest time. The grapes swelled, lost flavor and then rot added to the region's woes.
Final call: Yes, there will be a handful of wines worth drinking (Agrapart's Vénus Brut Nature is one), but with the plethora of great wines from so many other years, 2001 can be given a miss.
93 Agrapart et Fils 2001 Vénus Grand Cru Brut Nature; $120. Named not after the goddess of love, but the horse that Agrapart uses to plow the vines, this superb wine comes from 50-year-old vines, the clay element in the soil giving richness, the minerality giving balance, lifting up the yellow fruit flavors with excellent acidity. Imported by Polaner Selections. (12/31/2007)
93 Ayala 2001 Cuvée Perle d'Ayala Brut; $120. Now that it is owned by Bollinger, Ayala is returning to form. The style of this prestige cuvée is mature, dry, a fresh yeasty character showing against toastiness and pink grapefruit acidity. The finish is very crisp and dry. Imported by Cognac One LLC. (12/1/2008)
For the future
Vintages to watch for, according to the Champenois, who have the wine in bottle but certainly not ready for release, are 2004, 2005 and 2007. And of these, 2004 is the one that they are supporting. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon at Roederer has made all his vintage wines (Cristal, Roederer, Blanc de Blancs and Rosé) in 2004, a sure sign he thinks it is looking good. Vintage 2006 was as bad as 2001, is the consensus. And with 2008—being harvested as this story goes to press—the word again is, no matter what happens in Bordeaux, it's a potential vintage year.
See the Buying Guide for additional recommendations. Note the date of the review when calculating cellaring potential