Champagne: The Last Frontier

by Antonio Galloni

My tastings this year of Champagne revealed a fascinating breadth and diversity of wines. In many ways, Champagne remains the last frontier - at least in the Old World - in that it is arguably the last major region that has yet to be discovered in the big way its top producers deserve. Burgundy fans are keenly aware of the differences of the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays grown in the various villages that dot the Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits, down to which producers own the best rows in the most coveted vineyards. In Bordeaux, each of the main towns and their vineyards possess qualities that are generally understood and accepted.

   What about Champagne? By comparison, little is known about the region’s individual villages. Much of this is of course the result of the region’s huge size and a level of production that surpasses 300 million bottles a year. Still, the villages of Avize, Mesnil and Oger (to name a few) yield unique, compelling Chardonnays, each with their own very personal signatures. The same holds for Aÿ, Bouzy and Verzenay when it comes to Pinot Noir. For curious readers interested in the thrill of discovery, an exciting world of compelling wines awaits in Champagne. The finest bottles offer just as much site-specific character as the top wines of Burgundy, Alsace and Piedmont, to name but a few regions where wines tend to be highly informed by subtle yet noticeable differences in exposure, microclimate and soil characteristics. Of course much of Champagne’s image and prestige has been built by the Grandes Marques (big brands), wineries that place the house style front and center in a philosophy of Champagne as a blended wine meant to be fairly consistent from year to year. The best of those wines are equally brilliant and well worth seeking out. Readers looking for more background information may want to take a look at my article in Issue 180.

   To be sure, the last year has been very difficult for the region and its producers. The high-end market for prestige bottlings has essentially fallen off a cliff, and each week seems to bring a new article in the press depicting the calamitous state of affairs in sales of Champagne. Over the decades, Champagne has been brilliantly marketed as a celebratory beverage, but with unemployment in the US surpassing 10%, retirement and other investment accounts seriously eroded after a devastating 2008, and property values at multi-year lows, the reality is most people have had little to celebrate. Many importers went into 2009 with large inventories they are still working through. Most affected are the larger wineries that have significant numbers of bottles still in the cellar. Readers will note the absence of several well-known houses from this report, and much of that is due to a lack of new releases in this country. Over the last few months the overall mood in the US has begun to improve but it remains to be seen when, and if, consumers emerge from this period of new austerity in which all household expenditures are being closely monitored. Of course, as luck (or fate) would have it, the recent expansion of the boundaries of Champagne, originally designed to meet a level of previously high demand seem now to have been very ill-timed. For vintage 2009, growers and the larger houses that purchase the grapes reached an agreement (more or less) on how much fruit could be harvested in order to try to keep production down, but it remains to be seen just how many growers had the discipline to exercise such restraint.

An Overview of Recent Vintages

As is the case in many regions throughout Europe, the 2009 vintage has created quite a bit of interest throughout Europe. I will know more about the quality of the wines when I taste the vins claires next spring. So far, 2008 looks to be a classic, steely vintage of highly-site specific wines. The 2007s happen to be in my blind spot for the moment, as I did not taste the vins claires that year and it is too soon to begin seeing the wines as part of NV blends. Vintages 2005 and 2006, on the other hand, are both heavily present in the current batch of NV releases, and I have also tasted a number of single-vintage grower wines. Two thousand five looks to be a year of ripe wines that are flattering and highly enjoyable right out of the gate for their round, almost opulent fruit. The 2006s appear to be fresher and better balanced wines with more minerality to balance the fruit. When 2005 and 2006 are combined, as they are in many wines that will appear on the market within the next few months, the results can be quite striking as it is pretty clear the vintages possess complementary characteristics. Two thousand four is a vintage of cool, minerally wines that favors the Chardonnay-based wines, which seem to share the focus and minerality of white Burgundies of that year. Yields were quite high as the plants recovered from the stresses they suffered in the torrid 2003, yet based on what I have tasted thus far, a number of wines are highly promising. Vintage 2003 was a torrid vintage in Champagne as it was everywhere in continental Europe. The hot summer came on the heels of a spring frost which had already reduced yields by as much as 50-60%, which combined to produce big, concentrated, super-ripe wines. The 2003 Champagnes are opulent wines best enjoyed over the near-term. Based on what I have tasted so far, 2002 is shaping up to be a wonderful year that combines power, richness and structure. Vintage 2002 is considered an unusually hot year, yet the wines don’t seem to show those qualities; to the contrary, most wines possess impeccable balance. The vast majority of the tête de cuvées are years away from being released, but the level among the grower wines is universally quite high, and certainly a notch or two above (at least) the surrounding 2000, 2001 and 2003 vintages.

A word on disgorgement dates

   As our database becomes more robust, I am faced with multiple reviews of NV wines that are beginning to accumulate. This is especially an issue where producers and/or importers do not list disgorgement dates. I am fully aware of the arguments against listing disgorgement dates. The large houses will say they are disgorging every day. Fine. All that is needed is a month or even a quarter and a year. Smaller importers complain that consumers tend to focus on specific disgorgements that are reviewed and won’t purchase wines with other disgorgement dates. My message here is simple. Consumers should expect that, within reason, disgorgements within a few months of each other will in most cases be reasonably similar. I increasingly find myself tasting NV wines without knowing if a given wine is the exact same wine I tasted a year ago. I have no way of knowing that, and neither do you. The problem is even greater for consumers considering these wines in shops or in restaurants. There is no way to know if wines have been in stock for several days or several years. In major markets this is less likely to be an issue, at least where large quantities of Champagne are sold, but it is a big issue in smaller markets where bottles can linger for several years. After much consideration, I have made the difficult but necessary decision that going forward I will longer review NV wines that do not carry disgorgement dates, or at the very least a lot number that can be traced back to a disgorgement date. I realize this may be a controversial decision, but wine criticism must always put the interests of the consumer first, and in this case Champagne producers need to join the 21st century. I remain amazed that a $3 gallon of milk often has more consumer information than Champagnes that cost hundreds of times as much, but that, dear reader, is the simple truth.