Focus on Champagne

There is a great deal of confusion in the marketplace over the availability of Champagne for millennial merrymaking- and strong indications of hoarding on the part of retailers and individual celebrants. It is obvious that certain bottlings, especially some top prestige cuvees but also a number of Champagnes from the outstanding 1990 vintage, are currently difficult to find in the retail market. In general, however, fears that the Champagne tap will run dry are unfounded. There is plenty of Champagne available, as production has exceeded shipments in nine of the past ten years. Non-vintage bruts are in good supply. And, as the prices paid to growers for Champagne grapes have risen at a steady but modest pace in recent years, most non-vintage brut bottlings remain fairly priced.

It is also clear that in the last days of the millennium dozens of less widely known Champagne producers (not just negociants but also small growers and even co-ops) have sent wine to export markets, especially the U.S., in an attempt to capitalize on all the bubbly-guzzling likely to go down during this year holiday festivities. Many of these wines are strictly mediocre and will simply be bad memories by this time next year. Some, however, are quite good, and are likely to find niches in our market. Clearly, Champagne producers have at least two strategic alternatives for marketing their wines in 1999: capitalize on a period of feverish sales by unloading as much wine as possible in search of a quick franc, or take advantage of a rare opportunity to reach new customers and gain market share by offering wines of high quality.

I was generally happy with the level of Champagne I found in my extensive tastings over the August to October period. In virtually every instance, I tasted fresh bottles that came directly from importers and distributors-in theory at least, the same bottles you're likely to find on retail store shelves this fall. Still, too many basic brut bottlings lack freshness or flavor intensity. I tasted more non-vintage blends than ever before that betrayed a distinct disharmony between their young and old components-a disjointedness that significantly reduces the immediate appeal of these wines and makes holding them for a year or two a distinct gamble. Of course, many excellent Champagnes begin their life in the market this way, and need some additional time in bottle to round into form.

My tasting notes include many new bottlings from the superb 1990 vintage, as well as a few late releases from '88, a vintage that generally produced fresher wines than '89 (the latter a year that most Champagne critics prize more highly than I do). Many '88s are rather lean and underripe, often with green acidity, but the finest examples from this vintage offer a rare degree of finesse. The vintages of the early '90s are a mixed bag: 1995 is the first truly interesting year after 1990, though I've tasted very good examples from '92 and '93. Keep in mind that Champagnes from middling to poor vintages are frequently far less satisfying than good non-vintage blends, and thus often do not merit their price premiums over basic bruts. By all accounts, 1996 was a five-star vintage in the same quality league as '82, '85, and '90; the first wines from '96 will begin to arrive next year.

In the tasting notes that follow, wines rating less than 85 points are simply listed without description; those I scored 84 or 83 are denoted with an asterisk. I have also reprinted a handful of notes from Issue 81 on special bottlings no longer offered by importers or distributors but still widely available at the retail levels; the scores for these wines are shown in italics. However, numerous wines that were included in last year's coverage were retasted in recent weeks for this issue; new notes and scores are provided for these bottles. One last observation: Champagne is extremely vulnerable to rough handling and exposure to heat. You can raise your odds of getting fresh Champagne by purchasing wines from shops with reasonably good storage conditions-and, better yet, with rapid turnover of Champagne stock.