Focus on Champagne

There are several reasons why I attempt to carry out comprehensive tastings of current Champagne releases, both vintage-dated wines and basic non-vintage brut bottlings, every year. Obviously, it's a great excuse to drink major quantities of really outstanding bubbly. More important, no matter what the major Champagne houses and guidebooks would have you believe, even basic non-vintage bruts vary from year to year and batch to batch, despite the fact that most Champagne producers try to provide their loyal clients with roughly the same style of wine every year (see the box on the opposite page for more information on Champagne blending and categories). Vintages in the northerly Champagne region vary widely in quality and style, and these differences can be smoothed over but not completely hidden by blending juice from two or more harvests.

Another reason I taste as many examples as possible anew each year is that the date of disgorgement, as well as the shipment and storage of Champagne once it leaves the frigid cellars of the region, has much to do with what the consumer will find when he or she pops the cork. As I have done in the past, I specifically requested all importers to provide samples of the various cuvees that they will be offering this fall. Under normal conditions, the batch of a given wine I receive in August will probably be the same as that available on retail shelves in November and December. But it must be noted that these are not normal times: since the burst of millennial buying in late 1999, the market for Champagne has slowed considerably, and sales of pricey vintage and prestige cuvee bottlings have been further affected by the current economic malaise. Many distributors are still working off older stocks, so this year it is possible that fresh Champagne stock that arrived from France in August or September will not reach many retailers until the end of the year, or even later.

Even today's vintage bottlings might not exactly match the same wines from last fall. For instance, the sample of a particular 1995 vintage wine that I tasted in recent weeks may well have been a fresh disgorgement just shipped from Champagne-that is, it's likely to be essentially the same wine aged another year or so on its lees, often picking up more richness and structure in the process. On the other hand, American importers who have not sold through their stocks of 1995 vintage from last year have generally not been in a position to buy more '95 in recent months. The result is that the samples they sent me were literally the same batches they provided last year. The only difference is that these wines have spent another year in their own warehouses, which may feature perfect temperature control or less-than-ideal conditions. I tasted too many vintage releases in recent weeks that appeared to be distinctly less fresh than they were last year-in some cases far less fresh than another year of aging would account for.

Champagne can be affordable. You don't have to spend $100-plus for an outstanding bottle of Champagne; in fact, superb Champagne can be had for a fraction of that price. Non-vintage brut bottlings from some of the most-visible Champagne names can be excellent and affordable, but lesser-known producers and smaller growers are often better sources of value. Some sources of excellent Champagne at affordable prices include Delamotte, Jacquesson, Montaudon, Ployez-Jacquemart, Guy Larmandier, Larmandier-Bernier, Pierre Gimonnet, Jean Milan, Pierre Peters and Rene Geoffroy. The last five of these are represented by German and Austrian wine specialist Terry Theise, who has built an impressive portfolio of grower Champagnes in recent years. In my recent tastings, the wines from Theise's Champagne estates were often fresher and more interesting than the relatively generic wines from the huge producers of the region, and many of these wines can be found for under $40. Theise's wines, by and large, are blends from closely defined areas such as a single village and thus are more likely to convey a distinctive impression of terroir than the blends from the Grands Marques houses and other large negociants-manipulants, which can lack distinction. Theise refers to his portfolio as "micro-brew Champagnes."

Recent vintages: Most current non-vintage brut bottlings are based on juice from the '98, '97 and '96 vintages. Nineteen ninety-seven produced rich, softer wine, often impressively rich; the early word on '98 is that despite the large size of the crop, the wines have considerable aromatic interest and good structure. Nineteen ninety-six is something else entirely: from the handful of vintage-dated wines I've tasted thus far, '96 appears to have produced dense, soil-inflected wines whose racy acids, pungent citrus notes, and mineral statement give them brilliant delineation as well as great structure and aging potential. I'd be very surprised if this did not turn out to be the most brilliant Champagne vintage since 1985, although there is certainly no shortage of outstanding wine from years like '88, '90, and '95. Many of the best non-vintage blends on the market today incorporate '96 juice, and some make generous use of even earlier vintages. (Krug's great multi-vintage Grande Cuvee typically borrows from ten or more vintages!). By the way, as impressive as the young '96 vintage Champagnes appear to be right now, these wines are extremely unevolved. Most need a minimum of five years of additional bottle aging; indeed, the top producers may not even release their '96s for four to seven years.

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 asterisks. I have reprinted a few notes from Issue 93 on special vintage bottlings no longer easily available from importers but still widely found at the retail levels. Many vintage 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.