Focus on Champagne

Don't look now, but Champagne has become a relative bargain in today's international wine market. With excellent basic brut and blanc de blancs bottlings available for under $30 (and often considerably less during holiday season specials), Champagne is not quite the luxury bauble it once seemed.

Champagne sales are considerably slower today than they were in the pre-millennial frenzy of late 1999, and for lovers of Champagne this is all to the good. Non-vintage blends are rarely rushed to market before they've had a chance to harmonize. By the same token, Champagne houses are frequently slower to release new vintages, and overstocked importers and distributors are rarely in a hurry to bring in newly available wines. On the following pages, I've provided new notes on non-vintage wines I sampled in recent weeks, as well as notes on vintages that have been shipped to the U.S. since last fall. Where a vintage Champagne that was tasted last year is still the current vintage in the market, I've listed the wine and the score it received in Issue 99. (Please refer to Issue 99 for detailed background information on Champagne.) Other recommended wines" rated 85 or 86 points in my recent tastings.

Among the wines I sampled this fall are 20 or so recent arrivals from the splendid 1996 vintage, a year that provided a rare combination of high grape sugars and high acidity. The best of these wines will become even more expressive with 5 to 15 years of additional bottle aging; some of them are almost too powerful to drink now. (Actually, many of the finest '96s have not been released yet.) Among the vintages since the mid'-80s, I'd still rank 1985 at the top on sheer balance and class, but 1996 is the most impressive vintage since then, followed by 1990 and 1988. I should note that I also tasted a number of splendid new releases from the '95 vintage, a year that will remain in the shadow of '96 despite the fact that many superconcentrated, dense wines were made.