Focus on Champagne

While most wine lovers drink more Champagne at year-end celebrations than at any other time of the year, I swim in the stuff during September and October, in an attempt to bring as many new releases as possible to your attention before the holidays.While these tastings are hard on the palate, they are always stimulating to the head.

Among the highlights of this fall's tastings were many more vintage releases from 1995 and 1996.As I mentioned last year, 1996 is increasingly looking like one of the greatest Champagne vintages of the past generation, and it's possible that when the bubbles settle, it will show itself to have been the best of all.This growing season brought a rare and freakish combination of high sugars and high acids, and the finest wines will be long-lived by Champagne standards.Many of these wines are almost too powerful for their own good today, with their acids currently dominating (several '96s have not even been released yet).Many of them will repay four to eight more years of bottle aging, preferably in a very cool cellar, and the best of them should develop positively in bottle for another two decades or more.These are rigorous, sometimes downright painful wines with great extract, concentration and grip.Consumers who enjoy sipping Champagne without thinking about what they're drinking may be better served by some of the currently available non-vintage brut bottlings, which are generally less demanding of your palate and attention.

Vintage 1995 will also need more time in bottle.These are very dense, thick wines, and the vintage, as is the case with so many red and white Burgundies from the same year, has a tendency toward rusticity, due more to its thickness of texture and occasional heaviness than to off aromas or flavors.Almost from the outset, the 1995s were overshadowed by the 1996s, but the top '95s are particularly rich and mouthfilling Champagnes.