Focus on Champagne

It's a mystery to me how many fellow winos give Champagne short shrift, treating it as so much mouthwash before moving on to "real wines," which are almost inevitably red, and outsized to boot. I suppose it's understandable that those whose tastes are geared almost exclusively to large-scaled, low-acid, superripe wines would assume that most Champagnes, with their strongly mineral, high-acid character and their alcohol levels barely above 12%, are lean, austere or even severe. In some cases they would be correct, but to pigeonhole Champagne so conveniently is a mistake that causes many wine-lovers to miss out on some of the most exciting wines made.

As the Champagne region is about as far north as one could reasonably expect to grow chardonnay and pinot noir, Champagne is typically a bracing, vibrant and racy drink-one that hits the palate like a slap on the face on a winter morning. This style of wine is usually based heavily, if not entirely, on chardonnay grown in the chalky soils of the Cote des Blancs, which lies just east and south of Epernay. But Champagne is not a monolithic wine, or region. On the contrary. There are also bottlings that are rich and thick, and as toasty and deep as the most powerful white Burgundies. These latter wines will satisfy even the hardest-to-please size freaks. The best examples of this style are usually made by producers with vines in the more northern Montagne de Reims area, which lies southeast of Reims. The smaller Vallee de la Marne section of Champagne sits roughly between the Cote des Blancs and Montagne de Reims and produces wines that range across the style spectrum, with a high percentage of its best wines based on the red grapes pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Generalizations about Champagne are as dangerous and misguided as with any other region, and open-minded wine-lovers owe it to themselves to get to know as many examples as their budgets will allow. Speaking of budgets, this is the season when pricing of Champagne in the retail marketplace is at its most competitive. Many of the wines reviewed in this article have suggested retail prices that are officially in the $30 range but will soon become available for $20 a bottle, and, in some markets, for even less.

Current vintages in the marketplace. Some vintage 2000 bottlings have begun to enter the market, and many current non-vintage brut releases rely heavily on wine from this vintage. Vintage 2000 bottlings as well as non-vintage wines based primarily on this year tend to be elegant and restrained, with graceful fruit but perhaps a slight shortage of stuffing, weight and power. Vintage 1999 produced richer, thicker, more structured wines with broader shoulders. The downside to '99 is that some wines lack grace and precision and can be a bit coarse. But by blending this material with wines from 2000 and, especially, from 1998, many producers have been able to add refinement and personality to their non-vintage bottlings based on the '99 vintage.

Lovers of chardonnay-based Champagnes should pay close attention to 1998, a vintage that yielded many remarkably complex, deeply flavored wines that promise to be long-lived and satisfying. The pinot-based wines of '98 can be a bit less ripe and rich, and many come off today as a touch austere. But, again, this is where blending comes in handy. Among recent vintages, 1997 is a definite sleeper. Coming on the heels of the universally acclaimed '96s, the '97s initially seemed less refined and less precise even if they possessed good weight, and came across as less balanced for cellaring than the earlier vintage. But there are some delightful surprises in 1997. The wines are round and, in most cases, drinking very well right now, showing spicy complexity and supple, rich textures. This is a seriously underrated vintage that can offer great drinking pleasure.

As for 1996, almost all examples that are still in release are in high demand, and many earlier releases have long since sold out. It is a mistake, to my palate, to drink the best bottlings of 1996 now or any time soon, as these Champagnes can be astonishing for their concentration, power and long-term potential. One generally is required to pay a premium for potential, after all, and it seems a shame to shortchange these wines, and yourself, by popping the corks too early. The '96s are proving to be among the best Champagnes of our generation.

Does size matter? Thanks to many smaller specialist American importers, there is a wider range of Champagne choices in the U.S. market than ever before. Less than a decade ago, Champagne lovers' choices essentially began and ended with the Grandes Marques and, although these firms still dominate the market, grower Champagnes ("farmer fizz," as tireless artisan Champagne importer Terry Theise calls them) are a burgeoning category in the U.S. market. The best smaller estates are producing Champagnes of great character and individual style, often made organically and in non-interventionist fashion. It's important to note that these are relatively modest operations, almost always family-run and owned, and thus highly vulnerable to vintage variation, in terms of both quality and quantity of fruit. And this is the Achilles' heel of the artisan producer. Large houses have the luxury of an enormous inventory of stocks of wine from the best vintages, which they then use in their non-vintage cuvees as a way of maintaining a house style. A further benefit of being able to use older wines is the added depth and complexity brought by these components. Few small producers have the blending capabilities of Krug, for example, which uses up to 50 different components from 6 to 10 vintages to create their Grande Cuvee and rose bottlings.

Deep pockets also ensure that the large houses are able to hire the best and brightest for vineyard management and winemaking. Some of the Grandes Marques, for example, owned by multinational corporations and treated as luxury-good producers, employ winemakers who are among the most talented and experienced in Europe. My tastings showed time and again that the Grandes Marques are capable of achieving a very high level of quality and even individual personality, if these are their goals. Small may be beautiful, but beauty needn't be small.

Disgorgement dates and bottle codes. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to figure out what blend, or cuvee, is lurking in the bottle. Even vintage-dated Champagnes can be released over an extended period and disgorged at multiple times. While it is by no means automatically true that later-disgorged bottles are better wines, they will certainly be different. All things considered, I'd prefer to purchase a recently disgorged Champagne than an earlier release that has been kicking around the U.S. market for two or three years.

The problem is that few Champagne houses show disgorgement dates on their labels. But some of them, even the Grandes Marques, are now providing this information; Mumm, for example, is trying it out even on some of their non-vintage cuvees. This is a positive first step toward providing consumers with a good idea of how long a particular bottle has been moldering in a warehouse or on the shelf of a retail shop. It will be interesting to see how many of the large houses follow this lead. Most producers place a lot number on the bottle, label (front, back or neck) or capsule, but these often arcane codes, which are frequently almost impossible to find and read, are clearly not intended for the education of the consumer. Still, this information may enable you to purchase bottles from the same batch that I tasted: where I found disgorgement dates or lot numbers on my bottles, I have included these in my tasting notes.

The bottles that I worked through are the most current releases in the U.S. market. As production levels at the large houses can be astonishingly high, and each producer offers multiple cuvees and disgorgements, it's quite possible that the bottlings available at a given time in different markets will vary. Sometimes a wholesaler on our West Coast will be working with a cuvee different from the one being sold in the East.

The best policy is to ask your merchant when he or she received the Champagne that you are considering. Many Champagnes will be better to drink a year or three after their disgorgement dates, but I'd much rather have these bottles aging peacefully in my own cellar in the meantime than knocking around on retailers' shelves. It would be nice to put a positive spin on the difficulty consumers face in knowing whether Champagnes in the retail market are fresh, but it's a cold fact that this may remain a problem as long as we're dealing with production levels that often go into the millions of bottles. But if Anheuser-Busch can put "Born On" dates on every single one of the hundreds of millions of cans and bottles of beer that they produce, there is surely hope that the Champagne houses will eventually follow this lead.