New Releases from Champagne

by Antonio Galloni

My November trip to Champagne was fascinating, as I visited a number of properties and tasted an extraordinary range of wines. Readers will find a dazzling variety of Champagnes on the market, from outstanding non-vintage releases all the way up to the rarest, most prized trophy wines and everything in between. In general, producers were upbeat about the recently concluded 2008 harvest, although the slowdown in the global economy was a subject of much discussion, especially given the proposed expansion of the region to include a number of new villages. It remains to be seen how much demand, and therefore prices, are affected by the current synchronized global economic slowdown countries around the world are grappling with.

New vintage releases include wines from all of the years spanning 1996 through 2004. Most observers cite 2002 as the next important top-flight vintage after the prized 1996, but ultimately readers will be best served by focusing on specific producers rather than vintages as trying to draw vintage generalizations of the kind that may be helpful in other regions seems like an exercise in futility when it comes to Champagne. The simple reality is that Champagne is by far the most manipulated wine in the world. The region has long been home to specious vineyard practices that rely on chemicals and fertilizers to maximize yields. The production of Champagne often entails chaptalization (the addition of sugar) during the fermentation stage to boost alcohol levels. The wines then receive a mixture of sugar and yeast to induce the secondary fermentation when they are bottled and a further addition of sugar once they are disgorged. Soil types, varietal composition, aging on the lees and dosage vary tremendously from wine to wine. Lastly, not all wines are made in all vintages. While lining up 100 wines from any vintage in Burgundy or Bordeaux is feasible, trying to the same thing in Champagne is possible only in the greatest of vintages, when all of the top wines are produced. A comparison of vintages can be fascinating within the context of a particular producer or for comparing wines from historic, collectible vintages, but using a vintage’s reputation as a major factor in making purchasing decisions is ultimately misguided when it comes to Champagne.

It is always a challenge to pick up coverage of a region that hasn’t been reviewed in a few years as the pace of change is incredibly fast. Readers should therefore view this article as a starting point rather than an ending point. Going forward, subscribers can expect annual coverage of new releases plus several online features throughout the year that take a deeper look at specific producers and wines. Upcoming online articles include a retrospective of the 1996 vintage and verticals of several iconic Champagnes.

Grands Marques and Grower Champagnes – Two Different Interpretations of Champagne

Once largely ignored by all but a small handful of savvy consumers, Champagne has exploded into prominence on a global scale in a very big way. Prices for many of the most desirable wines have skyrocketed to levels never seen before due to the demand that the region’s grands marques (big brands) have created through slick marketing that promotes an image of Champagne as a luxury good. Up until a few years ago Champagne received little attention in the auction market, while today the wines have become quite prominent in catalogs as prices, and the accompanying cachet of owning the rarest wines, have soared, pre-recession, of course.

The grands marques often get a bad rap for the massive quantity and industrial quality of their Champagnes. To be sure, there are plenty of these wines on the market, yet the best grands marques offer a combination of consistency throughout the range and wide availability that is commendable. At the high end the finest wines can be simply monumental bottles capable of offering rewarding drinking for many years, and in some cases, decades. Sadly most of these wines are increasingly priced out of the reach of mere mortals. In addition to their top wines, the large producers have gotten quite good at making reliable non-vintage wines but it is in the mid-range wines where so many grands marques struggle and where quality is most quite variable.

Parallel to the flashy image of the grands marques and their top luxury wines, also known as tête de cuvées, has been the emergence of a group of small, artisan producers for whom Champagne is a wine first, and Champagne second. The best “grower Champagnes” are made with a significant emphasis on viticulture, something that has sorely been lacking in a region where quantity and industrialization have often been the focus. Many producers follow the principles of organic/biodynamic farming or one of the variants such as lutte raisonée, an approach that seeks to reconcile the ideals of organic and biodynamic farming while recognizing that a strict adherence to these principles is not always feasible or desirable.

In reality the emergence of artisan estates and small- production, domaine-bottled wines is the same trend that has already taken place in other regions, but it has arrived relatively late in Champagne, likely at least in part because the difference between the small, artisan producers and the lavish grands marques is striking. While the grands marques aim for consistency from vintage to vintage and seek to express a “house style,” grower Champagnes give more importance to site, vintage and grape variety, as expressed by the particular producer. Grower Champagnes may not have the pedigree or perceived pedigree of the grands marques, but they are priced liked wines, not luxury handbags. I found a number of superb wines at both the grands marques and the growers, proving that size alone is not correlated with quality.

Common Misconceptions about Champagne

Despite the huge growth in awareness about the wines, Champagne suffers from a number of misconceptions. One of the biggest of these is that Champagne is a wine reserved for special occasions. To be sure the grands marques have succeeded in creating an image of luxury that naturally lends itself to the idea that Champagne is indeed a celebratory wine. Lost in all of the glossy websites with haute couture images and lavishly packed bottles is the reality that Champagne is first and foremost a wine that at its best can reflect everything that all the world’s other great wines offer; namely a unique expression of microclimate, vintage and grape variety.

Another commonly held view is that Champagne is a wine meant to be enjoyed as an aperitif before the more ‘serious’ wines are served at the table. Nothing could be further from the truth. Drinking Champagne throughout a meal can be one of the most sensual drinking experiences on planet earth. The incredible depth and variety of wines available today makes for a wide range of choices when considering food pairings, one of Champagne’s undeniable strong suits. The finest Champagnes are also capable of significant development in the glass but sadly few people spend enough time with the wines to follow them over the course of several hours. Lastly, the best Champagnes are capable of extraordinary evolution in bottle over many years, something the world’s top collectors have known for quite some time.


Reviewing the wines of Champagne is no easy task. One of the biggest challenges is the general lack of information available about the wines. Every year millions of bottles of non vintage wine flood the market about which little is known with regards to variety, vineyard source, vintage composition, dosage, and perhaps most importantly of all, how the vineyards themselves are farmed.

It is not uncommon for many wines to have multiple disgorgements, but only a handful of domaines follow the practice of labeling their wines with the disgorgement date. Often producers lower dosage with subsequent disgorgements of the same wine, as the wines will have acquired more richness on their own through extended contact with the lees and therefore require less sugar. Let me give an example consisting of two bottles of the same wine. Bottle #1 is bottled with 10 grams of dosage, and then six months later Bottle #2 is bottled with 9 grams of dosage. Both wines will eventually appear on the market labeled as the same wine, but they are in reality different wines, whose unique qualities will emerge over the coming months and years. In short, Champagne’s producers routinely ask consumers to tolerate a level of bottle variation that is simply unacceptable in any other wine. One importer I tasted with showed me a number of Champagnes that were different bottlings from those he had sampled at the wineries and purchased for his business, not just with regards to disgorgement dates, but also varietal blend, vintage and other variables. In other words, he was tasting many of these wines himself for the very first time! How can this possibly be a good thing for anyone? Furthermore, importers can make special requests for their cuvées, such as asking for the wines to have no dosage at all, which means that the same wine in different markets will be, you guessed it, different wines.

The large producers will say that what counts is the consistency of the “house style” and that disgorgement dates are not really all that important. Those who are more candid freely admit that they are essentially disgorging wines every day and that it is a logistical nightmare to label each and every batch. Admittedly, this is a fair point. Still, indicating at the very least the month of disgorgement should be a viable solution. How ironic it is that a $1 quart of milk provides the consumer with more information than some of the big tête de cuvée bottlings that sell for triple-digit sums.

In general, the artisan producers are much more open with providing not just disgorgement dates, but in many cases detailed information on the composition of wines at the NV level, dosage levels, vineyard sources and a host of other details which allows consumers to build their own knowledge base and gain a better appreciation for the wines, all of which are clearly positives. In that regard, grower Champagnes are much more user-friendly and deserve to be recognized for their transparency. I have tried to include as much information on disgorgement dates as possible. Some producers clearly indicate the date of disgorgement on their back labels, others have codes on their foil wrappers, corks and/or labels that can be traced back to a disgorgement date by the winery. Trying to make sense of this information is a painstaking task that can only be defined as a labor of love, and if I have succeeded in some small way in deciphering this maze for consumers, I will be immensely pleased.

How to Buy, Cellar and Serve Champagne

Champagne is arguably the wine most susceptible to the vagaries of poor storage, so insuring excellent provenance is especially critical. Readers will be best served by seeking merchants who have a large turnover. A few extra dollars spent per bottle is generally a very good investment when it comes to these wines. Proper cellar conditions, preferably on the cold side, are essential for storing and aging fine Champagne. It is by now well understood that wines age more gracefully and slowly in large formats, and nowhere is that more evident than Champagne, where magnums and other large bottles can remain extraordinarily fresh, even after many years and decades of cellaring. The half-bottle is sometimes a necessary evil, but I have never found this format to be appealing.

When serving Champagne I generally avoid the standard flutes as I think that shape traps many of the complexities the best wines have to offer, so I prefer standard white wine glasses. Of course, as much as larger glasses amplify a wine’s positive qualities they can also magnify deficiencies, so the larger glasses will be most helpful with higher quality wines. If I must use a flute I look for a glass with a larger bowl.

In general NV Champagnes are ready to drink upon purchase as the customary addition of reserve wines gives the best NVs a level of complexity and nuance that lends them to immediate consumption. Some bottlings may develop even greater complexity with an additional few years in bottle, but they are the exception, rather than the rule. That said, one good reason to give a NV wine some additional time on the cork is if the wine has been very recently disgorged, but by the time wines appear on the market that is rarely an issue. On the other hand, vintage Champagnes and other tête de cuvée bottling are often capable of extended development in the cellar. Historically consumers in different countries have had varying interest in aging Champagne, but the reality is that the best bottles can age for decades, assuming of course, one enjoys the qualities that wines acquire with bottle age.

A Few Final Thoughts

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank a few people who have had a profound impact on my appreciation of the wines of Champagne. First and foremost I am grateful to my lovely wife Marzia, who introduced me to a number of small grower Champagnes and taught me that the best Champagnes are serious wines that are phenomenal not just as an aperitif, but at the dinner table as well. I am also deeply indebted to my New York tasting group, with whom I have had the privilege of tasting and drinking many of the region’s legendary, icon wines.