New Releases from Champagne

by Antonio Galloni

Once again I was completely blown away by the wines I tasted from Champagne, first during a visit to the region earlier in the year, and later in tastings in the US. I am convinced Champagne is the world’s greatest wine region that remains virtually undiscovered by the vast majority of wine lovers. Sure, most consumers are familiar with the icon wines; Dom Pérignon, Cristal, Krug Vintage, Comtes de Champagne, to name a few. There is nothing wrong with that, as those wines all have brilliant track records for developing in the cellar. But Champagne can be so much more than its widely marketed image as a purely celebratory drink or apéritif wine meant to be followed by more ‘serious’ bottles at dinner. Champagne is one of the world’s most food-friendly wines, with a huge variety of different expressions that can suit just about any cuisine or occasion. I hope readers will take the plunge and start drinking these wines not just during the holidays but year round at the dinner table, where the best bottles will offer a superb drinking experience.

A study of Champagne and its terroirs is a lifetime’s work, but these are a few examples that highlight the diversity found in handful of the region’s best known Grand Cru villages. Chardonnay offers many shades of expression, from the ash, mineral-infused wines of Avize, to the precision of Mesnil to the linearity and focus of Cramant. Pinot Noir can be taut and wiry when grown on the northern slopes of Verzy and Verzenay, while it is much richer and opulent on the south- facing vineyards of Bouzy and Ambonnay. The Grand Cru village of Aÿ seems to capture elements of both minerality and ripeness. Aÿ is to Pinot what Mesnil is to Chardonnay, which is to say a village capable of producing beautiful, complete wines of breathtaking elegance. Pinot Meunier is found throughout the region, most often as a blending grape for NV Champagnes, where its up-front fruit is well suited in yielding wines that are accessible upon release. Of course, much of what makes Champagne unique as a wine and region is the art of blending which is widely used in most wines. Readers who want to learn more about Champagne and its villages might want to check out my recent article on Roederer on which includes notes on several dozen single-village component wines from the 2009 vintage. Upcoming features include an article on Bollinger and a complete vertical of Krug’s Clos du Mesnil.

A Preview of 2009

Much of my April trip was focused on getting a handle on the 2009s. In general, this is a ripe, flashy vintage with generous wines. Since the vast majority of Champagne is blended, it is hard to know precisely how the wines will turn out, but based on what I tasted, wines from cooler, less well-exposed sites seemed to show the best balance, while wines from south- facing vineyards were at times overly heavy and fat. This brings up a fascinating comparison with 2008. Seldom, if ever, has Champagne seen two consecutive vintages with such opposite and perfectly complementary qualities. The cool, steely 2008s and the warm, opulent 2009s should make a fabulous combination when blended together in NV wines. Bollinger’s 2008/2009 Special Cuvée, set to be released in 2013, captures the essence of these two vintages. If that wine is any indication, readers will have much to look forward to as NV Champagnes based on the 2008/2009 vintages begin to hit the market in a few years. Among the highlights of my April trip were two fabulous dinners at L’Assiette Champenoise, located in Tinqueux, a sleepy suburb of Reims. Proprietor and Chef Arnaud Lallement’s cuisine was brilliant and fully deserving of the two Michelin stars L’Assiette currently holds.

On Disgorgement Dates

Last year I wrote that I would no longer review NV wines without lot numbers and/or disgorgement dates. The reason is simple. Late in 2009, at the end of what had been a horrible market for high-end wine, and Champagne in particular, something interesting happened. I started to see the trade circulating Wine Advocate reviews before the December issue had been published. How could that be? It turned out that the trade was using reviews from the previous year’s Champagne issue to sell the then-current crop of NV releases. But there was more to it than that. Because of the slowdown in sales, some – but not all – of the NV wines in the market were actually the same exact wines and disgorgements I had tasted the year before! Of course, there was no way to be sure which wines were being offered because so many NV wines carry no identification whatsoever for the consumer. I made the difficult but necessary decision to only review NV wines with disgorgement dates and/or lot numbers so readers can easily match my review to the wines that are actually in the market.

A recent bottle of a well-known producer’s Rosé underscored the point. The wine itself was phenomenal, but it was a very recent disgorgement and turned out to have been opened far too soon. If I had known the wine had been recently disgorged I would have incorporated that into a tasting note and recommended further cellaring based on the producer’s track record and the wine in question, but in the absence of that information opening the bottle turned out to be a very costly experiment. Some of the large producers and the trade are reluctant to provide this information to you. Why? In their view, disgorgement dates lead to consumers only wanting the very same disgorgements and discarding the rest. My answer is simple. As long as disgorgement dates are relatively close, wines should be fairly similar. Another view says that the whole point of NV wines is consistency from year to year, so listing disgorgement dates is irrelevant. Fair observation, but in that case I see no reason to taste and review these wines each and every year. Of course, disgorgement date differences don’t apply only to NV wines. Many, if not most, of the best-known Vintage Champagnes are disgorged at multiple times throughout their releases. Ever wonder why two bottles of the same Vintage Champagne can be so different? At least in the case of

Vintage wines one variable (the year) has been removed from the equation. It is encouraging to see more and more producers listing disgorgement dates on all of their wines, not just the NV bottlings, and I am convinced we will soon see that day when all Champagnes list this essential information. Personally, I have stopped buying NV Champagnes that don’t list disgorgement dates and strongly urge consumers to consider doing the same. My favorite French butter contains information on when the butter was made, when it needs to be consumed, and of course I can be sure it has been treated perfectly from the farm to my kitchen. I remain amazed that so many basic NV Champagnes, often costing ten or more times as much, offer consumers none of the above.