New Releases from Champagne (Dec 2011)

by Antonio Galloni

This is the fourth year I have reviewed Champagne. I never cease to be amazed by the large number of compelling wines that emerge from the region. The sheer diversity of terroirs, producer styles and vintages is a lifetime’s work and guarantees there is always something to learn. At the same time, though, of all the regions I cover, Champagne leads the way in the sheer number of totally innocuous wines with little in the way of real personality. I tasted several hundred wines that are best described as boring and with no character. The upside, of course, is that the potential for quality to improve is virtually without limit. It is my sincere hope that underachieving estates will take the necessary steps to reach the next level.

This year we are publishing Champagne reviews in early December rather than in late December, which I hope readers will find of greater value than our previous schedule. Yes, the holidays are approaching, but at the same time, it would be a shame if readers limited their consumption of these wines just to holidays and special occasions. As I have said before, Champagne can be so much more than purely an aperitif or celebratory wine, if only asked.

An Overview of Recent Vintages

Getting a read on young vintages in Champagne isn’t always easy. Every year I travel to the region to taste the young vins claires. The reality is that many of the separate component wines I taste will ultimately become reserves for NV wines, or will be blended into larger cuvées. At the same time, some of the larger houses may not have made final decisions about vintage bottling when I taste the wines, and some just play their cards very close to the vest. Still, I hope the following thumbnail sketches are helpful, but readers should note they are broad observations.

Vintage 2010 was challenging in Champagne, as quality was irregular across the board. I tasted some wines that were big, ripe and forward. Other samples were lean, compact and offered little in the way of aromatic or flavor development. A number of wines showed signs of rot, especially an issue with Pinot Noir. Most producers I spoke with were not planning to bottle their vintage Champagnes, but saw in 2010 an opportunity to bolster their reserve wines. The 2009s I tasted were ripe, radiant and seductive. It is an atypically ripe year, yet at least some producers will declare the vintage. The first wave of 2009-based grower Champagnes is beginning to appear in the market, and those wines clearly have the qualities I tasted in the 2009 vins clairs. Vintage 2008 is much more classic. Temperatures were never too hot during the summer and ripening was gradual. It is a year with high acidity, approaching 10% in some cases, and also high potential natural alcohol, a combination that creates the promise of exciting wines. Of course wine is much more complex than just numbers, but the early 2008 grower wines that have appeared in the market point to a racy, energetic style that will appeal to readers who enjoy the more classic side of Champagne.

Vintage 2007 appears to have yielded soft, approachable wines with excellent balance, but not the visceral thrill of the best years. I very much like what I have tasted from 2006 thus far. It is a big, powerful year with a lot of fruit, but also quite a bit of structure. I don’t find a lot of finesse in the 2006s, at least yet, but it appears to be a promising year. I admit that vintage 2005 is perplexing. It is a warm year, with plenty of flashy, opulent wines, but there are also a number of wines aging faster than I would have expected. Not only are the wines maturing quickly, but they are also aging awkwardly. Many appear to be fresh in color, yet nevertheless show oxidative, mushroomy aromas and flavors. The 2005s are probably best enjoyed sooner rather than later.

Why Disgorgement Dates Matter

As long-term readers know, since 2009 I have not reviewed NV wines that don’t show a disgorgement date or lot number. Why? Because I want to make sure you are buying the same wine I review. In the absence of a unique identifier, it is impossible to tell different releases of the same NV wine apart. Ideally, all NV wines would have a disgorgement date, which would serve the dual purpose of ensuring readers are buying the same wine that has been reviewed, and also serve as a guide to when wines should be opened.

Some producers and the trade do not want consumers to have this information. Let’s talk about the producers first. Wineries label their NV releases, they just don’t want the buyer to know what the numbers mean. This year I saw all types of codes. Light embossings and engravings on the bottles themselves that only the most attentive eye could possibly recognize, let alone decipher. Codes on corks that are of no use until after bottles are opened. Impossibly intricate series of numbers that are meaningless to anyone outside the wineries themselves. The most amusing were several codes I was given to decipher disgorgement dates, but asked not to publish. That was the breaking point. Enough is enough. It is time for the Champagne industry to make a small effort towards giving consumers some information about their wines.

There are people in the trade who fear that listing disgorgement dates on bottles will lead consumers to buy only those specific releases with high ratings and ignore other disgorgement dates. I don’t agree. Some consumers may not be interested in disgorgement dates at all. Those who do take an interest are smart enough to know that two bottles of the same wine with slightly different disgorgement dates are likely to be very similar. Then again, if the trade is really that concerned, they should push for even more disclosure, such as indicating the base vintage for each NV wine. That would truly be an important step in eliminating confusion.

Beginning next year, in 2012, I will no longer review NV Champagnes that do not have disgorgement dates on their back labels. Obscure codes and/or lot numbers that hold no value to the consumer will no longer be sufficient. If I can’t figure out what I am tasting, I can hardly expect readers to do so. Champagne producers must become just a little more consumer-friendly. How is it possible that a carton of milk is more descriptive than a $100 bottle of Champagne? Unfortunately, today that is too often the reality.