New Vintage Champagne Releases

Champagne lovers are in for some serious sticker shock in the coming months, as a quick glance at these notes will attest. While prices here may begin to cool by early next year owing to a stronger dollar and to declining demand for Champagne in some suddenly cash-strapped new markets like India and Russia, for the moment the thirsty Champagne-lover without a deep cellar faces some difficult choices. What to do? First off, we will provide a bonus feature on non-vintage Champagnes later this fall (available to on-line subscribers), which will include reviews of a number of excellent wines that offer what passes for value in Champagne today. I also recommend that readers scour the retail market for well-stored bottles that were imported before the dollar bit the dust earlier this year. Steady cool storage is critical with Champagne, so due diligence is required: it’s a better bet to spend a few bucks more buying your fizz from a conscientious merchant. Other than that, if it’s Champagne you crave, use my notes to pick your spots carefully.

There has been quite a bit of hype for the 2002 vintage in Champagne, and while I did find a number of wines that live up to the vintage’s strong reputation, plenty of others fall short of my idea of great Champagne. The best wines are deeply concentrated (the crop was very low, in general) and have the structure to reward cellaring, but a number of them show signs of evolving rapidly. One possible explanation is that the chardonnay in much of the region was low in acidity. Buying Champagne with an easier structure is not necessarily a mistake, unless you’re planning to bury your bottles in the back of your cellar next to, for example, your 1996s. There’s no shortage of superb 2002s—more than in a typical vintage, for sure—but I’m less sanguine about the universal excellence of the year than many observers.

Meanwhile, two thousand three is proving to be a pleasant surprise, although there won’t be many vintage-dated bottles to prove it. What wines were made, though, show good depth and surprising clarity and energy. Yes, it was a very hot year in Champagne, as it was across Europe, and the crop was reduced severely by spring frost, which resulted in weighty, powerful wines. Most 2003 juice will find its way into non-vintage blends, where it might prove useful to fill in for the greener, more herbaceous 2004 wine. But great sites are great because of their ability, more often than not, to overcome the challenges of a given year’s weather, and producers who were draconian in their selection process managed to pull off some pretty impressive successes. Good winemaking doesn’t hurt either. Still, tread carefully through this vintage.