New Vintage Champagne Releases

The ongoing global financial malaise has taken a huge toll on Champagne, as this year's line-up of vintage bottlings demonstrates. Fully one-third of the producers that are covered in the IWC's annual tastings are still trying to work through the same vintages they were offering last year—and even the year before. Even with serious discounting those wines are often dead in the wholesale and retail water.

And even if the Champenois who drive the market decided to drop their prices at the cellar door, the anemic dollar would still ensure that full retail pricing in the U.S. would make the most prestigious marques prohibitively dear for almost anybody with common sense. Many brands have watched their sales here plummet by almost 50% over the last two years, but producers still refuse to cut their prices. On the contrary: just before the 2009 harvest, the two organizations that represent the large houses (the Union des Maisons de Champagne) and the independent growers (the Syndicat Général des Vignerons) agreed to slash production from the 2009 harvest by 40% in an effort to restrict supply (or oversupply, as is the case right now) and thereby sustain price levels. Imagine if this were oil. If anybody needed evidence that Champagne is increasingly being marketed as a luxury item rather than as a wine that is subject to market fluctuations they can stop wondering right now. Given consumers' ongoing aversion to laying out big bucks for non-necessities, it will be interesting to see if this ploy bears any fruit (pun intended) for the large producers.

On a brighter note, this year's lineup of vintage Champagnes yielded some real winners, thanks in large part to the often outstanding 2002 vintage, which is slowly working its way into the marketplace. This was a vintage marked by low yields (real low yields, dictated by nature and not marketing departments) and very good ripeness. I've no doubt that 2002 is the best overall vintage since the landmark 1996s but hesitate to rate it even close to the same level of consistency as the earlier year. The upside to 2002 is that a great number of the wines are open-knit and already showing considerable complexity so they won't need to be buried in the cellar.

A few more 2003s have made their way across the ocean and are, as a group, wines that will be best enjoyed in the short term for their exotic, ripe character. As with almost all 2003s from every wine-growing region in Europe, the heat of the summer makes a strong statement. High yields in 2004 conspired to produce wines that are mostly lively but often lack the concentration for real majesty. That said, I’ve been impressed by the clarity and finesse of many of the 2004s I’ve tasted so far; these wines should appeal greatly to wine-lovers who prize delicacy over brute strength. I tasted a handful of 2005 Champagnes this fall but not nearly enough to draw any general conclusions. If the 1998s, 1999s and 2000s that are currently clogging the Champagne pipeline or gathering dust in Reims and Epernay start flowing in the next few months, I hope to be able to get a clearer picture of this vintage by next fall.

I will offer tasting notes on the best new non-vintage Champagne releases on the IWC website later this fall.