The 2019 Champagne
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | JULY 24, 2019
I tasted a wide range of wines during two highly educational visits to Champagne this year. Our Summer Preview includes everything from reviews of new releases coming into the market, from both grower domaines and grand marques, as well as notes on a handful of collectibles. The pace of change on the ground is dizzying, which makes Champagne one of the most dynamic regions in the world today.
The essence of Champagne terroir. Left: Vines planted on 60-80 centimeters of clay topsoil
over a bed of pure chalk. Right: Chalk remains cool and moist to the touch,
even after a severe heat wave.
Champagne – Wines of Place
As I have written here before many times, Champagne is far
more than a celebration or special occasion wine. All it takes is one look at
the best restaurant wine lists to understand the mind share Champagne continues
to garner. But what makes Champagne so unique? To, me, it ultimately comes down
to terroir, that most defining but also elusive concept that is so central to
the understanding of site-specific wines, starting with Burgundy, of course.
While terroir is often interpreted as characteristics purely of soil, a more
practical definition also includes microclimate, altitude, exposure and the
whole range of site-specific traits that give wines their distinctive
personalities. The two photos above explain what makes Champagne so special.
They were taken in early July 2019, just after a brutal heat spike. On the left
we see a vineyard in Cramant sitting on 60-80 centimeters of clay topsoil over
a bed of pure chalk. The natural struggle the vines must endure to find
nutrients through the clay and into the chalk is clearly visible. When I picked
up a piece of chalk (pictured on the right), it was cool to the touch and moist.
And that was after the heat wave. This, in a nutshell, is Champagne. Of course,
there are many more layers of the onion to peel as we seek to better understand
how place influences what we taste, but this is the starting point.
A moment of calm in the cave as Olivier Collin shows me his 2018s from barrel.
A First Look at 2018…
As I have done now for over a decade, I spent quite a bit of
time tasting vins clairs at a number of properties this past spring and summer.
The early expectation for 2018 was for a great year. Some of that was likely a
response to 2017, which was very complicated. When all was said and done, 2018
turned out to be an early-ripening vintage (harvest began in late August), with elevated levels
of maturity, historically high yields and very clean fruit. Based on what I
sampled, 2018 looks better and more consistent for Pinot more than Chardonnay,
but quality is inconsistent from house to house. I tasted everything from
diluted, washed out vins clairs with little character to wines that were
thrilling to taste for their potential.
There is little doubt Chefs de Caves, especially at larger
houses, welcomed the abundant crop and stress-free harvest. Regulations allowed for a maximum production
of 10,800 kilos per hectare in 2018, plus another 5,000 kilos per hectare that could be designated for reserves. The reality is that, anecdotally, many
vineyards yielded far more than 16,000 kilos per hectare. On top of that, local
reports suggested that some vineyards were not picked at all because the crop
was so abundant. Because of the very high yields Chefs de Caves likely have
enough wine to both max out their 2018 reserves and also take advantage of
regulations that give them the opportunity to get rid of their 2017 reserves
(uneven wines from a very tough year in which yields were decimated and many
wines are marked by off flavors) by selling them off to the distillery, and
then replacing those 2017 reserves with 2018s.
Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon at Roederer is among the most
enthusiastic Chefs de Caves when it comes to 2018.
“If you aren’t happy in 2018, when are you going to be
happy?” Roederer’s Chef de Caves Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon told me bluntly. “To
be sure, you had to have low yields, and in that regard we are helped because
we farm so many of our vineyards biodynamically, and therefore yields are
naturally moderate. You also had to be patient, especially with the Chardonnay,
and wait for full ripeness. In the cellar, blocking the malolactic fermentation
was essential in order to preserve as much freshness as possible. If you did
those things, there is no question 2018 is a great vintage. These are some of
the best wines I have ever made. On paper, 2018 looks a lot like 1959, but it
is a ‘false low-acid’ vintage, because the wines have freshness as well.”
Rodolphe Péters echoed some of those themes. “It is a very
ripe vintage, with low acids but also low-ish pH,” Péters told me. “In 2018, we
reached phenolic maturity at slightly lower sugars than 2017, but the balance
of the wines is similar. For the first time ever, I blocked the malolactic
fermentations on 50% of my wines to try to retain as much freshness as I could.”
Guillaume Selosse in his cellar after tasting through the
“It’s good, but it is not very concentrated or deep,”
Guillaume Selosse explained. “Ripening just stopped in some parcels, and even
though we waited, ripeness did not always move in a meaningful way.” Based on
the vins clairs I tasted at Selosse, at this stage 2018 looks better for Pinot
Noir than it does for Chardonnay. Yields were also lower for the Pinot, so that
may explain why those wines show more depth today.
I tasted a number of exceptional, vibrant Chardonnays of
real character and pedigree at Vilmart. “I started very early to try to save
the pH and acid levels,” Laurent Champs recounted. “Most of our fruit came in at 10.8-11%, but pHs are around 2.95, which is low and very good for the year,” he
added. “Initially we thought 2018 was going to be a great vintage, instead we
are going to have to settle for something less than that,” Jean-Hervé Chiquet
told me at Jacquesson. “For us, 2018 is better for Pinot Noir than Chardonnay.
We plan to bottle our lieu-dit Pinot, but not the Chardonnays.”
Vincent Laval bottled his 2018s on the early side.
For the first time I can remember, Vincent Laval had all of
his 2018s in bottle when I stopped by in mid-March. “The wines were beautiful
and round, so why wait?” he told me. “It was a big crop with beautiful grapes.
Harvest started on August 28, with good sugars. The Chênes came in at 11.5%,
while the Chèvres was 11.8%.”
“Usually, there are some unexpected weather events, but in
2018 everyone was happy because conditions were so favorable and production was
abundant.” Krug’s Chef de Caves Eric Lebel told me. "In tasting the wines,
though, we noted that they are less consistent than we initially thought. PHs
are higher than normal, while acidities are on the lower side.”
Tasting the 2018 Vieilles Vignes Françaises from barrel
Coteaux Champenois on the Rise
Another recent development is the growth of Coteaux Champenois, Champagne's still white and red
wines. The most famous
Coteaux Champenois are Bollinger’s La Côte aux Enfants (100% Pinot Noir from Aÿ)
and more recently, Egly-Ouriet’s Cuvée des Grands Côtés (100% Pinot Noir from
Ambonnay). Roederer, Henri Giraud, Tarlant and Bérèche are just some of the
houses that are making a push into Coteaux Champenois. How these wines age and
develop more broadly is still an open question, but there is no doubt that climate
change and generally higher levels of ripeness that are obtained naturally are
making Coteaux Champenois more interesting than they ever have been before.
My tasting with Raphaël Bérêche included a full range of
2018 vins clairs, new releases from bottle, and several as-yet unreleased cuvées.
I tasted all of the wines in this article during two visits
to Champagne in March and July 2019, and in New York in the months in between
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