Vintage Champagne

In spite of the growing popularity of Cava and especially Prosecco in the U.S., by all accounts Champagne still rules the hearts, minds and wallets of wine lovers when it comes to high-end (yes, that means expensive) bubbly. And in many cases these lofty Champagne prices are justified, in the context of other world-class wines.  Overall quality standards in the region are impressively high, at least when it comes to the bottlings that make their way over here.  Great wine will never be cheap and I'm hard-pressed to think of another wine region, anywhere, that cranks out such a high percentage of outstanding wines relative to mediocre renditions.  Again, I'm referring to wines available in the American market, where importers, distributors, retailers and sommeliers have done a good job of separating the wheat from the chaff--and keeping the chaff out.
With a few exceptions Champagne producers have enjoyed a very nice run of vintages over the last two decades.  In fact, very few already-released vintages back to 1995 could fairly be called generally poor with the exception of 2001.  This has resulted in a flood of vintage-dated Champagnes in recent years, and many of these are truly outstanding and are must-buys for well-heeled fans of the region.

Two thousand and nine is proving to be a very pleasant surprise, especially for those who feared that the warm growing season would result in Champagnes that were burly, top-heavy, clumsy and alcoholic, like junior varsity versions of 2003, which was one of the hottest years on record.  But that's proving not to be the case at all.  As my notes reveal, I was impressed by the structure and freshness of a number of '09s and often confused them with the generally vibrant, lithe '08s, which is high praise.

Speaking of 2008, this is a vintage that Champagne producers are quite keen on as the wines display a rare blend of power and finesse, with the structure and acidity to age gracefully.  It was by no means an easy growing season, with disease pressures in the vines necessitating strict selection and ultimately resulting in low yields.  But clement weather in September, with good diurnal shifts, resulted in ripe fruit with healthy levels of acidity.  Expect plenty of classic, nervy Champagnes that will reward patience without necessarily requiring it.

Fans of racy, low-octane Champagne should be pleased with many of the 2007s, which issue from a cool, fairly wet growing season.  At their best the wines are clean, lacy and precise, with ample fruit (of the citrus sort, to be sure) and no shortage of complexity.  It's probably not a vintage to consider for long-term cellaring but it's not one to write off either. 

As for 2006, enthusiasm for the vintage has been building for a while, and for good reason.  The best wines display a suave blend of power and finesse, with assertive fruit character restrained and focused by juicy acidity and underlying minerality.  Many of the top wines are disappearing from retail shelves at a steady clip so the smart money will be looking for them now. Josh Raynolds features this year's best vintage champagne releases.

--Josh Raynolds