Monday, January 27, 2014

Cause for Celebration [WS]

High quality and lower prices make Champagne a good choice for the holiday season
Bruce Sanderson, Alison Napjus
Issue: December 31, 2010

With the economy still in a sluggish mood and spending habits cautious, perhaps the holiday season will bring better news and reason to celebrate. If you like Champagne, though, you may not need an excuse, because there is much to enjoy right now.

We found plenty of terrific Champagnes from among the diverse styles currently available in wineshops and restaurants. Bone-dry or sweet, white or pink, entry-level or top-of-the-line, this year's crop of bubblies offers something to suit every taste and wallet. Of the more than 325 Champagnes tasted since our last report ("Champagne's Bubble Bursts," Dec. 31, 2009 - Jan. 15, 2010), nearly two-thirds scored an outstanding 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, a remarkable achievement. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

The overall excellence of the current offerings can largely be attributed to Champagne's consistency and dedication to quality. As a general rule, winemaking across-the-board in Champagne is meticulous, detailed and technically adept. More than in any other region in France, grapegrowers and producers work together, adhering to regulations-overseen by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne-that govern all aspects of production.

The weak economy may be helping to hold down prices, as we discovered from the number of well-priced labels in this year's tastings. In the non-vintage category, the most affordable outstanding Champagne is Domaine Chapuy's Brut Tradition NV (90 points, $32), which offers a firm, chalky texture with a savory edge. For just a few dollars more, the Paul Goerg Brut Tradition NV (91, $34) is intense and precise, while the G.H. Mumm Brut Cordon Rouge NV (90, $35) is elegant and focused. And still less than $40, Vranken's Brut Demoiselle Téte de Cuvée NV (92, $38) combines freshness with spicy flavors.

While a good non-vintage Champagne offers a consistent house style by blending multiple vintages together, vintage Champagnes express the character of a particular year. If you're looking to up the ante without upping the price too much, there are several good choices among the vintage bubblies in this report. The best value is from Louis Barthélémy, whose 2002 Brut Saphir rated 95 points with a retail price of only $45. This rich wine has the power and intensity that are the hallmarks of the excellent 2002 vintage.

At the pinnacle are 11 Champagnes scoring in the classic range (95 to 100 points), nine of which are vintage-dated. Piper-Heidsieck makes an impressive showing with a trio of 95-point wines: the 2002 ($275), 1999 ($275) and 1988 ($375) vintages of the house's Brut Rare bottling. The two classic-rated non-vintage bottlings are from perennial top Champagne house Krug: the Brut Grande Cuvée NV (95, $179) and Brut Rosé NV (95, $289). Each of this year's top wines not only shows layer upon layer of flavor and complexity, but also the impeccable balance and textural finesse that mark the best Champagnes.

Another notable new release is the Moët & Chandon Brut Cuvée Dom Pérignon 2002 (95, $160), which is rich and smoky, yet graceful, unfolding its candied citrus, honey and coffee flavors on a refined texture. Chef de cave Richard Geoffroy hit all the marks with this '02, capturing the character of the vintage and the essence of Dom Pérignon's finesse and reductive style. "It's structured and very complete from start to finish," he notes. "But then there is the classical dimension of toast and smoke and complexity."

The wealth of high-scoring wines from Champagne is not the only thing that will have consumers in good spirits; there has also been a decrease in prices in many instances. Of the nearly 160 wines where direct comparisons could be made with last year's report (in addition to the non-vintage cuvées tasted each year, newly disgorged bottles of the same vintage-dated wine are also reviewed annually), more than half have lower prices this year. In some cases the drop is fairly small, but for the majority of these 80 wines prices fell by 10 percent to 20 percent.

Part of this trend may be the result of retailers discounting wines to attract consumers in a still struggling economy. But more likely it represents fluctuations in currency value, since the pricing for these bottlings was negotiated earlier this year when the dollar was stronger. Terry Theise, who selects and manages a large portfolio of Champagne for a national distributor, agrees, "The dollar rates earlier this year were certainly favorable, and we based our second-half-of-the-year prices on the better exchange rate."

This bodes well for bubbly prices in the short term, but unless the dollar strengthens again prices could increase in the first half of next year. "If the dollar remains weak, there will surely be dramatic increases after the first of 2011," Theise adds. With this in mind, the best advice for consumers is to stock up now.

Among the vintage wines on the market, 2002s and 2004s dominate supply right now. This is a good thing, since 2002, rated 94 points overall, is the best recent vintage since 1996, at 96 points. It's hard to go wrong in '02; the wines are structured by firm acidity, but nicely fleshed out by richness, with layers of ripe flavors. Of the 28 wines we tasted from the vintage, 26 rated 90 or more points.

Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët & Chandon, cites his reference points for 2002 as 1982, 1975 and 1964, all rich, complex vintages. Moët's long, refined Brut Grand Vintage 2002 (93, $NA) will be released in the spring of 2011. Two 2002s from small growers, the delicate, lightly smoky Gaston Chiquet Brut (93) and the racy Chartogne-Taillet Brut (92), are reasonably priced at $60.

The 2004 vintage, rated 90 points, delivers wines that, while not as bold as the 2002s, have plenty of acidity and focus; their vibrant character shows promise. In our tastings, two affordable bottlings stood out: The bracing Philizot & Fils Brut Millésime (91, $41) and the creamy Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (91, $46).

Among older vintages, the best 2000s and 1999s offer balance and finesse, despite the challenges faced by growers in both growing seasons. The '99s, which typically have lower acidity, are aging beautifully, already showing some of the secondary roasted nut, honey and coffee notes that are enjoyable in older Champagnes and give them a "drink me now" appeal. Look for the alluring cardamom and cumin notes of Alfred Gratien's deft Brut 1999 (93, $94) or the fine texture of Vilmart's mouthwatering Brut Coeur de Cuvée 1999 (93, $302/1.5L). In the $50 to $60 range (entry-level prices for vintage Champagne), good examples include Charles Ellner's zesty Brut 1999 (91, $55) and Brut Séduction 1999 (93, $60), which shows coffee liqueur and hazelnut overtones.

Ellner also made one of the top 2000s in this report, its almond-laced Brut (93, $55). Equally impressive for its harmonious, silky texture and grapefruit, apple and graphite flavors is the Pol Roger Brut Champagne 2000 (93, $100).

Though Champagne, which is located about an hour and a half northeast of Paris, is a single appellation, it comprises four distinct areas: Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and Côte des Bar, also known as the Aube. Most houses make a range of styles, relying on the region's three grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, from one or more of the four areas.

For example, blanc de blancs Champagne is made from 100 percent Chardonnay, primarily grown in the Côte des Blancs region, and accounted for about a fifth of our tastings. Two highlights are the full-bodied Pierre Peters Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Spéciale Les Chétillons 2002 (94, $100) and the seductive Ayala Brut Blanc de Blancs 2002 (94, $70).

Rosé Champagne also made up a significant portion of our tastings, consisting of nearly a quarter of the labels. These wines most often blend a small amount of still red wine to add color, resulting in a wide array of hues, from pale salmon to cherry-berry pink. A smaller amount of rosé Champagne gains its color through a short period of skin contact during fermentation, a method known as saignée.

Veuve Clicquot's 1985 Brut Rosé Rare (93), full of coffee, treacle and dried cherry flavors, offers a fascinating look at how well a fine rosé Champagne can age-and it's a surprisingly affordable $110. Charles Heidsieck's elegant Brut Rosé Réserve NV (93, $75) is always a solid bottling, while the vinous Brut Rosé Rose Top NV from Heidsieck Monopole (92, $45) offers consistent value.

Given the celebratory nature of Champagne, it has a natural place during the upcoming holiday season. What better gift to unwrap than the foil on a fine bottle of Champagne? But with plenty of high quality bottlings available this year, often at more affordable prices, maybe it's time for Champagne to make a more regular appearance on your table and in your cellar.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson and senior tasting coordinator Alison Napjus collaborated on this report.

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