Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Bounty of Bubbles

With two outstanding vintages in the market, Champagne offers plenty of choices
Bruce Sanderson
Issue: December 31, 2002

This holiday season brings a host of options for Champagne lovers and anyone looking to pick up a bottle or two of bubbly. The current offerings of non-vintage and vintage Champagnes, rosés and blanc de blancs are some of the best in several years.

The main reasons are the many exceptional bottlings from the 1995 and 1996 vintages (92 and 90—94 points, respectively, on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) and the continued availability of prestige cuvées from older vintages, including 1988, 1989 and 1990 (95, 90 and 97 points, respectively). In case of non-vin- tage bottlings, many of the blends are based on very good years such as 1998 and 1999.

The top wines hail mainly from the outstanding 1988 vintage. Scoring classic (95 to 100 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale), they include the Krug Brut 1988 (99, $190) and Clos du Mesnil 1988 (97, $370) each of which offers complexity and multidimensional flavors backed by the elegance and firm structure characteristic of the vintage. Joining them are the Piper-Heidsieck Brut Rare 1988 (97, $55), showing mature roasted notes of coffee accented by citrus preserve, and the Charles Heidsieck Brut Champagne Charlie 1995 (97, $125), mellow and burnished, with coffee and grilled hazelnut flavors.

Two luxury cuvées from Krug—its Brut Grande Cuvée NV (96, $140) and Brut Rosé NV (95, $280)—top the non-vintage category. Fermentation in small, neutral oak barrels and the addition of 30 percent to 40 percent reserve wines contribute to the depth and complexity of Krug's Champagnes. ("We still have some 1990 individual, unblended still-wines in reserve waiting to join a Grande Cuvée blend," remarks co-director Rémi Krug.) The Grande Cuvée offers aromas and flavors of coconut, citrus and grilled nuts, while the Rosé exhibits dried berry, floral and spice notes.

Fortunately, there are a number of other non-vintage cuvées that deliver outstanding quality at more affordable prices. New to our Champagne tastings this year, de Bruyne Brut Cuvée Absolue NV (92, $27), a blend of Chardonnay (60 percent), Pinot Noir (25 percent) and Pinot Meunier (15 percent), is bold and muscular, with biscuit and walnut flavors. Also distinctive is the Brut Blanc de Blancs NV (92, $33) from Jean Laurent. Full of floral and citrus notes, with a mineral underpinning, it shows harmony and intensity. I was also impressed by the Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV (91, $30), a good value for its lively character and hazelnut and citrus flavors.

These are some of the highlights from among the more than 200 Champagnes tasted blind in Wine Spectator's New York offices for this report. To give you an idea of quality levels across the board, more than one-third of the wines tasted rate 90 points or better, and almost 60 percent rate 85 to 89 points.

With so much good fizz available, the question is which style to buy. Non-vintage cuvées—which comprise wines primarily from one year's harvest, with previous years' "reserve" wines rounding out the blend—are ready to enjoy on release. Many of the current versions have 1998 or 1999 as their base year, with stocks from 1997 and 1996 adding depth and balance. For example, Vilmart's Brut Grand Cellier NV (90, $49) is 70 percent 1998 and 30 percent 1997.

Vintage Champagnes, on the other hand, are wines from a single year, and reflect the personality of the vintage. In warm years, like 1989 and 1976, the wines have lower acidity, more weight and ripe flavors; vintages like 1996 reveal higher acidity and elegant, racy structures. The best vintage Champagnes are generally aged a minimum of five years, sometimes longer, before release. Although they are drinkable on release, they are capable of developing in the bottle, with the best vintages lasting 20 to 25 years.

Rosé Champagne normally has a small portion of still red wine blended into the cuvée, or it can be made by leaving the wine in contact with red grape skins. Nicolas Feuillatte employs both techniques with excellent results. Feuillatte's Brut Rosé NV (90, $35) tastes almost like a regular Champagne, with a touch of pink color coming from the addition of 20 percent still red wine, while Feuillatte's new Brut Rosé Cuvée Palmes d'Or (90, $170) gets skin contact, creating more of a red wine with bubbles. It evokes cherry, tea and spice flavors.

Blanc de blancs literally means "white from whites." These 100 percent Chardonnay bubblies are often some of the most delicious and elegant wines, yet are capable of aging well. The Lilbert Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Cramant 1995 (93, $60), from a single village, shows ripe flavors of peach and fig matched to a creamy texture. Chartogne-Taillet's Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Ste.-Anne NV (90, $41) combines intensity with elegance, classic hallmarks of blanc de blancs Champagne.

The styles in part reflect the geography and grape varieties of the Champagne region. The three grape varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier—are grown in four major areas: Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs, Vallée de la Marne and the Aube district. Although all these regions grow all three grapes, each has one dominant grape variety.

Montagne de Reims is known for its Pinot Noir, although more than one-quarter of its vineyards are planted to Chardonnay. The Côte des Blancs is the undisputed champion of Chardonnay, with only a fraction of its acreage devoted to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Avize, Cramant, Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger are the most famous villages in this region, and the best Champagnes often contain grapes from one or more of them. In the Vallée de la Marne, Pinot Meunier is the most widely grown variety, although Pinot Noir represents roughly 25 percent of the vines under cultivation there. Pinot Noir dominates the Aube region, which lies southeast of the other three.

According to several winemakers and winery representatives, the inventory buildup due to the millennium has worked its way through the market. The office of Champagne, USA reports that exports of Champagne to the United States are again on the upswing, after decreasing in 2000 and 2001. However, François Peltereau-Villeneuve, vice president and general manager of Champagne Laurent-Perrier, cautions that "it has only been since the beginning of the year that the inventory has been moving through the system."

For consumers, Champagne represents good value. When you consider the amount of time and labor involved, the aging process and the generally high standard of quality, wines such as the aforementioned de Bruyne and the Charles Ellner Brut Carte d'Or NV (90, $29) are excellent buys. In fact, this report includes more than two dozen Champagnes priced at $30 or less, with three of them earning outstanding scores (90 to 94 points) and only two rating lower than very good (85 to 89 points).

Furthermore, Champagne is often discounted due to competition, so canvass the retailers in your city, or even nationally if possible, before you buy. For example, I've seen Bollinger's Brut Grande Année 1995 (95, $90), a powerhouse with distinctive coconut, vanilla and oatmeal flavors, advertised for $60. Some Champagne houses are taking the lead themselves. Laurent-Perrier dropped the price of its Brut Grand Siècle NV (90, $79) from last year's price of $135. Half Chardonnay and half Pinot Noir from grands crus vineyards, it's a blend from the 1993, 1990 and 1988 vintages.

In the United States, the name Champagne on the bottle should instill confidence, because with few exceptions, the quality is very high across the board. Although several styles exist within one appellation, a little knowledge and the diligence to shop around for the best prices will reap sparkling rewards.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster of the wines of Champagne.


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