Outstanding 1996 and 1995 vintages offer contrasting styles
Issue: December 31, 2001
When it comes to the holidays, Champagne is always in style. But this year is a particularly good time to enjoy vintage-dated bubbly. Two vintages of Champagne are now widely available in wine shops—1995 and 1996. They give fizz fans the best of both worlds. Racy, tightly wound and densely flavored, the '96s express the ripeness and high acidity characteristic of that vintage. The '95s, on the other hand, offer lush, airy textures matched to honey and toast flavors. While the '95s deliver all the immediate appeal and sumptuousness expected of a luxury wine, their alter egos from 1996 display the structure and concentration to accompany food and age well over the next 20 years.
However, the Champagne buyer faces the delicious dilemma of choosing from a multitude of vintages, reaching back to 1988 at least. Fortunately, these mature vintages of Champagne account for some of the most exciting wines in my annual tasting.
Krug's Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Clos du Mesnil 1988 (99 points, $370) is one of the best Champagnes I have ever tasted. It contrasts fresh, floral notes with mature biscuit flavors, all seamlessly integrated into its sophisticated, tightly woven fabric. "I remember when I stepped into Clos du Mesnil in November 1971, when we were about to buy it," recalled Rémi Krug, co-director of the family estate along with his brother Henri. "It was such a unique situation, like La Mission-Haut-Brion, closed in by a wall. I said to Henri, 'I have an idea what we can do with this.'" Krug's hunch has paid off.
Also from the village of Mesnil-sur-Oger comes Salon's Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Le Mesnil 1990 (97, $200), a forceful mix of flowers, honeysuckle and fig nuances with an endless finish. The powerful 1990 Salon adds weight and depth to Salon's characteristic intensity, making this an intriguing contrast to the taut elegance of the Krug.
The Krug and the Salon come with hefty price tags. Charles Heidsieck provides a more affordable option with its Brut Champagne Millésimé 1990 (98, $75). It showed floral, honey and citrus flavors with no rough edges. It's ideal now.
These three Champagnes represent the pinnacle of my annual report, based on blind tastings of 255 wines in Wine Spectator's New York office. Non-vintage wines comprised nearly 60 percent of all samples. The brut category made up about 62 percent of the styles, with most of the remainder comprising brut rosés and brut blanc de blancs. The 1995 harvest offered the bulk of the vintage wines. (An alphabetical guide to all Champagnes tasted for this report begins on page 194 of the Buying Guide. For a look at California sparkling wines now on the market, turn to Daniel Sogg's analysis beginning on page 198 of the Buying Guide.)
Prices for Champagne range from about $20 to $25 for non-vintage wines to several hundred dollars for the best prestige cuvées. The best-value Champagnes in this report include the elegant and focused Gauthier Brut Champagne Grande Réserve NV (89, $24), a perfect aperitif; and the Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Champagne NV (88, $25), full of lively citrus and bread dough flavors.
It does pay to shop around. According to Impact Databank, shipments of Champagne declined dramatically in 2000 as retailers and restaurants attempted to move excess stocks left over from the millennium hype. That trend has continued this year, with Champagne sales down almost 20 percent overall. As a result, many retailers are offering discounts. For example, Bollinger's Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV (90 points), always among the best non-vintage cuvées, has a suggested retail price of $45, but is now ranging from $28 to $40 at major wine shops around the country.
While all Champagnes come under a single appellation, individual wines often differ in style. Vintage-dated wines represent one of the faces that Champagne shows the world. Because of the region's cool northern location, its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes struggle to ripen most years, so the majority of Champagnes are blends from several years and are known as non-vintage. When a particular year blesses the Champenois with ripe grapes, up to 80 percent may be bottled as vintage Champagne, the remainder being kept in reserve for blending in future non-vintage cuvées.
In theory, vintage Champagnes are made only in the best years, though some houses offer wines from weaker harvests. More importantly, vintage Champagnes tend to assume the character of the growing season. For example, 1989, a hot year, resulted in rich, opulent wines, with lower than average acidity and high alcohol.
In this report, all the 1988s earned outstanding (90 to 94 points) or classic (95 to 100) ratings, as did 13 of the 15 1990s, attesting to the high quality of those two years. However, it is the 1995s that most consumers will find at their local wine shop, with the 1996s following on their heels.
Hervé Deschamps, chef de cave at Champagne Perrier-Jouët, whose Brut Rosé Champagne Fleur de Champagne Belle Epoque 1995 (92, $140) rated among the best '95s, offered his assessment of the two vintages: "1995 stays pure and elegant, '96 shows hotter flavors, with higher acidity." Although I found the Perrier-Jouët very elegant for the vintage (due to its high Chardonnay content), lush, airy and fleshy are descriptors that more aptly fit the profile of the '95s. The Louis Roederer Brut Rosé Champagne 1995 (92, $55), Pol Roger's Brut Rosé Champagne (92, $63) 1995 and the Charles Ellner Brut Champagne 1995 (91, $49) all reveal the richness of the vintage.
Rosé Champagne can be made two ways. Most houses blend in up to 15 percent still red wine; others, like Roederer, macerate the Pinot Noir with its skins for a short period of time to achieve color and flavor. "I think you get a better integration of fruit with skin contact," states Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Roederer's technical director. "When you blend, it takes a long time for the two wines to come together."
Of the 14 Champagnes tasted from 1996, close to half were outstanding. These are wines for Riesling lovers: lean, racy thoroughbreds that really need time to fully reveal their facets. Both the J. Lassalle Brut Champagne Special Club 1996 (92, $56) and Pannier Brut Champagne 1996 (91, $33) exude floral and citrus notes, while the Deutz Brut Rosé Champagne 1996 (91, $59) features the density that is so characteristic of that year.
This early trickle of 1996s illuminates one of Champagne's puzzles: When do you drink them? Whereas the '95s cozy right up to you, the '96s remain standoffish at this point. I recommend drinking the '96s now through 2003. These wines will benefit from a year or two of aging.
This raises the issue of Champagnes aged on the cork vs. recently disgorged bottles. Disgorging removes the plug of yeast sediment gathered at the neck of the bottle. Champagne still in contact with the yeast (before disgorging) develops more slowly than that which has been disgorged. So a 1996 purchased now will show greater maturity in one year than the same wine disgorged and shipped next year. Some, but not all, Champagne labels carry the date of disgorgement. The French love Champagne fresh and lively, and therefore prefer to enjoy it soon after disgorgement. The English enjoy the more oxidized, roasted flavors—such as coffee, caramel and nuts—that result from long aging on the cork after disgorging. I like mine somewhere in between. Ultimately, it's a matter of personal taste.
Judging from the mature vintages still in circulation, the 1995s and 1996s should be available over the next few years. Take pleasure in the '95s now, but be sure to lay away a few bottles of your favorite '96s for future enjoyment. Senior editor and tasting director Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster of Champagnes.
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