While quality and prices are as high as ever, Champagne still delivers values
Issue: December 31, 2008
The range of excellent Champagnes available in the U.S. market continues to grow. Several new labels are producing high quality wines, and with many styles to choose from, Champagne lovers have the opportunity to stock up on their favorites—not only for the holiday season, but for the year to come.
The downside is that prices remain high, making it even more important to shop around for the best deals and to choose carefully. Though the dollar has gained ground against the euro recently, the current crop of wines was priced when the greenback was at or near its lowest point earlier this year.
Though finding values among this year's supply of Champagnes is difficult, there are still some bargains out there. Look for the Duval-Leroy Brut Champagne NV (91 points, $38), delivering honey, citrus and ginger flavors allied to a rich texture, or the Montaudon Brut Champagne NV (90, $38), which is bright and intense, providing a nice backdrop for its candied berry and preserved citrus notes. Close on their heels is G.H. Mumm's Brut Champagne Cordon Rouge NV (89, $38), whose smooth texture sets the stage for peach, grapefruit and honey flavors.
These wines are only the tip of the iceberg of recently released bottlings from Champagne. Since my last report on the region ("Champagne Riding High," Dec. 31, 2007-Jan. 15, 2008), I have blind-tasted nearly 350 Champagnes in Wine Spectator's New York office. (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report is available.)
The top vintages and prestige cuvées—including rosés and, especially, blancs de blancs—represent the cream of the crop, yet by far the most widely available Champagnes in wineshops and restaurants are the non-vintage brut cuvées, which likewise account for more than half of the wines I tasted. The good news is that dozens of wines in this category rated outstanding (90 to 94 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale).
Non-vintage brut is typically a blend of two or more of the region's three major grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The brut designation refers to the dosage, the mix of wine and sugar syrup added to offset the wine's high acidity after dégorgement (the disgorging of the sediment from the bottle). The best examples—think of them as non-vintage prestige cuvées—offer depth, richness, balance and length in a dry style. Krug's refined Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée NV (94, $175) and Laurent-Perrier's Brut Champagne Grand Siècle NV (94, $220), with its warm, rich profile and complex flavors, are two to seek out.
The most exciting Champagnes I tasted for this report are vintage-dated. The group is led by the Krug Brut Champagne Collection 1985 (96, $600), a muscular wine with freshness, mingling complex mushroom, spice and leather aromas with biscuit, coffee and citrus elements. From the unique 1996 vintage comes the Michel Gonet Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Comtesse Michèle Elyzabeth (95, $120), which is full of smoke, nut and whole-grain bread aromas followed by flavors of toast, honey and coconut. Its creamy texture is offset nicely by a bracing structure. Taittinger hits a home run with its Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Comtes de Champagne 1998 (95, $270), which is notable for its seamless character, creamy texture and finesse. And from the cellars of Veuve Clicquot comes the lean and racy Brut Champagne Rare 1988 (95, $110), evoking toast, lemon and candied ginger flavors, with a hazelnut-infused finish.
Despite the generally high quality achieved by most houses and growers, I found several Champagnes to be light and shy on length. In some cases, the wines are lean and tart, without much finish at all. Many non-vintage cuvées are based on the 2004 vintage, one of the largest among recent crops, yet it's difficult to pin the blame on that alone. Some of the 2004-based wines rated outstanding, suggesting that a good non-vintage brut has more to do with the quality of the blend than the quality of a particular vintage.
Though all Champagnes fall within a single appellation, there are different styles to suit different tastes. Blanc de blancs, for example, is made entirely from Chardonnay. The Charles Heidsieck Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (94, $110) and the Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (93, $52) exhibit the characteristic toast, vanilla, peach, baked pastry and coffee flavors of 100 percent Chardonnay Champagnes, along with their freshness and elegance.
Rosé Champagne is a style that Americans have embraced in the past five years. After seeing the number of cases imported grow roughly 2 percent each year from 1995 through 2000, the rosé category took off, culminating in a nearly 10 percent surge in 2007.
Most rosés are made like non-vintage brut cuvées, to which still red wine is added, with the amount typically representing 7 percent to 20 percent of the final blend. The Canard-Duchene Brut Rosé Champagne NV (91, $60) typifies this style, with its elegant fruit and fine texture. Some rosés, like Nicolas Feuillatte's Brut Rosé Champagne Cuvée Palmes d'Or 2002 (91, $205), are made by allowing the Pinot Noir to macerate with the skins for a short period, thereby extracting color and robust flavor. The Feuillatte is fruity, rich and vinous, with a hint of tannins shoring up the finish.
The vintage-dated bubblies under review are pretty evenly spread among the 2002, 2000, 1999 and 1998 harvests. The best of this group is 2002. I recall tasting many of the still wines used as blending components on my visit to the region in 2003, and they were ripe and full of fruit. Dominique Demarville, who has been chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot since 2006, was then with G.H. Mumm. "For me, Pinot Noir is the success [in 2002]," he observed at the time. "It's ripe and healthy, with balance between power, richness and acidity."
A pair of Champagnes from Pierre Gimonnet illustrates the quality of the year. The Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Fleuron 2002 (93, $70) exhibits the elegant, fresh character of Chardon-nay, with citrus, ginger and mineral flavors, and the Brut Champagne Paradoxe 2002 (92, $64)—half Pinot Noir, half Chardonnay—offers peach and candied citrus woven into a creamy texture.
The 2000 vintage was more difficult, with hail damaging some of the Pinot Noir crop in the Montagne de Reims. Nonetheless, Laurent Champs, proprietor and winemaker at Vilmart, made the stunning Brut Champagne Coeur de Cuvée 2000 (94, $144). It's a complex and intense wine, with hints of coconut, vanilla, gingerbread, apricot and whole-grain toast flavors.
The 1999s tend to be elegant, velvety-textured wines that are very well-balanced, with the best of them continuing to improve. The vintage is epitomized by the Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne Cuvée Rare 1999 (94, $250), which offers a mix of freshness and maturity, delivering coffee, vanilla, peach and grapefruit notes along with plenty of finesse.
The best Champagnes from 1998 are creamy and rich, ranging from broad, more muscular versions to those displaying refinement and harmony. Taittinger's Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Comtes de Champagne 1998 (95, $270) falls into the latter camp. "As with all Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, 5 percent of the wines used in the blend are aged in oak barrels, giving a toasted taste—so delicately grilled—and a dimension and depth which is unique," explains Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of the house. "Obviously the maturation in our cellars for 10 years has helped this Champagne to open."
Among the labels that were new to my tastings this year, Joseph Perrier impressed with three outstanding bottlings. The Brut Champagne Cuvée Royale 1999 (93, $75) shows precision and freshness, keeping its graphite, citrus, peach and roasted almond flavors focused; the Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Cuvée Royale NV (92, $60) is tightly wound and intense, with an appealing green, herb and leaf accent to its flavors of vanilla, toast and coffee; and the Brut Champagne Cuvée Joséphine 1998 (92, $175) delivers more refinement and gracefulness, with bread dough, peach and citrus notes.
Andre Jacquart, a merger of two family domaines in the Côte des Blancs, released the appealing Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Mesnil Experience NV (92, $50). Featuring the vinosity and structure of Le Mesnil fruit heightened by 80 percent barrel fermentation, the Experience offers floral and spice notes, along with a touch of coconut, highlighting the wine's citrus and vanilla flavors in a drier style.
The new house of Dosnon, founded in 2005, is a partnership between Davy Dosnon and Simon-Charles Lepage. The fruit source is the Côte des Bar, whose soils are the same Kimmeridgian band found in Chablis. The estate's Brut Champagne Noire NV (91, $60), made entirely from Pinot Noir, is racy and intense, offering high-toned coconut, rye toast, orange peel and ginger flavors. The partners ferment primarily in 5-year-old Puligny-Montrachet barrels, the delicate exchange between the wine and oxygen providing added complexity.
The Tarlant family has been growing grapes in Champagne since the 17th century. Its current cuvées, both the Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne La Vigne d'Antan NV (93, $80) and the Brut Rosé Champagne NV (92, $60), display refinement and harmony, with the rosé reminiscent of an aged Volnay with bubbles.
Benoît Tarlant, who represents the 12th generation of winemakers, prefers to use oak for the fermentations. "I vinify the best juices in new barrel, because those vineyards are able to dominate the oak, and their concentration will gain by this period in new barrel," he notes. "I don't do malo [malolactic fermentation] for any wines, so I also work with barrels [up to] 20 years old."
Champagne is in the process of revising its appellation boundaries, a move intended to expand the area under vine in order to increase the amount of Champagne available to a thirsty global market. But it will be at least another 10 to 12 years before wines from any new vineyards make their way to U.S. shores.
Yet for now at least, there is plenty of delicious bubbly to satisfy every taste and budget. Just shop around and when you find a fair deal, stock up. It's always good to have a bottle of Champagne chilled and ready to enjoy.
Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne.
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