Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne Glory Days [wine Spectator]

A wealth of styles offers distinctive flavors for the holiday season
Bruce Sanderson
Issue: December 31, 2006

Perennial Champagne lovers, or those simply looking to brighten their holiday festivities, have good reason to celebrate this year. From rich, full-flavored vintage bottlings to fresh, lighter versions to entrancing rosés, the sparkling wines of France's Champagne region deliver excellent quality in every style.

If you're hunting bubbly for holiday get-togethers, you'll find plenty to choose from in Champagne's most widely available category, non-vintage brut. It's the consummate blend, drawing on the region's three grape varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier—and multiple vintages to create a consistent house style.

The percentage of non-vintage cuvées that rated outstanding (90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) is almost double that of last year's report. There are more than 70 outstanding non-vintage cuvées among the more than 300 Champagnes I've blind-tasted since our last look at the region ("Trying Times in Champagne," Dec. 31, 2005 - Jan. 15, 2006).

The newly released non-vintage cuvées are of high quality because many houses used 2003 or 2002 as the base years for their blends. The summer of 2003 was notable for its extreme temperatures across Europe, resulting in ripe grapes with lower than usual acidities. I was in Champagne in June of that year, and the temperature hovered around 90° F every day. I tasted some base wines from 2002 during my trip, and found these vins clairs, as they are known, normally lean and tart due to high acidity and low alcohol, to be rich and ripe. Some were even enjoyable on their own, like a good still Chardonnay.

Thus, the non-vintage cuvées in current release are generally rich and very honeyed in character. The Roger Pouillon & Fils Brut Fleur de Mareuil (94 points, $58) impressed me with its exotic coconut and spice aromas followed by honey and lemon flavors. This cuvée is a blend of equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and is fermented and matured in oak barrels. ("Brut" refers to the amount of residual sweetness in the dosage, up to 15 grams of residual sugar per liter, with most versions in the "dry" range of 6 to 12 grams per liter.)

Other cuvées to look for include the Pinot Noir-dominated Duval-Leroy Brut (93, $35), a full-bodied, toasty Champagne and a great value; the Jean Lallement Brut Cuvée Réserve (93, $60), which is also predominately Pinot Noir and shows whole-grain bread and graphite flavors; the Krug Brut Grande Cuvée (93, $145), which is firm and complex, featuring ginger, coconut and dried citrus notes, and will benefit from a year, or even more, in the bottle; and the Zoémie de Sousa Brut Merveille (93, $39), vibrant and creamy, with vanilla and hazelnut notes. This last cuvée is from the négociant label of Erick de Sousa. (For a complete list of all wines tasted for this report, see the alphabetical chart beginning on page 204 of this issue's Buying Guide.)

Small growers, also known as récoltants-manipulants, tend to have less stocks for blending than the larger houses do. However, Champagnes from small growers often better reflect the local terroir, particularly where the grape source is one or two villages. For example, the Guy Charlemagne Brut Blanc de Blancs Réserve (91, $40) comes from Chardonnay vineyards in Oger and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The wine is dry and airy, with honeysuckle, grapefruit and chalk notes typical of villages on the Côte des Blancs. Le Mesnil tends to produce the sternest versions, while Champagnes from Oger are richer, and I find a creaminess in those from Cramant.

Some of the better brut non-vintage wines to look for are the firm, dry Chartogne-Taillet Brut Cuvée Ste.-Anne (92, $42), the honey- and graphite-flavored Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve (92, $40) and the Roger Pouillon & Fils Brut Cuvée de Réserve (92, $36), a rich, sumptuous bubbly. The Pouillon is a blend from a 2003 base year; the Chartogne-Taillet from a 2002. The Heidsieck not only uses a more mature base year for the blend, in this case 2000, but chef de cave Régis Camus also uses 40 percent reserve wine for the cuvée. This is a higher proportion than most houses use, giving the blend a more mature, honeyed quality.

If you want to splurge a little, the Henri Billiot & Fils Brut Champagne Cuvée Laetitia (92, $86) is a more vinous style, with deep flavors of peach, roasted nuts and mineral. Serge Billiot draws on more than 18 different years for this cuvée, but the actual blend is "a jealously guarded secret of my father's," according to daughter Laetitia, whose name graces the label.

Fans of still Chardonnay should try some of the newly released blanc de blancs. Also brut in style, these "white from whites" are 100 percent Chardonnay.

One of my favorites among the non-vintage blanc de blancs is the Domaine Chapuy Brut Blanc de Blancs Réserve (90, $33), which delivers fine value along with its hazelnut and citrus notes. The dry Diebolt-Vallois Brut Blanc de Blancs (90, $46) evokes more malt and whole-grain bread notes than fruit, yet the creamy texture typical of Cramant is there, making it a distinctive, food-friendly Champagne. From Oger, next door, comes the Jean Milan Brut Blanc de Blancs Spécial (90, $47), with pure lemony fruit and a honeyed richness.

Rosé Champagne, meanwhile, is perhaps the trendiest category in the region. Certainly it's the fastest-growing, almost doubling in shipments to the United States since 2003, according to the Office of Champagne, USA. I find it's also the style that offers the most diversity in color and character. Some versions are very pale and similar to a brut, with almost no red fruit character, while others can be fresh and fruity, with flavors that range from strawberry and watermelon to cherry and spices. Occasionally, they are much more vinous and powerful.

Rosé Champagne is typically a non-vintage cuvée blended with still red wine, up to about 20 percent. It can also be made by initiating skin contact for a short period of time to extract color and flavor. Rosés made by this method, called saignée, are deeper in color and taste more like a Pinot Noir with bubbles.

Two examples of the saignée style are the Duval-Leroy Brut Rosé de Saignée (91, $43), with delicate yet intense berry and ginger compote, and the Pannier Brut Rosé de Saignée Egérie (91, $77), with a mix of berry, cherry, spice and tea. Both are more vinous in character and typical of what I find in the few rosés made this way.

In the blended style, the ever-elegant Krug Brut Rosé (94, $230) offers whole-grain bread and spice notes from the barrel fermentation, accented by flowers and berries. The Perrier-Jouët Brut Rosé Blason (92, $76) features more mature notes of dried berry and spice, with woodsy accents. Chef de cave Hervé Deschamps' Pinot-dominated blend includes a little 2002 with a base of 2003 and 15 percent still red wine. The Vranken Brut Rosé Demoiselle Grand Cuvée (92, $47) is crisp and elegant, exhibiting berry and spice flavors.

Vintage-dated Champagnes also deliver the goods. More than half of the total number of vintage bubblies I tasted for this report rated either classic (nine wines) or outstanding (72 wines). Whereas non-vintage Champagnes seek consistency, vintage bubbly captures the character of a given year. It also affords the chef de cave room for creativity, to make Champagnes with more expression and personality.

The vintages you are most likely to find are 1999, 1998 and 1997. Of the three, I prefer the '98s, the best of which are creamy and rich, rather big-boned, with firm structures and open textures. The Heidsieck Monopole Brut Rosé Diamant Rosé 1998 (94, $130) exemplifies this profile, framing its dried cherry, ruby grapefruit and spice notes with richness and structure. The Ployez-Jacquemart Brut Blanc de Blancs 1998 (93, $68) delivers toast, mineral, honey and citrus flavors on a spine of acidity. The Gaston Chiquet Brut 1998 (92, $51) is full of pastry and warm spice tones, while the Deutz Brut Blanc de Blancs 1998 (92, $94) offsets its richness with a crisp structure and mineral flavors.

The '99s, by contrast, are both more open and softer due to lower acidities, with good mineral character. As a result, most Champagnes from this vintage will be ready sooner than their counterparts from '98, '97 and even '96. The Vilmart Brut Grand Cellier d'Or 1999 (93, $71) is the best '99 I have tasted to date. Creamy and complex, it tastes like a mature, mellow Chassagne-Montrachet. The Taittinger Brut Millésimé 1999 (92, $65) delivers freshness and finesse, with graphite and dried berry notes.

In general, I find the 1997s to be lean and sometimes tart. That said, the best offer balance and harmony. The Vilmart Brut Cuvée Création 1997 (90, $99) is complex and vinous, with whole-grain bread and citrus flavors. The Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Cuvée 225 1997 (91, $100) is a new Champagne, equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which chef de cave Jean-Pierre Vincent ferments in 10- to 20-year-old oak barrels (60 percent) and stainless steel (40 percent). It combines a fine-grained texture with biscuit, nut and citrus flavors, ample richness and a long, butterscotch aftertaste.

In vintage-dated rosé, look for the elegant Henriot Brut Rosé Millésimé 1998 (92, $80), which shows mature notes of dried cherry and spice, along with citrus.

There are also more-recent vintages to choose from, as well as some older ones, including 1996, 1995 and even 1990, 1988 and 1985. These older years of Champagne are all excellent. In fact, my top-scoring Champagne in this report is the Krug Brut 1995 (98, $224), a wine of precision and intensity that reminds me of the estate's stellar '88. The '96s in particular still need time to resolve their firm structures.

The top bubblies are expensive; there are about a dozen at $200 or more, topping out at $600 for the Krug Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Clos du Mesnil 1995 (97). In the $100 to $200 range are mostly vintage-dated Champagnes and a few non-vintage luxury cuvées. However, there are almost 50 sparklers in this report priced less than $40. When you consider the method in which they are made and the aging they require (a minimum of 15 months for NV, although many are aged longer), these are good values.

With the overall quality of Champagnes so high this year, it's difficult to go wrong. Plus, the diversity of Champagne ensures the right style at the right price for every occasion.

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


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