Despite price increases and tight supply, demand has never been stronger
Issue: December 31, 2007
Champagne is on a roll. There are more labels available in restaurants and wineshops than ever before, and they're delivering impressive quality. With the holiday season upon us, this is good news for Champagne lovers.
While most Champagne purchases comprise non-vintage blends (known as bruts) made by the large, well-known houses, more and more Americans are also enjoying these producers' luxury cuvées, as well as distinctive bottlings from the estates of small, independent growers.
All these categories have exhibited consistently high quality of late, producing plenty of bubblies to choose from in each of the various styles and at every price point. Of the nearly 300 Champagnes I have blind-tasted in our New York office since my last report on the region ("Champagne's Glory Days," Dec. 31, 2006-Jan. 15, 2007), more than 50 percent earned ratings of 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. (For a complete list of all wines tasted for this report, see the alphabetical chart beginning on page 220 of this issue's Buying Guide.)
But be ready to pay for the pleasure that the best French sparklers offer. Champagne prices have risen since last year from a few dollars per bottle for some labels to 10 percent for others to more than 30 percent at the high end, with the biggest increases coming in the luxury category.
Contributing most to the rising cost is the weakness of the American dollar against the euro. Yet prices on U.S. retail shelves are also being fueled by competing demand for Champagne in emerging markets such as Japan, India and China. Additional upward pressure is coming from the supply side as well: The appellation is fully planted, and vineyard land continues to increase in value, driving up the price of grapes. (Because the Champagne houses rely on purchased grapes to meet their production needs, bubbly lovers can expect more price increases in the future.)
According to the Champagne regulatory body Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), sales of prestige labels have steadily increased since the pre-millennium peak in 1999, though this growth now appears to be slowing as prices rise. The luxury cuvées represent only a small portion of the market, but their significance to the region—in terms of the reputation of the individual houses as well as their bottom line—is far-reaching.
Even so, it's the non-vintage bruts that offer the best value and widest availability. Representing more than 90 percent of the Champagnes shipped globally in 2006, they are a good introduction to Champagne and reflect the styles of the different houses. Most of the wines labeled as brut contain a mix of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagnes labeled as blanc de blancs are made entirely from Chardonnay.
At the top of the charts in this report is a luxury vintage bottling, the stunning Krug Brut Champagne 1996 (99 points, $250). A majestic and compelling wine, with the classic whole-grain toast and coconut notes from its first fermentation in barrel, it shows the racy structure and steely character of the vintage, offset by a creaminess and a refined texture. The Krug Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Clos du Mesnil 1996 (96, $800) also offers fine depth and complexity, displaying aromas of coffee, mushroom and candied citrus, with a laserlike structure.
For those whose tastes lean more toward mature Champagnes, de Venoge has released a small amount of its Brut Champagne 1988 (97, $110). The wine's satin texture and vibrant structure showcase its leather, dried berry, toast and coffee bean flavors beautifully.
Two of the best small-grower Champagnes I tasted this year hail from Vilmart & Cie: the Brut Champagne Coeur de Cuvée 1999 (94, $122), which achieves depth from barrel fermentation, yet also delivers kirsch and coffee notes on a silky texture; and the Brut Champagne Cuvée Création 1998 (94, $108), showing more tropical fruit, with tangerine, a hint of toffee and great finesse.
The Coeur de Cuvée is 80 percent Chardonnay and 20 percent Pinot Noir from the oldest vines—50 years old—in two of Vilmart's best vineyards. The Cuvée Création also comes from two parcels of vines, albeit somewhat younger at 30 and 40 years old, with a blend of 70 percent Chardonnay and 30 percent Pinot Noir. Both wines are fermented and aged in barriques for 10 months, with the Coeur de Cuvée seeing one-third new oak. These are handcrafted, terroir-driven Champagnes.
Among the non-vintage blends, the Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne Cuvée Rare NV (94, $100) stands out for its delicacy and refinement, evoking vanilla, toast, lemon candy and graphite flavors. The Bollinger Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV (93, $60) is also among the best in this category, all honey and richness, with biscuit and dried orange peel notes. The Krug Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée NV (93, $150) offers a mix of freshness and mature elements, exhibiting graphite and vanilla, with hints of coffee.
Good values from my Champagne tastings this past year include the chiseled, graphite-scented Piper-Heidsieck Brut Champagne NV (90, $30), the J.M. Gremillet Brut Champagne Grande Réserve NV (90, $30) and the J.M. Gremillet Brut Champagne NV (88, $30). The Janisson & Fils Brut Rosé Champagne Kirkland Signature NV (90, $32) is attractive for its vibrant cherry notes, while the Louis Barthélémy Brut Champagne Améthyste NV (88, $30) is broader, offering roasted nut and malt flavors.
Rosé Champagne is a category that has really caught on with U.S. consumers. In the past 10 years, rosé has grown dramatically—from representing less than 2 percent of all Champagnes shipped to the United States to accounting for more than 8 percent of what's imported.
Most rosés are "white" Champagnes made from the three grape varieties, or from just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with a small amount (about 7 percent to 15 percent) of still red wine added. The de Venoge Brut Rosé Champagne NV (90, $70), with its cherry and strawberry flavors, is a good example of this style.
Some houses and growers prefer to leave the freshly pressed grapes in contact with the skins for a short period to obtain the pink color and fruity flavors of the wine. This is known as the saignée method, effectively bleeding some color into the juice before fermentation. The Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé Champagne Cuvée Palmes d'Or 2000 (92, $175), which is made in this way, evokes the flavor and character of complex red Burgundy with bubbles.
Many of the non-vintage blends that are currently available are based on the 2004 vintage. Others use grapes from 2003, while some are still based on the excellent 2002 harvest.
In 2004, the cool, wet summer retarded ripening. The situation was compounded by a record-size crop, with larger berries and more per cluster than usual. "It was a very long, difficult harvest," says Georges Blanck, former chef de cave at Moët & Chandon. "We were harvesting for three weeks."
Warm, dry weather in September allowed the growers to harvest Chardonnay with very good maturity, though Pinot Noir was more difficult in some vineyards because of its sensitivity to crop size. The 2003 vintage, by contrast, saw a small crop, decimated by frost in April and shaped by the heat and drought of the summer. Thus, in a blend of the two years, the 2004 component gives freshness, the 2003 fruit and body.
In general, a warmer climate over the past 20 years has resulted in earlier harvests, higher potential alcohol at harvest and lower acidity. The Champagnes made since 2000 tend to have riper flavors and richer profiles. The 2002s, in particular, show more opulence and softer structures. Wines such as the sumptuous Moutardier Brut Champagne 2002 (91, $50) and the creamy René Geoffroy Brut Champagne Volupté NV (90, $76) are good examples of the richness of this vintage.
Looking ahead, Champagne faces challenges posed by its recent success. According to Daniel Lorson, communications director for the CIVC, the Champenois are trying to keep prices under control, despite increased demand. "Grapes are getting very expensive," he says, "but I don't think we can increase prices too much."
Any method for expanding Champagne supply, such as the short-term solution of increasing yields, comes with potential drawbacks and uncertainties. The long-term solution—to increase the vineyard area in the appellation—would involve many hurdles and is not imminent.
"In the past, as demand increased, we could plant more vineyards," Lorson says. "Today, if you want to increase production, you have to buy your neighbor." Increasing the vineyard acreage is a complex and political issue that Lorson concedes will not be addressed before 2015 or 2016.
Interestingly, despite the present popularity of Champagne in the United States, there have been periods where wine lovers in this country were not so enamored with bubbly. In the early 1990s, recession dampened the market for fizz, and consumers did not drink as much Champagne at the turn of the millennium as was expected. Demand ultimately returned, however, and has been growing since 2002.
But for now at least, there is more variety than ever among the Champagnes available to U.S. consumers. So put aside the problems of supply and demand. Instead, pop a cork and enjoy the celebration of the moment.
Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne.
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