Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne Trio

It's an opportune time to sample classic vintage Champagne from three excellent years

By Jim Gordon

You may remember the excitement about a trio of great vintages in Europe that finished out the last decade. For Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo and many other regions, the years 1988, 1989 and 1990 produced a procession of top-quality wines virtually unheard of in the annals of wine history.

The same phenomenon occurred in Champagne. But while the wines of Bordeaux and elsewhere from those years were released three to five years ago, and have already been consumed or stashed away in kcellars, the great French Champagnes from 1988, 1989 and 1990 are just reaching wine shops now.

Vintage Champagne provides the most exciting current buying opportunity in a season marked by the release of an often disappointing crop of non-vintage bruts. After blind-tasting more than 160 current-release Champagnes, and spending a week in the region interviewing winemakers and tasting even more wines, our advice is to splurge on the vintage bubbly this year but be cautious about the less expensive, non-vintage bottlings.

This report covers new releases since our last annual tasting report in the Dec. 31, 1995, issue, and also revisits many vintage Champagnes that were previously reviewed but are still on the market.

Vintage Champagne typically costs 50 percent to 100 percent more than nonvintage, but wines like the following that scored at the top of their respective classes are worth it. For 1988, a superbly balanced Dom Pérignon ($89) and powerful Bollinger Grande Année ($60) tied at 93 points out of 100. For 1989, an overlapping release of Bollinger Grande Année (92, $60) was our favorite. And for 1990, with lots of the best names still not released, a bright, lively tasting Louis Roederer (92, $46) leads the pack so far.

The best is probably yet to come. We give 1990 a tentatively higher rating on our vintage chart than the two previous years, and perhaps only a third of the traditional quality leaders have released their 1990s. Dom Pérignon 1990, for example, won't arrive in the shops until late winter or spring.

How to explain the disparity between the high quality of the vintage-dated bubbly and the comparatively low quality of the non-vintage bubbly this year? So-called non-vintage Champagne is really multi-vintage, to use a phrase that Champagne Krug and a few other firms prefer. Typically, a non-vintage brut is made of about 80 to 85 percent base wine from one vintage, and the remainder is reserve wine, primarily from the previous year. The Champenois say this enables them to produce a consistent style from year to year, but clearly the quality can still vary.

The region of Champagne, located northeast of Paris, is the northernmost major wine region in France. Even in a really good year, the grapes here don't ripen to the same levels of flavor and sugar content as they do in an average year elsewhere. The effect of the weather in a lesser year can get into the bottle.

Most winemakers we spoke to said their current non-vintage blends are based on the relatively weak 1992 vintage, but a few others are still based on more reliable 1991 lots of wine, including high-scorers from Paul Bara and Nicolas Feuillatte. Last year, the non-vintage was primarily from 1991, with reserve wine coming primarily from the excellent year of 1990. And indeed, for nine out of 11 of the big brand-name bruts that I spot-checked, the scores were higher last year.

1992 was one of four mediocre to good years from 1991 through 1994 when the weather may not have been disastrous, but did not cooperate in producing really flavorful, ripe grapes. (One telling anecdote is that many houses, including Champagne Krug and G.H. Mumm, are not making any vintage wines from these four years.) The new releases two years ago, three years ago and four years ago were based on 1990, 1989 and 1988, and they were generally better in quality than the current crop. Maybe we got spoiled.

The popular Veuve Clicquot orange label ($40), for example, scored 82 this year versus 87 last year. Bollinger may have released two of the best vintage wines this year, but its usually excellent non-vintage Special Cuvée scored only an average 79. Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut and Laurent-Perrier Brut L.P. also paled in comparison to last year's versions. In our blind tastings, these Champagnes seemed to start out well, with fruity, floral aromas, b ut they didn't provide the fullness of flavor and body we look for, and they turned thin on the finish.

It's a good time to shop for sparkling wines from California and elsewhere if you want to spend less than $30. But if you are prepared to invest in something special for the holidays, or even to lay down in your cellar for future meals and celebrations, take a close look at 1988, 1989 and 1990 Champagnes.

Brothers Rémy and Henri Krug set up a tasting at their headquarters in Reims to demonstrate the differences between the three vintages. They poured nine wines from three of the better villages--not bubbly, but base wines from their supply of vintage reserves used for blending. We tasted 1988, 1989 and 1990 Pinot Noir samples from Ambonnay, three more Pinot Noirs from Verzenay and three Chardonnays from Mesnil.

These generally austere, tart base wines aren't usually much fun to drink, but in this tasting they were fascinating. The Ambonnay '88 was crisp, tight and clean. The Ambonnay '89 tasted much riper, more broad-textured and fruitier. The '90 seemed like a cross between the previous two, with plenty of lively acidity yet with ample fruit flavor, too. These descriptions held up for the Verzenay and Mesnil wines as well. And these same impressions hold for most of the vintage Champagnes that I have blind-tasted over the past three years.

You might call 1988 a classic vintage for Champagne. Claude Taittinger, whose firm specializes in rather light-bodied but bracing, tangy Champagnes, prefers the slightly restrained quality of 1988 over 1990 and 1989. But we preferred the new Taittinger Brut 1990 (90, $52) over the 1988.

The weather during the 1989 growing season was extremely hot and sunny. It produced ripe-tasting, full-blown Champagnes that the Champenois mark down for lacking the classic crisp acidity they want. That makes these Champagnes suspect for aging in their estimation, but we found them quite appealing. At their most extravagant, the '89s have a flavor as rich as white chocolate. But it was a difficult year in the wineries, where grapes sometimes came in too fast and strained winemakers' abilities to keep up with the pace of the harvest. Moët & Chandon winemaker Richard Geoffroy says, "We are among the few that didn't declare 1989, and we're proud of it." For winemaker Jean-Pierre Vincent at Nicolas Feuillatte, 1989 was also too extreme. "It's not Champagne," he says succinctly.

Comparisons of 1989 and 1976 were common. So if you'd like to see how 1976 has fared in the cellar, and you have $280 to spare, try the spectacular and mature, newly released Krug Collection 1976 (93).

No one in Champagne, it seems, has anything bad to say about 1990, however. That's no doubt partly because 1990 is what they are eager to sell right now. But it's also because it was a reasonably ripe, trouble-free vintage that produced an abundance of appealing Champagne. We found four among this year's new releases that scored 90 or better and cost less than $50: Louis Roederer, Moët & Chandon Impérial, Ruinart R de Ruinart and Serge Mathieu.

"1990 is like a new jacket, that you just put it on for the first time and it needs nothing," says Geoffroy. "It has a natural balance and harmony."

As more and more 1990s are released in the next couple of years, we should have even more reason to celebrate the vintage. For now, however, one other vintage deserves special mention: 1985. This fine year is in its full glory now. We found nine 1985s rated 90 points or more that are still available, including three blanc de blancs. These are all worth buying to taste an outstanding year that may be at its peak of perfection.

The outstanding buy in this group is the Charles Heidsieck Brut 1985 (93, $48). The Mumm René Lalou 1985 (92, $50) is so good that you would think it should be drunk right away, but I had a fantastic Mumm 1955 in an Epernay restaurant, Le Vigneron, that makes me think the 1985 will have plenty of good years ahead of it if stored properly.

We sampled 21 blanc de blancs in our blind tastings and 34 rosés. The blanc de blancs were more exciting, providing seven outstanding wines, led by 1988s from Henri Germain and Ayala, and 1985s from Comte Audoin de Dampierre, Krug and Delamotte. Salon's outstanding 1983 is also worth a mention. To see how far the blanc de blancs envelope can be pushed, you might want to try the pungent Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1988.

Rosé Champagne can be difficult to assess, because the styles vary so widely from house to house. Colors range from a pale amber to bright coral, and the flavors cover the waterfront from earthy and tealike to something as vivid as strawberries. If you want to explore, Charles Heidsieck's Brut Rosé 1985 (93, $55) and Piper-Heidsieck's non-vintage rosé (90, $48) are two good choices.

With the new year approaching, many people are thinking about not only what they will be doing this Dec. 31, but what wine they will have to toast the turn of the millennium as 1999 changes over to 2000. If you are interested in laying away Champagne now, the blind-tasting results that accompany this article will help you make your purchases. For most people, vintage 1990 Champagnes that you can buy now should be perfect.

But if you don't want to stock your cellar ahead of time, the 1995 harvest was well above average in quality, according to the Champenois. And that's the vintage that will form the core of the non-vintage Champagnes on sale in late 1999.

What Champagne Is All About

Champagne, the region, came before Champagne, the sparkling wine. And although winemakers in certain parts of the world (particularly California) persist in using the term champagne for their own sparkling wines, French Champagne from the Marne Valley is the original.

Bubbles are not the only thing that sets the wines of Champagne apart from those of others. Over the centuries this northerly wine region has adopted its own set of rules to make wines that defy the cold winters and short growing seasons. Growers here rarely harvest grapes that are ripe enough to make normal table wines without a heavy addition of sugar. So the vineyard owners and wine merchants of the past made a virtue out of necessity. They produced a still wine that was low in alcohol and high in acidity, then put it through a second fermentation to raise the alcohol level and create the effervescence. This second fermentation takes place in the individual bottles, and leaves behind used-up yeast cells (called the lees) that give the wine extra character as it ages for at least a year and a half and often up to three years or more on the lees.

Champagne also tries to outsmart nature by using different grape varieties. The three main ones are the red-wine grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (which are pressed right after harvest to produce a nearly clear juice) and the white-wine grape Chardonnay. The weather in some years and in some locations favors one over the other two. Most Champagnes are blended from at least two of these before the secondary fermentation. Bottles labeled Blanc de Blancs are made only from Chardonnay.

Winemakers get further flexibility from their widely scattered vineyards, which bring in the effects of different soils and microclimates, and from the practice of blending two or more years together to make the traditional non-vintage Champagne.

Champagne may be known as the drink of celebration, and it does go very well with appetizers, or is quite enjoyable as an apéritif. But it is also fine to drink after you sit down at the table. Its crisp acidity makes a good match with many first courses that feature fish or shellfish, and it can be very good with lighter meat and poultry dishes, too.


A Value-Oriented Upstart

Perhaps the best value in Champagne this year comes from one of the least-known Champagne houses: Nicolas Feuillatte. The non-vintage Brut Réserve Particulière (89 points, $22) is a real find, especially while many of the other houses' non-vintage bruts are lackluster.

But that's not all this modern, upstart winery is good at. Feuillatte (pronounced foo-YAHT) also has an outstanding 1985 prestige cuvée on the market, a very good 1986 vintage brut and one of the best non-vintage rosés I tasted this year.

Although it may seem like Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne came out of nowhere, it is, in fact, the product of a very well-financed, high-tech winery that can pick and choose the best grapes from 4,600 acres of vineyards that it controls. Established only 20 years ago, it is still an infant compared with the grandes marques of the region, but it is now the third-largest wine producer in Champagne.

The winery's success lies in the com-bination of the worldly, appealing personality of Nicolas Feuillatte, the man, and the vast resources of a growers' cooperative in the little town of Chouilly, near Epernay. Nicolas Feuillatte, the Champagne, is the cream of the crop of Champagnes produced by the giant Centre Vinicole de Champagne.

The cooperative's 4,800 member-growers harvested enough grapes for total sales in 1996 of 430,000 cases of Champagne. But only grapes from the best acreage--the 35 percent that is rated premier cru and grand cru--are used for the Nicolas Feuillatte brand, which predicted total sales in 1996 of 167,000 cases.

"I know it's a cooperative, but I like to call it a cellar," says Feuillatte, to distinguish it from the generally mediocre quality of wine from most French wine cooperatives. "We are slowly stepping up to be a grande marque." Born in France, the 70-year-old businessman says he became an American citizen in 1955 and spent 20 years living in New York while working for his family's restaurant-supply business.

Feuillatte inherited 30 acres of vineyard in Champagne's Montagne de Reims district in 1970 and started bottling his own Champagne five years later. With the help of friends in New York and Paris, Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne was served at high-society events. He began to develop this new brand on a larger scale. "But to have the guts to do something different, you also have to have the money," he says.

Feuillatte sold his brand to the Centre Vinicole de Champagne in 1986 and agreed to stay on as spokesman. Since then, a team of professionals hired by the cooperative has shaped the Feuillatte Champagne of today. The cellarmaster, with 21 harvests under his belt, is Jean-Pierre Vincent. The executive in charge of the whole operation is Jean-Marc Pottiez, whom the cooperative hired away from Fortant de France, the thoroughly modern, fast-growing Languedoc winery, after a nationwide executive search.

This crew is out to prove that big can be beautiful. With a harvest in 1996 large enough to supply more than 1.2 million cases of Feuillatte for later release, it will be interesting to see if the high standards of quality can be maintained as the quantity increases. On the production side, Vincent has state-of-the-art equipment to handle and monitor the Champagne with care, four years' worth of stock aging in his mammoth, 1 million-square-foot cellars and more than 45 base wines to choose from when making a blend. On the marketing side, Feuillatte has eye-catching packaging (especially for the prestige cuvée Palmes d'Or), an elegant boutique on rue Fauberge St.-Honoré in Paris and an apparent commitment to value.

Says Pottiez, "Since we started, we have been using all the elements of modern technology to allow a good quality-to-price ratio."


Jim Gordon's Top Champagne Picks

wine / price / score

KRUG Brut Champagne 1985 / 94 / $120

A seductive, fully mature Champagne that's rich in texture, full in body, still quite firm in balance.

BOLLINGER Brut Champagne Grande Année 1988 / 93 / $60

A rich, mature bubbly that combines power and subtlety.

COMTE AUDOIN DE DAMPIERRE Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1985 / 93 / $97

Mellow, and subtle in flavor, smooth and soft in texture.

CHARLES HEIDSIECK Brut Champagne 1985 / 93 / $48

Suave, satisfying and flavorful, blending wonderful toasty, earthy aromas with mellow and mature fruit flavors.

CHARLES HEIDSIECK Brut Rosé Champagne 1985 / 93 / $55

Robust, and imposing, this has distinctive toasty aromas, vivid fruit flavors and accents of mushroom and walnut.

KRUG Brut Champagne Collection 1976 / 93 / $280

Proudly shows its age in the honeyed, nutty, smoky flavors, but retains freshness and is crisp in texture.

MOET & CHANDON Brut Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1988 / 93 / $89

Offers toasty, earthy aromas, lively but mellow fruit flavors.

BOLLINGER Brut Champagne Grande Année 1989 / 92 / $60

A real mouthful of ripe fruit flavors, delicate spice and lingering vanilla notes. This is smooth and creamy in texture.

NICOLAS FEUILLATTE Brut Champagne Cuvée Palmes d'Or 1985 / 92 / $80

Powerful, vibrant and intensely fruity. Has a broad array of flavors, a smooth texture and is well balanced.

G.H. MUMM Brut Champagne René Lalou 1985 / 92 / $50

A delectable Champagne--from the bouquet of honey, spice and almond through the creamy texture and lingering finish.

POL ROGER Brut Rosé Champagne 1988 / 92 / $53

An elegant marriage of fruit and toast gives this depth.

LOUIS ROEDERER Brut Champagne 1990 / 92 / $46

This has everything you want in a Champagne: Bright, lively fruit flavors, a smooth, creamy texture and a lingering finish.

RUINART Brut Rosé Champagne Dom Ruinart 1986 / 92 / $98

A distinctive copper color and mature, vivid flavors give this rosé lots of personality.

Rating Selected Champagne Vintages

1990 / 90-94* / Fine balance and full flavor* / Drink or hold

1989 / 88 / Extremely ripe and generous / Drink

1988 / 90 / Outstanding, beautifully balanced / Drink or hold

1987 / 81 / Acceptable, but few vintage bottlings / Drink

1986 / 86 / Very good quality, lean in style / Drink

1985 / 96 / Superb balance, great structure and flavor / Drink or hold

1984 / 79 / Unexceptional quality; large harvest / Drink

1983 / 83 / Good, pleasant Champagnes / Drink

1982 / 94 / Rich, complex, with abundant flavor / Drink

1979 / 91 / Classy, elegant, aging well / Drink

1976 / 88 / Ripe, opulent year / Drink

1975 / 92 / Bold but balanced Champagnes / Drink

* Preliminary analysis based on limited releases.

Vintage ratings: 95-100, classic; 90-94, outstanding; 85-89, very good; 80-84, good; 70-79, average; 60-69, below average; 50-59, poor.

Drinkability: "Drink" means most of the wines of the vintage are ready to drink; "hold" means most of the age-worthy wines have not yet matured.





No comments:

Post a Comment