As sales fizzle, quality remains high and deals can be found
Issue: December 31, 2009
Champagne is facing one of its biggest crises in almost a century. After decades of steadily increasing demand, sales of bubbly are slumping, both in the United States and worldwide, in the aftermath of 2008's financial crash. Yet for those who are looking for a good bottle of Champagne, quality remains high.
In addition, some values have begun to appear, as wholesalers attempt to move inventory to make way for new purchases. As we enter the holiday season, diligence in shopping around for the best prices should pay dividends.
Even without discounting, a number of bottlings are worth searching out: Piper-Heidsieck's refined Brut Champagne NV (91 points, $45); the generous, peach- and honey-flavored Brut Champagne La Française NV from Taittinger (90, $45); Pertois-Moriset's harmonious and expressive Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (92, $45); and Louis Roederer's Brut Champagne Premier NV (91, $43), which exhibits lively apple, toast and ginger notes.
In blind tastings since my last report ("Brut Strength," Dec. 31, 2008 - Jan. 15, 2009), I have reviewed more than 300 Champagnes in Wine Spectator's New York office. I found nine classic wines (95 to 100 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale) and more than 175 (nearly 60 percent) that earned outstanding ratings (90 to 94 points). (An alphabetical list of all wines tasted for this report begins on page 154 of this issue's Buying Guide.)
These figures speak to the overall quality available, but just as exciting is the cost of these wonderful Champagnes. Just over 20 percent of the wines under review sell for $100 or more, with only 10 percent priced at $200 and up. More importantly, roughly 20 percent of the currently available bubblies sell for less than $50.
In addition to the values mentioned above, fine quality non-vintage blends at attractive prices include the Bauget-Jouette Brut Champagne NV (90, $30), the Tribaut-Schloesser Brut Champagne NV (90, $35), the Heidsieck Monopole Brut Champagne Blue Top Premier Cru NV (90, $37), the Beaumont des Crayères Brut Champagne Grand Prestige NV (90, $38) and the Drappier Brut Champagne Carte d'Or NV (90, $40).
The most expensive Champagnes are also among the top wines in this report. Three cost upward of $1,000 a bottle. Leading the way is Moët & Chandon's Brut Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon Oenothèque Commande Spéciale 1975 (97, $1,500), a cellar release disgorged in 2007 that is at its peak now. A bouquet of toffee, coffee, truffle and toast is followed by citrus and ginger notes, with vibrant acidity driving a taut, mineral finish.
Joining the Moët & Chandon at 97 points is the Bruno Paillard Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1996 (97, $180), whose graphite, toast, spice, candied berry, coconut and mineral aromas and flavors are seductively matched to a profile of class and finesse.
From Krug, the Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Clos du Mesnil 1998 (96, $1,250) and Brut Champagne 1998 (96, $300) are also stunning, in terms of both the range of Champagnes available today and the 1998 vintage, where they represent the year's best.
Many Champagne producers are trying to hold onto their luxury image through their pricing policies, despite the pressures of the market. Where direct comparisons of the same cuvée can be made, almost as many Champagne prices have increased by $5 as have dropped by the same amount. Others are 10 percent to 15 percent more expensive, although in rare instances there are wide swings since last year: The Bollinger Rosé La Grande Année 2002, at $200, is $120 less than the release price of the 1999. On the other hand, the Charles Heidsieck Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Blanc des Millénaires 1995 has jumped 82 percent this year over last, from $110 to $200.
Champagne is a single appellation roughly an hour and a half northeast of Paris. Three grape varieties-Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier-dominate the vineyards in Champagne's three major districts of Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Marne Valley. Much of the region's production is a blend of these three grapes.
As a result of Champagne's northern location and marginal climate for grapegrowing, its wines are often a blend of two of more vintages as well. These non-vintage cuvées seek consistency of style from year to year and are generally the most affordable and widely available Champagnes.
In good years, a portion of the harvest is selected for vintage-designated bottlings. Whereas the non-vintage cuvées aim for a house style, vintage Champagnes reflect the character of a particular growing season.
The Côte des Blancs is Chardonnay country. Wines made from the villages in this area are often 100 percent Chardonnay, known as blanc de blancs. Occasionally, Champagne is made solely from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. These cuvées are designated as blanc de noirs.
Rosé Champagne is made using one of two methods. The first blends in still red wine to add color; the second involves a short period of skin contact, known as saignée, to extract color, a process that also tends to give more fruit flavor to the wines.
There are a few new Champagnes worth noting in the different styles. Pertois-Moriset Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (92, $45) is an excellent Chardonnay-based bubbly featuring graphite, toast, peach and honey flavors set against a backdrop of lively acidity and fine harmony. Stéphan Coquillette's Brut Champagne Les Clés NV (92, $60), a blanc de noirs from the 2006 harvest, offers floral, lemon verbena, vanilla and sweet spice notes in a beautifully balanced and vibrant profile. The wine is 100 percent Pinot Noir from Aÿ. Both labels are small growers whose cuvées were new to my tastings this year.
In the rosé style, the Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé Champagne Réserve NV (94, $75) ranks among the best for the depth and maturity of the blend, revealing toast, berry and cherry flavors and a silky texture.
More than a third of the Champagnes in this report are vintage-dated. Though there are vintages as recent as 2005 on the market, the excitement surrounds the superb 2002 vintage. René Geoffroy sourced fruit from the '02 vintage for its complex, refined Brut Champagne Volupté (95, $81), which offers enticing aromas of sweet baking spices and woodsy scents, plus honey and ginger
flavors. My highest-scoring rosé from '02 is the Bollinger Brut Rosé Champagne La Grande Année 2002 (93, $200), a powerful wine delivering vivid cherry, black currant and spice notes.
Shipments of Champagne to the States have seen rapid declines over the last year. Between January and May 2009, almost 50 percent less bubbly left cellars in Champagne, according to the U.S. Champagne Bureau. The result is an increase in stocks higher than the three-year level considered ideal by the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne.
To prevent inventory from further growth, the CIVC responded to requests from the major houses to limit the amount of Champagne vinified from the 2009 harvest to 8,000 kilograms per hectare (3.57 tons/acre) this year, with an additional 1,700 kg/ha to be made in November 2010. Growers who bottle their own wine will be allowed to make the total 9,700 kg/ha this fall. The remaining harvest, up to 14,000 kg/ha, will be fermented and set aside as reserve for future years.
"In the run-up to this decision, there was a bit of public jockeying between the houses and the growers, with the growers suggesting 10,000 [kilograms per hectare, or about 4.46 tons per acre] and the houses generally talking about 7,500 [kilograms]," says Sam Heitner, director of the U.S. Champagne Bureau. "This is a compromise designed to meet the needs of the two sides of the Champagne community that must coexist to succeed together."
Meanwhile, over the past year in the United States, restaurant sales of Champagne appear to be holding steady, wine directors say. However, John Ragan of Eleven Madison Park in New York noted that customers are looking for value.
"There's definitely been a little bit of a shift, but not just because of the economy," he says. "I think it has dovetailed with people feeling more comfortable with different things. I'm seeing people trying more small producers and other cuvées that are less expensive yet still deliver quality."
This trend also seems to be playing out in wineshops. Gary Westby, Champagne buyer for K&L Wine Merchants in the San Francisco suburb of Redwood City, a store with more than 150 Champagne selections, says that from September 2008 through August 2009, sales of traditional Champagne brands from the big houses were down 44 percent, while sales of K&L's directly imported artisanal producers were up 11 percent, compared with the same period a year earlier. "Our customers are demanding value for money, and they are finding it in Champagne from modestly priced, serious growers who make wine on a human rather than mass-produced scale," he says.
At Astor Wines & Spirits in New York, sales of Champagne have dropped 15 percent compared with last year, according to head buyer Lorena Ascencios, as customers have turned to alternative sparkling wines such as Prosecco, crémant and cava. She is hoping to see some discounts for the holiday season.
In that vein, remember that prices can vary widely. A popular non-vintage cuvée with a suggested retail of $65 was found on the Internet for anywhere from $32 to $60. That makes it all the more important to shop around this year.
Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne
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