Sunday, February 23, 2014

Champagne's Vintage Power

It pays to be choosy when selecting the best sparkling wines for the holidays -- and beyond

By Bruce Sanderson , 2001

France's Champagne region may seem simple. After all, one single appellation covers the entire wine region. But although all that sparkling wine may be "Champagne," there are actually a wide range of styles and quality.

The current lineup of available vintage and non-vintage wines provides wine lovers with wonderful choices, from individual growers to familiar names of large houses. However, proceed with caution; the millennium buying-frenzy depleted many existing stocks, and some of the current vintages fail to excite. In this northern region, vintage and terroir do make a difference.

The most recent vintage available is 1995. Outstanding in quality, it marks Champagne's best since 1990. Although some houses and growers offered vintage-dated Champagnes from interim years, quality drops dramatically in 1994, 1993, 1992 and 1991.

Non-vintage cuvées currently on the market are primarily blends of the well-regarded 1996 -- a high-acid, ripe year -- 1997, 1998 and in some cases earlier years. They deliver wonderful fresh-fruit flavors and firm structure. So why, you might ask, buy vintage Champagne from a less-than-successful year when the current non-vintage blends provide better quality and less expensive alternatives?

For this year's report, I blind-tasted 240 Champagnes in our New York office. Of the top 15 wines (each of which scored 93 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale), 12 bear vintages. The leader is the incredibly exotic Krug Brut Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil 1986 (98, $370), a bottomless well of tropical fruit, citrus preserve and flowers that captivates from the first sniff through the endless finish. Ironically, 1986 was not a particularly successful vintage, yet the unique conditions in this single vineyard reveal the advantages of great terroir.

Clos du Mesnil vineyard sits in the exact center of the village, surrounded by its wall and houses. "In 1986, the Chardonnay was much riper than either the Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, and even riper in Clos du Mesnil because of the protection from the wall and the village," said Caroline Krug, the winery's U.S. marketing representative. Furthermore, Krug harvested late, picking on October 4 and 5, and benefited from an extra week of dry, sunny weather. Krug also scored in the classic range (95 to 100 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) with its Brut 1988 (95, $230) and Brut Rosé NV (95, $290), both of which are complex, full-bodied, harmonious examples of their respective styles.

One-third of the top wines hail from 1990, a vintage boasting power, ripe fruit and ageability. Pol Roger's Brut Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill (96, $155) highlighted the group of classic and outstanding Champagnes from '90, displaying power and intensity. In a more elegant yet equally fresh and youthful style is the Charles Heidsieck Brut Blanc de Blancs Blanc des Millénaires (95, $70). Comte Audoin de Dampierre also joined the classic category with its toasty, nutty Brut Family Réserve 1990 (95, $85), now at its peak. Fans of the vintage should also seek Bruno Paillard's debut Brut Nec Plus Ultra (95, $150) for a seamless combination of tea roses, Asian spices and fresh mushrooms.

The remaining top Champagnes are the 1995, 1988 and 1985 vintage and the non-vintage bottlings. The top '95s -- L. Aubry Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs (93, $44) and Jean Milan Brut Blanc de Blancs Terres de Noël Selection (93, $58) -- exhibit the class and structure of the vintage as well as a distinctive mineral element. Milan's Terres de Noël comes from a 45-year-old parcel of vines on a 15-acre estate in the grand cru village of Oger.

For Didier Gimonnet of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, 1995 "has an enormous advantage compared with 1990 or 1996. It is exceptional because the Chardonnay is very typical [for Champagne]." Gimmonet's Brut Blanc de Blancs Gastronome 1995 (92, $42) exudes Chardonnay in a tightly wound, concentrated fashion. "1995 was a classic vintage," says Nicolas Chiquet, of Gaston Chiquet, a moderate-sized récoltant-manipulant, whose Brut Special Club from that vintage rated outstanding (90, $60). "It shows lots of finesse and balance for the vintage wines and is the best year since 1990."

A handful of older Champagnes may still be found on retailers' shelves, from the 1989, '88 and '85 harvests. 1988 reaches it's peak with the Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil (96, $200), a high-wire act of lush fruit and laserlike structure. Look also for the aforementioned Krug Brut (95, $230) and Bollinger Extra Brut R.D. (94, $150), its style in sync with the austerity of the top-quality 1988 vintage. By contrast, 1985 epitomizes richness and full flavor, best demonstrated by Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil (95, $200).

Though not rated quite as highly as the vintage Champagnes, several lovely non-vintage cuvées are currently available and deserve attention. Most use 1996 or 1997 as the base of the blend, although some may contain wines as young as 1998, and a few still contain percentages of reserve wine from 1995 and earlier.

Topping the roster of non-vintage cuvées, the Jacques Selosse Brut Blanc de Blancs Origine NV (95, $54) offers a unique taste experience. Fermented in 225-liter barrels, it shows full body, complexity and an intensity and creaminess matched by very few non-vintage blends. Unfortunately, only tiny amounts make it to the United States.

This puts Selosse in good company, since the two other top-rated non-vintage cuvées hail from Krug. Its Brut Rosé (95, $290) delivers depth and class, with flavors ranging from tobacco to red berries. Its sibling, the Brut Grande Cuvée (94, $160), is powerful, firm and focused. Comparatively, the Selosse shows a bit more swagger, and at $54 per bottle, it's a steal.

Perhaps the best development for Champagne lovers in the United States has been the proliferation of small-grower Champagnes. I tasted 48 Champagnes from 17 different récoltant-manipulants and was impressed with the wines' performance. All were in the very good range (85 to 89 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale); 19 of them (40 percent) rated outstanding (90 to 94 points). Although they represent a tiny portion of the market, the high quality of these small-grower Champagnes merits attention.

In addition to the small-grower wines already listed, René Geoffroy earned outstanding ratings with its two offerings: the exotic, tropical fruit and butterscotch-flavored Brut Cuvée de Réserve NV (91, $39) and the orange-scented, focused Brut Cuvée Sélectionnée NV (90, $45). One may also buy Lilbert-Fils with confidence, based on its Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Cramant 1995 (91, $63) and Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV (90, $39).

If Champagne is the ultimate blend, there's a reason for it. Many houses and growers have released vintage-dated Champagnes that fall short, given their quality/price ratio. That's not to say that individual growers or houses did not make successful examples from vintages between 1990 and 1995; however, there are many non-vintage blends that deliver a much higher quality/price ratio than some vintage offerings do.

During the 1992 season, Champagne endured heavy rain, which caused botrytis in some vineyards. Bollinger decided to make its Grande Année 1992 (89, $90), albeit a small quantity, and employed 500 people to sort grapes. "'92 was not considered a grande année, but it was very good quality for Bollinger," said Hervé Augustin, Bollinger's new commercial director. Bollinger president Ghislain de Montgolfier added, "We are more proud of our '92, because we did our best. It was more of a challenge than 1990." The wine is true to the Bollinger style -- full, rich and toasty -- yet already showing some maturity. I also rated Bollinger's Brut Special Cuvée NV at 89 points ($45). A distinctive Champagne, it exudes more elegance, but may be had for half the price of the Grande Année.

Moët & Chandon also released its Brut Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1992 (89, $150) and 1993 (86, $150), both very good wines, yet not in the same league as the '88 and '90 Rosé Cuvée Dom Pérignon (each 90 points, $200). Moët's chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, acknowledged that 1992 "was not the perfect, ideal season, but that doesn't happen very often in Champagne." He feels that the '92 Dom has the potential to develop full and sweet through the middle palate.

Moët & Chandon also released two mature wines from its new Oenothèque (wine library) program: the complex, vinous Cuvée Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1973 (93, $400) and the broad and toasty 1985 (90, $300).

In 1994, rain again plagued the harvest, resulting in very few quality wines. Those that I have tasted offer lean profiles, with bracing, often tart acidity. Louis Roederer made a successful Brut Cristal (88, $179), with good density and ripe flavors. Yet there are plenty of outstanding non-vintage bruts for sale at much lower prices.

In general, prices have increased slightly. Many vintage prestige-cuvées cost an average of $15 to $20 more than either the previous vintage or the same vintage a year ago. Krug's Clos du Mesnil 1986 is $55 more than it was one year ago. Nonetheless, many fine-quality, non-vintage Champagnes may still be found in the $30 to $40 range.

After last year's millennium celebrations, many wine lovers don't want to hear about Champagne, let alone drink it. But if your thirst for it has returned, a wonderful array of choices awaits you; just pay close attention to prices and vintages.

Bruce Sanderson, senior editor and tasting director, conducted the blind tastings for this report and wrote the analysis. He has been with Wine Spectator for seven years, tasting wines professionally for 10.

Special Club Bottlings Offer High Quality

Among the many Champagnes in your local wine shop, you may come across some short, squat bottles embossed with the words "Special Club." The label is not soley a marketing gimmick; the Special Club logo represents Club Trésor de Champagne, an association of small growers determined to gain increased recognition for their sparkling wines.

Formed in 1971, Club de Viticulteurs Champenois (the original name of Club Trésor) initially comprised about 50 growers, or récoltant-manipulants. "The idea at the time was to have a special bottle to represent the small growers," explained Nicolas Chiquet of Gaston Chiquet. Presently, 34 growers sell their Champagnes under the logo of the club, which adopted its new name in 1999.

Most growers do not make a Special Club bottling every vintage. Some make other vintage-dated Champagnes in addition to their Special Club bottling. Since Wine Spectator began tasting the Club Trésor Champagnes four years ago, eight out of 18 have rated outstanding, with the remaining 10 in the very good range, making the Special Club logo a sign of consistency and high quality.

Club Trésor sets high standards for its members. In addition to compulsory French government tastings, Special Club wines undergo two other tastings, one before aging and one before shipping. The tasting panel consists of two club members and three independent enologists. For a wine to be accepted, four panelists must agree that it meets Club Trésor's standards.

Since 1999, club president Bernard Launois has established a set of viticultural guidelines for quality to ensure the same control in the vineyard as in the selection of wines. Each action in the vineyard must be recorded and justified. For example, if a grower wants to apply fertilizer, a soil analysis showing nutrient deficiency must be provided. According to Didier Gimonnet of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, "We're trying to be more rigorous in the vineyard by respecting terroir, respecting the environment and producing good grapes."

However, while the growers I interviewed agreed the vineyard guidelines are a step in the right direction, Pierre Larmandier of Larmandier-Bernier conceded that the guidelines have been difficult to regulate.

-- B.S.

Bruce Sanderson's Top-Scoring Vintage Champagnes


KRUG Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Clos du Mesnil 1986 / 98 / $370

Fascinating from the coconut, vanilla, pineapple and marmalade bouquet to the incredible richness and concentration. The peach, vanilla, honey and tangerine flavors ride a crest of bracing acidity, dry and forceful, to a lingering aftertaste of spring blossoms and hazelnut.

POL ROGER Brut Champagne Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1990 / 96 / $155

Power and intensity in a glass. Bold and full of bread dough and apple, with a marmalade note, married to a big, firm structure. Should develop beautifully.

SALON Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Le Mesnil 1988 / 96 / $200

Beautifully focused, intense and densely flavored with lime, honey and chanterelles in butter. So rich it's almost too much, but the vibrant acidity keeps everything in check.

COMTE AUDOIN DE DAMPIERRE Brut Champagne Family Réserve 1990 / 95 / $85

Wonderful harmony. Seamless and elegant, it evokes citrus and honey, ending on a walnut note. Fabulous length. At its peak.

CHARLES HEIDSIECK Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Blanc des Millénaires 1990 / 95 / $70

A cornucopia of quince preserve, freshly cut grass, fresh mushroom and baking bread. Seamless, rich and long.

KRUG Brut Champagne 1988 / 95 / $230

Well-defined flavors of honey, citrus and hazelnut. Beautifully put together and supported by a firm, harmonious structure.

BRUNO PAILLARD Brut Champagne Nec Plus Ultra 1990 / 95 / $150

Asian spices, roses, citrus blossom and fresh chanterelles segue into apple, bread and grilled nuts. Very fresh, harmonious and minerally, with a seamless texture and an aftertaste of ginger.

SALON Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Le Mesnil 1985 / 95 / $200

A wonderful, mature Champagne, offering toast, mushroom, honey and citrus aromas and flavors that evolve into a long walnut aftertaste. Its richness is offset by bracing acidity.

BOLLINGER Extra Brut Champagne R.D. 1988 / 94 / $150

Incredible bouquet of bread dough, quince and ginger, remaining firm and crisp on the palate. Tightly wound and elegant, in a racy, streamlined style.

DE ST.-GALL Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Cuvée Orpale 1990 / 94 / $105

Offers plenty of toast and honey, fine concentration and full body. Fresh and long on the palate. Beautiful delineation and harmony.

Bruce Sanderson's Top-Scoring Non-Vintage Champagnes


KRUG Brut Rosé Champagne NV / 95 / $290

Unique style, exhibiting tobacco, apple, berries and wood notes, all on a vinous, deep, full-bodied frame. Very complex and complete, with a smooth texture and long finish.

JACQUES SELOSSE Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Origine NV / 95 / $54

A connoisseur's Champagne. Bold and full-bodied, exhibiting plenty of baked apple, autumn leaves and walnut aromas and flavors. Very intense, creamy and firmly structured, with an endless finish.

KRUG Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée NV / 94 / $160

A powerhouse, showing toast, nut, coffee and oxidative aromas that pick up freshness on the palate, where citrus and dough flavors intervene.

BESSERAT DE BELLEFON Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Cuvée des Moines NV / 93 / $90

Floral, apple, pear and flinty notes team up with a crisp, firm structure in this ethereal blanc de blancs. Finish verges on gingerbread and vanilla.

JACQUART Brut Rosé Champagne Mosaïque NV / 92 / $36

Toasty and plush, showing maturity with its woodsy, mushroom notes and its fresh, contrapuntal citrus character. Builds in intensity to a long, red berry aftertaste.

COMTE DE LANTAGE Brut Champagne Cuvée de Réserve NV / 92 / $30

Bold and nutty. Evokes baking bread, lemon zest, hazelnut and honey in a combination of youth and maturity. The finish is endless.

PHILIPPONNAT Brut Champagne Royale Réserve NV / 92 / $30

Very vinous, this Champagne packs hazelnut, apple, lemon and mineral into a full-bodied, intense package.

JACQUES SELOSSE Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV / 92 / $43

Rich, toasty, nutty style. Honey and butterscotch notes, all on a creamy texture. Long, walnut finish.

Bruce Sanderson's Best Values in Champagne


PHILIPPONNAT Brut Champagne Royale Réserve NV / 92 / $30

Very vinous, packing hazelnut, apple, lemon and mineral into an intense package. Fine, lingering aftertaste of walnut.

BEAUMONT DES CRAYERES Brut Champagne Grande Prestige NV / 91 / $30

Delicious. Pear, baked bread and even chocolate caress the palate. Finishes with walnut and honey notes.

CHARLES ELLNER Brut Champagne Carte d'Or NV / 90 / $30

Concentrated brioche, honey and walnut on a medium-bodied frame. Great finish, with a lingering walnut aftertaste.

JEAN LAURENT Brut Blanc de Noirs Champagne NV / 90 / $30

Unique and bursting with fresh summer fruits, flowers and mineral aromas and flavors. Balanced, rich and dynamic.

NICOLAS FEUILLATTE Brut Champagne NV / 89 / $25

Intriguing for its nutty, lanolin and cereal flavors, along with pear and honey. Richly textured and moderately firm.

BESSERAT DE BELLEFON Brut Champagne Grande Tradition NV / 88 / $25

Plenty of Pinot Noir character, from the cherry and cinnamon to the full body and rich texture. Vibrant acidity.

BRICOUT Brut Champagne Cuvée Réserve NV / 87 / $30

Crisp and lively, with lemon curd, apple and honey on a firm, sinewy structure. Honey lingers on the finish.

GAUTHIER Brut Champagne Grande Reserve NV / 87 / $24

Rich honey and berry flavors accented by biscuit, riding a firm edge of acidity to a lingering finish.

CHARLES LAFITTE Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée NV / 87 / $27

Very bracing, exuding citrus and dough aromas and flavors that end with an accent of honey.

Rating Selected Champagne Vintages


1995 / 90-95* / Potentially outstanding* / Drink or hold

1994 / 82 / Lean, angular wines, not a vintage year for most / Drink

1993 / 87 / Bright and lively, especially blanc de blancs / Drink or hold

1992 / 84 / Soft and mature in style / Drink

1991 / 79 / Fair quality; few vintage bottlings / Drink

1990 / 95 / Fine balance and full flavor / Drink or hold

1989 / 90 / Extremely ripe and generous / Drink or hold

1988 / 93 / 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

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

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

1975 / 92 / Bold but balanced Champagnes / Drink

*A score range indicates that many of that year's vintage bottlings have not yet been released.



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