Sunday, February 23, 2014

For Champagne, the Time is Now

With unprecedented variety and the dazzling 1990 vintage available, why wait for the millennium?

By Jim Gordon, 1998

The timing couldn't be better. Just as wine lovers eagerly plan their millennial celebrations for next year and ask the all-important question of what to drink, the region of Champagne is providing the answer. Not only is more Champagne available in the United States than ever before, but the quality of that Champagne is the best in memory. Whatever shortages may come in late 1999, the operative word right now is "abundance."

Wine Spectator gathered 226 Champagnes for this annual tasting report, about 15 percent more than were available last year, and a good indication that consumers across the country will find more diversity in their local wine shops as well. An impressive 37 percent of these wines scored 90 points or higher in the blind tastings that I conducted in New York.

The points themselves don't matter, however, when you pour a flute full of Champagne to enjoy; it's the fine texture of the bubbles, the depth and complexity of flavor and the lingering finish that count. The stars of this tasting had all those attributes and sometimes more. The best Champagnes transcend mere refreshment and celebration--they are distinguished wines that enhance the pleasures of the table and can improve with age.

To look at some of the highlights, four different offerings from Charles Heidsieck were rated outstanding (90-94 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) or classic (95-100 points), including the Brut Champagne 1990, which turned out to be the highest-rated Champagne overall. This dazzling brut from the powerful 1990 vintage (97, $48) marries the forceful fruit flavors and firm texture of the vintage with the Charles Heidsieck house style of fine-beaded effervescence and enticing flavor complexity. It will be fine for the millennium, but given its vibrancy and lingering finish you could just as well save it to ring in 2010.

Bollinger, another Champagne house at the top of its game, earned five out of five outstanding ratings. Everything was exceptional, from its affordably priced non-vintage Special Cuvée (91, $30) to its newly released Grande Année 1990 (94, $70). Pol Roger and Veuve Clicquot had three outstanding releases each, and a profusion of little-known growers, négociant houses and cooperative cellars--including François Billion, Drappier, Fleury Père & Fils and de St.-Gall--also released Champagnes of outstanding quality.

It's a great time to buy, no matter what your interest in Champagne. People stocking up on the basic non-vintage brut will find it hard to buy something mediocre even if they just close their eyes and grab a bottle at random. Of 69 non-vintage bruts tasted, only eight scored less than 85 points. Last year, the percentage of low-scoring bruts was significantly higher. And on the high side, 16 of this year's bruts were outstanding.

Non-vintage brut may be the least expensive type of dry Champagne, but at an average suggested retail price of about $30, it's far from cheap. So if you want to maximize your pleasure--and you should when the price is twice as much as that of a good California sparkling wine--look for one of the bruts with a distinctive personality, like Gosset's full-bodied, mellow-flavored Grande Réserve (93, $45), from one of the oldest houses in Champagne, or the assertive, expansive Montaudon Brut (92, $30), one of the many brands newly available in the United States.

Vintage Champagne, in contrast, accounts for a minority of Champagne sales, but it's really where the action is for connoisseurs. The celebrated and expensive prestige cuvées, such as Moët Dom Pérignon, Roederer Cristal and Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne, are vintage-dated. These and other top-notch vintage Champagnes can be enjoyed as serious dinner wines rather than being sipped, standing up at a party, as non-vintage bubbly is often consumed.

The most widely available vintage right now is 1990, and it's an across-the-board success. It's certainly the best year since 1985, and it probably won't be surpassed until the 1996 vintage is released. Great weather in 1990 resulted in nicely ripe Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes that still retained the firm acidity needed to make well-balanced Champagne base wines.

Alain Terrier, cellar master for many years at Laurent-Perrier, called it a "very powerful year, an easy year to make." Jacques Peters of Veuve Clicquot said, "I've never seen such balance." And Michel Pansu of Louis Roederer gives it five out of five points on his vintage chart. The base wines were poured into individual bottles and laid down in the region's chalk caves in early 1991 for the second fermentation and subsequent aging on the lees.

When the first few 1990s came to the market nearly two years ago, they were good but underwhelming. They tended to be tart, tight in structure and fruity, but not very pleasurable to drink. They were "closed." But the situation has improved dramatically as they have matured and more of them have been released. I reviewed 38 1990s for this report, of which 67 percent earned 90 points or better.

Several of these I had reviewed in 1997 or early this year, calling them very good but not exciting. Unlike most wine types, a vintage Champagne often remains a current release for two or more years, so Wine Spectator revisits them each year until new vintages appear. I have to eat my words now on a few of the 1990s because they are finally showing their breeding. Roederer Cristal 1990 ($150) goes from 87 points last December to 94 now. Charles Heidsieck 1990 ($48) goes from 88 to 97 (I blind-tasted it twice for this report, on separate days, and gave it consistent notes and scores). Moët Dom Pérignon 1990 ($110) went up a point to 90. These retastings show that even with five or six years in the cellar a Champagne can still evolve dramatically after it's disgorged and shipped to market.

They may also show how difficult Champagne is to assess. Variation from bottle to bottle seems more evident than in other wine types. One reason is that each bottle is its own fermenting tank, so to speak, since the secondary fermentation that creates the bubbles takes place in the bottle that the consumer eventually takes home.

The high quality of the 1990 vintage in most parts of Europe is well-known among wine lovers. Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont, Germany--you name it and the region probably had a great year. Few of those wines are still available to buy. Most have been drunk by now, or they're resting in someone's cellar. So if you love Champagne, don't miss this opportunity to own and enjoy memorable wines from a pedigreed year.

But high-quality vintage Champagnes are not limited to 1990. Many 1988s and 1989s, and a smattering of 1985s, are still on sale. These three years are all outstanding or classic, but look especially for late-release 1988s, which have aged two years more than the 1990s and often have an extra measure of finesse.

The growing number of blanc de blancs Champagnes (made solely from Char-donnay) is another reason for excitement this year. Some have been launched purely for marketing reasons, but others are stretching the taste boundaries of Champagne into a vivid new area.

Outstanding non-vintage blancs de blancs were released by three little-known Champagne firms: Jean Milan, Guy Charlemagne and de St.-Gall. Even better vintage-dated versions are also out there. Several 1988s and a few 1990s and 1989s were truly wonderful. A well-made blanc de blancs seems to fill the mouth more readily than Champagnes made from blends that include Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, both red wine grapes. It seems to have more open flavors and a more velvety texture. A blanc de blancs can have bright, tangy citrus flavors and seems to develop more intriguing vanilla, mineral and toasted bread nuances. The most flavorful examples taste like mature Chablis or even Meursault with ethereal bubbles.

My favorite blanc de blancs was from J. Lassalle, a small, independent grower that owns its own vineyards, unlike most of the well-known Champagne firms, and makes about 10,000 cases annually. The firm was founded by Jules Lassalle in 1942; today, his daughter runs it. J. Lassalle Champagne has been available in limited quantities in the United States for at least four years and has chalked up an excellent track record. This was a beautifully crafted 1988 (96, $42) that seemed at the peak of perfection.

Another small grower, François Billion, released two brilliant vintage blancs de blancs carrying the village appellation of Mesnil, one of the best spots to grow Chardonnay in the area south of Épernay that's known as the Côte des Blancs. Billion's 1988 earned 95 points while the 1989 scored 94. This is the first time that Wine Spectator has reviewed Billion, but let's hope it's not the last. These two assertive Champagnes provide abundantly complex flavors, generous but tangy textures and long finishes. What's more, they make an eloquent case that Champagne ought to be ranked with Burgundy or Alsace as an area where the wine's job is to let the drinker connect with the vineyard site.

Billion is a fourth-generation family operation that makes a total of less than 2,000 cases a year, so unfortunately the wine will be extremely hard to find. It has a family resemblance to other great blancs de blancs from this village, including Salon, which also released a brilliant 1988, and Krug's Clos du Mesnil. Delamotte made the other classic blanc de blancs in this report. Its gorgeous, mouthfilling 1988 (95, $50) combines power and elegance.

At the other end of the color spectrum, rosé Champagnes seemed to keep pace with their siblings in terms of quality. A rather broad base of very good non-vintage rosés is available from mainstream houses such as Lanson, Bruno Paillard and Piper-Heidsieck (all scoring 89) while Billion, Drappier and Jean Laurent made even better examples.

Styles vary widely in rosé, as the vintage-dated samples I tasted demonstrate. The top scorer for the third year in a row was Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé 1985. Light in color, mature and elegant in character, it has gotten better each year (now scoring 96), and is still available at $55. The Bollinger Brut Rosé 1988 (92, $60) is also a repeat star, alive with toasty aromas and vital fruit flavors that indicate it will continue to age well for several years.

From non-vintage and vintage to blanc de blancs and rosé, delicious Champagnes abound. The shelves of liquor stores, wine shops and (in enlightened states) supermarkets should be packed with them during this holiday season.

Yes, the entry price is high, but remember that it's not unusual for a non-vintage brut with a suggested retail price of $30 to be found at $19. Of course, the prestige cuvées, the bottles that can be spotted from four tables away in a restaurant, are expensive by any standard.

But a good buying strategy is to look for some of the spectacular vintage Cham-pagnes that retail in the $40 to $50 range, particularly from the 1990 vintage. These prices remain reasonable for wines that are so good--just compare them to white Burgundy. With a case or two in your cellar, you can drink a couple of bottles over the course of 1999, save half a dozen for a New Year's Eve dinner and still have more left to savor as they mature further over the next several years.

With all the great Champagne available this holiday season, there's no excuse not to take advantage of the situation. No one really knows how much the demand for Champagne will increase as the millennium nears, or which houses will have shortages. But I think it's safe to assume that Champagne will be no cheaper or easier to find as the calendar turns toward Dec. 31, 1999.

It's More Than The Bubbles

Bubbles are not the only thing that sets the wines of Champagne apart from those of other regions. Over the centuries, this northerly wine region has adopted its own set of rules that defy the cold winters and short growing seasons. Growers in Champagne 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 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 growers further try to outsmart nature by using not just one but three grape varieties--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 varieties before the secondary fermentation. Blancs de blancs are made from Chardonnay only.

Winemakers get further flexibility from their often widely scattered vineyards, and from the practice of blending the crops from two or more years together to make traditional non-vintage Champagne.

Champagne is known as the drink of celebration. It is quite enjoyable as an aperitif and goes very well with appetizers. But it is also fine to drink at the table. Its crisp acidity makes a good match with many first courses that feature fish or shellfish, and it's good with lighter meat and poultry, too.

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

Rating Selected Champagne Vintages

1993 / 85-89* / Potentially very good* / Drink or hold
1992 / 80-84* / Good, but few vintage bottlings* / Drink
1991 / 75-79* / 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
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

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

Vintage Ratings: 95-100, classic: 90-94, outstanding; 80-89, good to very 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.

Jim Gordon's Top-Scoring Vintage & Non-Vintage Rosé Champagnes


CHARLES HEIDSIECK Brut Rosé Champagne 1985 / 96 / $55
Mature but far from old, light amber, with an elegant yet crisp texture. Subtle aromas and flavors linger on the long finish.

FRANÇOIS BILLION Brut Rosé Champagne NV / 92 / $35
Expansive and sophisticated, with full-bodied flavors, a rich texture and a long, lingering finish.

BOLLINGER Brut Rosé Champagne 1988 / 92 / $60
Compelling, beautifully made and mature in style but alive with crisp fruit

flavors that linger on the long finish. Balanced for the long haul.

DEUTZ Brut Rosé Champagne 1990 / 90 / $40
Elegant, with vivid but subtle fruit flavors, bracing acidity and a firm texture. Crisp and delightful now; should improve with age.

DRAPPIER Brut Rosé Champagne Val des Demoiselles NV / 90 / $40
Full-bodied and substantial in tone, with a deep copper color, ripe cherry and honey flavors.

JEAN LAURENT Brut Rosé Champagne NV / 90 / $29
Elegant, with the classic cherry, spice and earth flavors of Pinot Noir and the lively, exuberant texture of Champagne.

MOET & CHANDON Brut Rosé Champagne Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1988 / 90 / $200
Mature but restrained, with a broad texture, ample fruit flavors, good balance and a firm finish. Improves with time in the glass.

PERRIER-JOUET Brut Rosé Champagne Fleur de Champagne Belle Epoque 1989 / 90 / $130
Dry, with a forceful personality, plenty of flavor and ample complexity. The aromas and flavors linger on the finish.

POL ROGER Brut Rosé Champagne 1990 / 90 / $58
Mouthfilling and generously proportioned, with abundant but smooth bubbles, deep fruit flavors and an appealingly dry balance.

VEUVE CLICQUOT Brut Rosé Champagne Réserve 1989 / 90 / $65
Full-bodied but not boisterous, combining subtle fruit nuances with a firm, broad texture. Quite dry, with a lingering finish.

Jim Gordon's Top-Scoring Vintage Brut Champagnes


CHARLES HEIDSIECK Brut Champagne 1990 / 97 / $48
Sophisticated and distinctive, with a velvety texture, fine-beaded effervescence and long, lingering finish.

J. LASSALLE Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1988 / 96 / $42
Assertive, with a fine combination of harmony, elegance and power. Serve with dinner, not before.

FRANÇOIS BILLION Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Mesnil 1988 / 95 / $43
Elegant, superbly balanced and slightly restrained, but still offering plenty of flavors that linger on the finish.

DELAMOTTE Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1990 / 95 / $50
Mouthfilling and flavorful but not overpowering, with great complexity but elegant restraint.

PIPER-HEIDSIECK Brut Champagne Rare 1988 / 95 / $66
Impressive, flavorful and complex, with rich flavors that expand on the palate and linger on the finish.

FRANÇOIS BILLION Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Mesnil 1989 / 94 / $40
Deep gold in color and beautifully mature, with complexity, an opulent texture and a mellow, lingering finish.

BOLLINGER Brut Champagne Grande Année 1990 / 94 / $70
Expansive and bold, with a luxurious, elegant texture and a subtle, soft finish that seems to last for minutes.

JACQUART Brut Champagne La Cuvée Nominée 1988 / 94 / $80
Sophisticated, with a dry, restrained character and nicely mature flavors that linger through the long finish.

KRUG Brut Champagne 1989 / 94 / $150
Big, bold and generous, with ripe, mature flavors, an expansive texture, great balance and a lingering finish.

PERRIER-JOUET Brut Champagne Fleur de Champagne Belle Epoque 1990 / 94 / $110
Grand and traditional in the best sense. Full-bodied, beautifully balanced and luxuriously smooth in texture.

POL ROGER Brut Champagne Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1988 / 94 / $135
Memorable, with dazzling balance, unique flavors, vivid, appetizing acidity, a lively texture and a long finish.

LOUIS ROEDERER Brut Champagne Cristal 1990 / 94 / $150
Vivid, expressive and packed with layers of flavor that linger on the finish. Bright acidity makes it extra-refreshing.

SALON Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Le Mesnil 1988 / 94 / $150
An indulgence in luxury, with generous flavors, a rich and seductive texture, and ripe flavors that linger on the finish.

DE VENOGE Brut Champagne Millésimé 1990 / 94 / $35
Immensely attractive for its generous, intricate flavors and rich, satisfying texture.

Jim Gordon's Top-Scoring Non-Vintage Brut Champagnes


GOSSET Brut Champagne Grande Réserve NV / 93 / $45
Full-bodied, mature-flavored and subtly complex, with rare depth and character for a non-vintage bubbly.

COMTE DE LANTAGE Brut Champagne Cuvée de Réserve NV / 92 / $30
Rich in texture, flavorful and mature in style, with depth, firm acidity and a long finish.

JEAN MILAN Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Carte Blanche NV / 92 / $26
Inviting, with a broad but light texture and bright fruit flavors that build on the palate and linger on the finish.

MONTAUDON Brut Champagne NV / 92 / $30
Distinctive and mature-styled, with a deep gold color, a supersmooth texture, firm acidity and a very long finish.

HENRI ABELÉ Brut Champagne NV / 91 / $25
Lush, full and inviting, with ample flavors, a velvety effervescence and a lingering, creamy finish.

BOLLINGER Brut Champagne Special Cuvée NV / 91 / $30
Satisfying, rich and flavorful, smooth in texture, vibrant in balance and long on the finish.

GUY CHARLEMAGNE Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Réserve NV / 91 / $33
Luxurious and comforting, with a rich texture and layered aromas and flavors that linger on the lively finish.

COMTE AUDOIN DE DAMPIERRE Brut Champagne Cuvée des Ambassadeurs NV / 91 / $29
Beautifully crafted, elegant and reserved in style, with intricate, layered flavors that linger on the finish.

CHARLES ELLNER Brut Champagne Réserve NV / 91 / $28
Delicious and delicate, with a velvet texture and bright flavors that really linger on the finish.

FLEURY PERE & FILS Brut Champagne NV / 91 / $30
Vivacious and assertive, with vivid citrus flavors and bright acidity, excellent balance and a long finish.

CHARLES HEIDSIECK Brut Champagne Réserve NV / 91 / $34
Luxurious and inviting, with compelling and complex fruit flavors, a creamy texture and a lingering finish.

New Faces in Champagne

Meet the people behind four of the best Champagnes new to the United States

By Thom Elkjer

Modern Traditionalist
Founded 1891
Owner Montaudon family
Vineyards owned 86 acres
Annual production 125,000 cases
Wine rated in this issue 92 Brut Champagne NV $30

When Luc Montaudon succeeded his uncle as managing director of Champagne Montaudon in 1981, one of his first acts was to organize a bonfire in the courtyard of the winery building in Reims. He was not warming his workers or celebrating a harvest, however. He was burning the small wooden barrels that had long been used for the first fermentation of new cuvées so that he could replace them with stainless steel tanks. "The most important tradition of Champagne is the goal, not the means of achieving it," Montaudon says. "New technology can help us get closer to the goal, which is to make the best possible Champagne."

Montaudon had already spent a year in the cellars of his family's firm, which was founded in 1891, and had learned the techniques handed down by previous generations. So when he switched to stainless steel, Montaudon installed a host of small tanks rather than a few giant vats. Juice from each harvested vineyard, called a cru, undergoes the first fermentation in its own tank, so it retains its unique character until the moment of assemblage (blending the crus together into wine). "We still want to blend our Champagne cru by cru" after tasting them, Montaudon says. "In this case, the nose remains the best technology we have."

Montaudon's father, Philippe, manages the family vineyards, including one of Cham-pagne's largest undivided vineyards, 20 hectares (nearly 50 acres) in the Côtes des Bars.

He also participates in the assemblage and watches over Montaudon's purchase of the additional grapes needed to achieve the company's annual production of 1.5 million bottles. Many of these grapes come from families that have worked with the Montaudons for decades. Luc Montaudon acknowledges that this helps him achieve both consistency and quality in his flagship non-vintage brut. But unlike many others in the Champagne business, he does not claim to produce exactly the same blend year after year. "Champagne is not beer or whiskey," he says with typical candor. "You can aim for exact expression of your house style each year, but you will not always achieve it."

What Montaudon has achieved is a distinctive, toasty, assertive wine that scores high on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Last year, the Montaudon non-vintage brut was rated at 91 and ranked among the 100 most exciting wines of the year. The latest release scored even higher--92--and shares second place among the 69 non-vintage Champagnes blind-tasted for this report. "We make fresh wines," Montaudon says simply, "with a clean attack, ripe citrus flavors and a long finish." He attributes these qualities to careful balance: as many as two dozen crus are blended in a proportion of 50 percent Pinot Noir, 25 percent Chardonnay and 25 percent Pinot Meunier. Reserve wines in the blend are taken mostly from the previous year, to maintain freshness. Energetic and engaging, Montaudon embodies both modern corporate sophistication and Old World humanism. "We plan to continue growing, but slowly," he says. "My family has kept the company independent for more than 100 years, and we want to maintain control of our destiny."

To the Winery Born
Founded 1808
Owner Drappier family
Vineyards owned 100 acres
Annual production 75,000 cases
Wines rated in this issue
91 Brut Champagne Grande Sendrée 1990 $80
90 Brut Champagne Carte Blanche NV $27
90 Brut Rosé Champagne
Val des Demoiselles NV $40
88 Brut Champagne Carte d'Or NV $32
87 Brut Blanc de Blancs
Champagne Cuvée Signature NV $40
86 Brut Champagne Carte d'Or 1991 $46

The Drappier family has long had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. In the 17th century, when the Champagne region was renowned for textiles, not wine, Rémy Drappier was a merchant draper in Reims. When sparkling wine began achieving worldwide renown in the 19th century, the Drappiers had already acquired vineyards in southern Champagne's Aube region and cellars created by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century. Today, when every large Champagne house is looking for land in southern Champagne, the Drappiers have 100 acres of the best vineyards around.

They also have a firm philosophy of winemaking, evolved over eight generations. "The first lesson I learned as a boy," recalls Michel Drappier, 41, the company's managing director and winemaker, "was that this family does not like sulfur." While best-selling Champagnes use up to 90 milligrams of sulfur per liter, primarily to prevent oxidation but also to brighten the "nose" of their wines, Drappier avoids oxidation using fewer than 30 milligrams per liter. The company also extracts a remarkably low yield from its vineyards and, like most modern Champagne houses, conducts cold fermentation to keep secondary aromas out of the wine.

The result is a directness and clarity of flavor that matches the family personality. According to Michel's father, André, now the family's winegrower, "we take an approach of the soil, to let the terroir speak." This creates richness in the blend, he says, because the land around Urville, where Drappier is based, is unusually varied in terroir. While the rest of the Aube is 90 percent planted to Pinot Noir, the Drappiers have substantial plots of both Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, with the latter two varieties sometimes sharing the same hillside.

The 1990 Grande Sendrée Brut, for example, is 55 percent Chardonnay, made largely from grapes grown on vines planted on upland, southeast-facing slopes. When the Chardonnay is mixed with Pinot Noir grapes from cooler plots, the former's warm tones give the Grande Sendrée a balance of bright fruit and smooth texture. "Body and character are more important to us than finesse," Michel says. "If something interesting is happening in the tank, we don't try to stop it. We look for originality by putting grapes of different character together."

Champagne Drappier employs a host of traditional methods, ranging from avoidance of pesticides in the vineyards to hand-riddling of 90 percent of their wine. Drappier rosés get their color from skin contact, rather than from the more common addition of red wine. Michel also notes that his current, non-vintage rosé came from a single year (1995), but because it was released shortly before attaining 3 years on the lees, the wine may not be labeled with a vintage date.

Though he has a formal enological education, Michel says he learned his most important lessons from his father. He is already imparting those lessons to his own children. His son Antoine's first word in English was "cork," and during the 1998 harvest 7-year-old Hugo was already steering a truck through the vineyards--firmly seated on his father's lap.

Natural Force
Founded 1895
Owner Fleury family
Vineyards owned 32 acres
Annual production 15,800 cases
Wines rated in this issue
91 Brut Champagne 1990 $38
91 Brut Champagne NV $30
84 Brut Champagne Fleur de l'Europe NV $36

In 1970, Jean-Pierre Fleury had a vision. He looked back on his family's 75 years as winegrowers and winemakers in the Côtes des Bars region of southern Champagne, then looked forward and imagined the generations that would come after him. "My father and grandfather were pioneers in their time," he says, "and I asked myself what contribution I would make to my family and to the business."

The answer that came to this fourth-generation cultivator of the soil was to respect the earth even more deeply. That year, Fleury stopped using chemical fertilizers and weed killers and began researching alternative methods of winegrowing. By 1992 he was able to convert the family's 32 acres to biodynamic cultivation, and he has since led a number of grape farmers to follow his example. "Together we make about 1200 cubic meters of organic compost each year," Fleury says. "We also plow the ground to open it up and use other techniques to control insect predators naturally."

Overall, he estimates that it takes about 30 percent more work to cultivate his vineyards biodynamically. This might seem a heavy burden for a small, family-run operation, especially with some Champenois dismissing biodynamic cultivation as "symbolic." When this is brought to Fleury's attention, a good-natured smile spreads across his weathered face. "You can see the difference with your eyes," he says, "and you can taste it in the cuvées. The vines devote more energy to the grapes and the grapes give more character and complexity to the wine."

It may be that Fleury's vineyards, in the southernmost regions of Cham-pagne, are ideally suited to natural methods of cultivation. All three of the Fleury wines rated in this issue are made exclusively with Pinot Noir grapes and packed so full of that varietal's sunny fruit flavors that they bring to mind a ripening orchard in high summer. In fact, the 1990 vintage brut comes from selected parcels of old vines grown in full sun, while the non-vintage brut arises from deeply rooted vines in four different villages around Fleury's headquarters in the town of Courteron.

As a récoltant-manipulant, a farmer who makes his own wine and may buy only 5 percent of his grapes from other growers, Fleury is intimately involved with all aspects of his operation. During the crush he is everywhere: in the fields, on the phone and sampling cuvées from the press. When he takes a break to meet visitors, the conversation is full of jokes in French, English and German (40 percent of his wine is exported, much of it to German-speaking countries).

Fleury began exporting to the United States in 1997, nearly a century after his grandfather led local vignerons in grafting American rootstock onto his vines to combat phylloxera. "There are many cycles in nature," Fleury points out, "and some of them take a long time to complete." There is little doubt about the cycle of the generations, however. Fleury has six children, at least one of whom can be counted on to continue the family's pioneering approach to Champagne.

Polish and Finesse
Founded 1898
Owner Frey Group
Vineyards owned 250 acres
Annual production 135,000 cases
Wines rated in this issue
93 Brut Champagne 1990 $36
90 Brut Champagne Président Tête de Cuvée NV $40
88 Brut Champagne Tête de Cuvée NV $29

A century ago, a winegrower on the Montagne de Reims took a step that has since been taken by thousands of other farmers in Champagne. Instead of selling his grapes to the big wineries in Reims and Épernay, Henri-Antoine Germain began making his own wine. His original holdings are among the extraordinary collection of grand cru and premier cru vineyards owned today by the Frey Group, which purchased Champagne Henri Germain from Henri-Antoine's son in 1985.

"It's rare for one house to hold so many quality vineyards," says Hervé Ladouce, Germain's thoughtful, precise chef de cave. He explains that the average rating of the company's vineyards is 96 percent--on the high side of the premier cru range--and one Germain offering, a vintage blanc de blancs, is made entirely from grapes grown in grand cru vineyards (rated at 100 percent). It doesn't take a sophisticated palate to detect the elegant textures and refined aromas of Germain wines, but it does take disciplined winemaking to produce them.

"We proceed according to quality, not demand," Ladouce says. In practical terms, this means that Germain sells off any grapes that it deems not of the highest quality and uses only the first pressing from the grapes it grows or buys. Cellar workers still disgorge the company's top wines by hand, and Germain disgorges all of its products just before shipping them. This means longer-than-average lead times for retailers, but some assurance of freshness for consumers.

Ladouce recalls that when he worked at one of the grande marque Champagne companies, he was a cog in a machine. "I never saw the grapes, or the bottles--just the fermentation tanks." At smaller houses, he had more control but a narrower choice of grapes. At Germain, he has the best of both worlds: complete involvement in the winemaking and a rich source of grapes to draw from. "Finesse is not something you can add at the end," he says. "It comes from everything you do."

He describes Germain Champagne as vin de tout moment, wine that can be drunk before, during and after a meal. He may blend up to 20 or 25 crus to create his bruts and may use reserve wines from up to three previous vintages. He also works with Jean-Jacques Frey, head of the Frey Group, to add new land to the Germain vignoble.

A visit to Champagne Henri Germain, located in the small village of Rilly La Montagne, is worthwhile. Gothic cellars connect the winery to the stately Germain château across the street, and tours are regularly conducted by members of the Germain staff. "We're not set up for large groups," says Nicole Colné, the company's export director. "We believe our visitors should receive more personal attention." She takes a similar approach to building the company's sales outside France, which currently represent only 20 percent of production. "We want people to know the whole story of Champagne Germain," she says. "We are building for the future, but with an understanding of the past."

Thom Elkjer is a travel writer and novelist based in California.


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