Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Power of Blending

Champagne delivers high quality non-vintage wines this season, along with stellar vintage releases
Bruce Sanderson
Posted: December 27, 2004



When you think about which Champagnes to choose this holiday season and throughout the coming year, it's best to take a two-pronged approach.

First, you should consider those wines meant for everyday sipping and casual celebrations-the non-vintage cuvées. Then come the wines destined for special occasions and even contemplation-the vintage releases.

Each can provide delicious drinking possibilities. But you'll have to pay top dollar for the best vintage Champagnes on the market today and shop wisely among the non-vintage bottlings.

Overall, Champagne's winegrowers and houses, relying on their tradition of multivintage blending, have been successful in creating attractive non-vintage cuvées, despite some challenges due to poor harvest conditions. In contrast, the news regarding the vintage-dated bubblies is uniformly good. The superb back-to-back riches of 1995 and 1996, and even gems from earlier great years such as 1990, are still available.

Since my last Champagne report, I have tasted more than 240 Champagnes in Wine Spectator's New York office. About half were non-vintage blends, the other half vintage-dated wines. Just more than one-third of the NV bubblies are outstanding (90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale); about 70 percent of the vintage Champagnes rate 90 or more points, with 13 earning classic scores (95 to 100).

Non-vintage cuvées are the Champagne producer's bread and butter. The current selections reflect primarily the tough 2000 and 2001 growing seasons. The latter vintage in particular was weak, with a harvest plagued by rain and cold weather. Fortunately, the Champenois were able to tap wines from a string of very good vintages in the late 1990s to balance out their '00 and '01 base wines.

In general, the new non-vintage releases are light in style and very delicate in character. They show balance, but with less richness, and the acidity is more prominent. Descriptors such as "creamy-textured" rarely appear in my tasting notes this year. Although many outstanding wines were made, some others are noticeably dilute.

These non-vintage wines, with their slimmer profiles and mouthwatering acidities, make ideal aperitifs. They are perfect for parties and informal gatherings. On the other hand, few have the punch to continue to the dining table. Those that do should be matched with lighter entrées such as shellfish, cured ham, simple poached or baked fish and roasted chicken.

At the luxury end of the non-vintage cuvées, it's hard to beat Krug. Both the Brut Grande Cuvée (95, $157) and Brut Rosé (95, $282) consistently show the finesse, complexity and depth one expects from great Champagne. Rémi Krug attributes this consistency to long-term relationships with individual growers, which ensures high quality grapes, as well as to specific winemaking techniques. These techniques include fermentation in cask, which results in a slower evolution (Krug bottle-ages its wines five to six years before release).

More important, Krug works with an extensive spectrum of reserve wines, using vintages older than those typically found in non-vintage cuvées. "This exceptional variety and the importance of their share in the blend [35 percent to 50 percent] are both of paramount [importance in allowing] us to 'recreate' each year the harmony and consistency that we want and promise," Krug explains.

Other houses that have made consistent blends are Bollinger, Charles Ellner and Charles Heidsieck. Bollinger's full-bodied Brut Special Cuvée (93, $50), with its citrus and spice notes, is always among the best non-vintage bottlings. Chairman Ghislain de Montgolfier says that at least 20 percent of the Special Cuvée components are barrel-fermented, with that percentage climbing in weaker years, when the proportion of reserve wine in the blend is increased. Charles Ellner's Brut Carte d'Or (93, $38) delivers layers of candied citrus and berry, relying on a high percentage of Chardonnay for its vibrant character. The Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve (92, $40) has depth and mature flavors of coffee and vanilla pastry.

Among the small growers, Lilbert Fils, Jean Milan, Jacques Selosse, A. Soutiran and Varnier-Fannière have released exciting non-vintage Champagnes. I have been a fan of Lilbert Fils since first tasting the wines four years ago. Its Brut Blanc de Blancs (92, $40) is dry in style and distinctive for exotic flavors that range from candied berry and citrus to coconut and spice.

The Brut Blanc de Blancs Spécial from Jean Milan (90, $45) always evokes floral notes and lively acidity. Varnier-Fannière, a recent discovery, impresses with its precision and intensity. Its Brut Blanc de Blancs (91, $46) is fleshed out with the addition of wines from the rich 2002 vintage, all the while flashing its Chardonnay finesse.

Anselme Selosse has a no-holds-barred philosophy, creating bold, rich Champagnes that derive much of their character from low yields and fermentation in new oak barrels. The Jacques Selosse Brut Blanc de Blancs (94, $55), with its explosive aromas and flavors of coffee, vanilla and apricot, isn't typical, but it's a lot of fun to drink. A. Soutiran's Brut Rosé (92, $45), made with the saignée method of bleeding off a red wine in its early stages of fermentation, is usually my favorite from this grower.

Most prices have remained stable compared with last year's, but in some cases there have been hikes of up to 30 percent. Much of this increase corresponds to the decline of the U.S. dollar in relation to the euro. However, the competition for consumers' Champagne dollars leads to price discounting, particularly in the major markets.

There are still excellent values for those who like to keep a bottle or two of bubbly on hand. The Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve (91, $16/375ml), Nicolas Feuillatte Brut (89, $33), J. Lassalle Brut (90, $30) and Montaudon Brut (90, $30) represent a spectrum of styles at attractive prices. These wines are ready to enjoy on release, having been aged at least a year and a half, but more likely two, by the producer.

In the vintage Champagne category, 1996, 1995 and 1990 dominate the top wines. All are excellent vintages. Based on my recent tastings, I have revised the 1995 vintage rating upward to 94 points. I rate the 1996 vintage 95 points; the 1990 vintage is 97 points.

Vintage Champagnes must be 100 percent from the year on the label. By law, they cannot be sold until three years after the Jan. 1 following the harvest. However, many are typically aged on the lees from six to 10 years prior to disgorging. After another three to six months of aging, they are shipped. Because Champagne houses do not make a vintage-dated wine every year, any given vintage may be released over a period of two to three years, or more.

Of all the vintages covered in this report, 1996 represents the largest group of Champagnes. Marked by high natural ripeness and high acidity (there is generally an inverse relationship between sugar and acidity), these are delicious, ripe and firmly structured wines.

Duval-Leroy's Brut Femme 1996 (95, $90/500ml) draws on the finesse and power of grand cru Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, with a dash of Pinot Noir. The results are an intense mineral element and citrus notes. The Brut Cuvée Palmes d'Or 1996 from Nicolas Feuillatte (95, $120) combines precision and a silky texture with red berry flavors. Chef de caves Jean-Pierre Vincent selects grapes from nine different crus, mostly villages rated grand cru, for this cuvée.

Ployez-Jacquemart, a newcomer to my tastings this year, quickly established its presence with its Brut Blanc de Blancs 1996 (95, $60). Racy, with complex fruit, toast and mineral shadings, it is a terrific buy in vintage bubbly. In the rosé category, Bollinger's full-bodied Brut Rosé Grande Année 1996 (95, $166) unleashes a spice box of clove and ginger flavors that highlight berry notes.

Among the '95s tasted, Piper-Heidsieck Brut (96, $55) is at the head of the class. Its sensuous personality and toast, citrus and hazelnut notes remind me of white Burgundy with bubbles. Its sibling label, Charles Heidsieck, has just debuted its Brut Blanc de Blancs Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (95, $90) and it's a beauty. Harmonious and rich, it offers hazelnut and mineral flavors and the vibrant structure that Chardonnay provides.

Nicolas Feuillatte's powerful Brut Cuvée Spéciale 1995 (95, $65), revealing biscuit flavors and a chalky intensity, rounds out this report's classic-rated Champagnes from the '95 harvest.

The three Champagnes I tasted from 1990 all rate classic. Krug has finally released its Brut 1990 (98, $205). It offers powerful citrus, spice and wood notes. The Bollinger Extra Brut R.D. 1990 (97, $245) is a drier style, full of biscuit and grilled nut flavors. Moët & Chandon has re-released its Brut Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1990 (96, $200) under the Oenothèque label. Originally released in 1997, the wine has gained complexity from the extra aging.

Consumers will also find 1997, 1998 and 1999 vintage Champagnes in wine shops and restaurants. While these years are very good, quality varies by producer and region. In 1997, for example, growers contended with frost, rain, mildew and hail, all of which seriously reduced the size of the crop. Nonetheless, the average potential degree of alcohol (a measure of ripeness) was higher than usual, with the normal level of acidity. Just fewer than half the 1997s tasted rate outstanding.

Laurent-Perrier made a successful Brut Rosé Grand Siècle Alexandra 1997 (93, $100), reminiscent of red Burgundy with bubbles, while the Ployez-Jacquemart Brut Blanc de Blancs 1997 (92, $52) shows plenty of citrus confit and hazelnut flavors to balance its firm structure.

1998 fared slightly better, with more than half the wines rating outstanding. Many are well-proportioned. Among my favorites are the lively, citrus- and mineral-infused Taittinger Brut 1998 (92, $63) and Vilmart's oak-scented Brut Grand Cellier d'Or 1998 (92, $70).

In 1999, rains during the harvest caused some dilution; however, the grapes were healthy, reports the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). Overall acidity is a little lower. Deutz made a rich Brut Rosé 1999 (90, $63), evoking strawberry and raspberry notes.

The 2000 growing season also experienced problems with hail and mildew, yet the reports I received from producers cite good to very good quality. I have only tasted one wine from 2000, so it's too early to judge the quality. 2001 saw double the normal rainfall in September, cold temperatures (as low as 38° F) and the least amount of sunshine of the last 45 years.

Champagne is a complex region, blending different grapes from distinctly different areas and different years. The goal is to offer a consistent style and quality for the non-vintage cuvées each year, despite having slightly different raw materials to work with. Some houses still like to promote an air of mystery, a sleight of the alchemist's hand, if you will. With this year's offerings, the skill of the blender made the difference.

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne.


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