Sunday, February 23, 2014

Trying Times in Champagne

The difficult 2001 harvest poses problems, while vintage bubbly shines
Bruce Sanderson
Issue: December 31, 2005

There are plenty of fine Champagnes available for this year's parties. You may, however, have to look harder and pay more for them than usual.

Because of its northern climate, Champagne relies on blending wines from different vintages. This technique allows producers to maintain a degree of consistency when a poor harvest constitutes the base of their non-vintage wines. Champagne suffered through such a vintage in 2001. As a result, the current crop of non-vintage blends is lighter than usual, with many wines lacking intensity. Vintage cuvées may also be in shorter supply in a few years.

Therefore, the real excitement this year comes with the vintage-dated Champagnes. As always, several vintages are widely available, with the current batch ranging primarily from 1999 back to 1995. In addition, there are a handful of 2000s on the market, as well as older vintages such as 1992, 1990 and even 1985.

Since our last report on Champagne ("The Power of Blending," Dec. 31, 2004 - Jan. 15, 2005), I have blind-tasted nearly 270 Champagnes in Wine Spectator's New York office. Overall, I found them less exciting than last year's releases. Among the non-vintage Champagnes in particular, the ratings were markedly lower. This year, only 21 percent of them rated outstanding (90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale), as opposed to 38 percent last year. In addition, while more than the usual number of Champagnes fell below the very good range (85 to 89 points), this was especially the case with the non-vintage blends, the workhorses of the category.

There's another piece of bad news as well. Champagne lovers will have to dig a little deeper into their pockets this year. It's still possible to find a dozen bubblies for $30 each or less, with some houses and growers maintaining the same prices as last year, but most are more expensive. The increases range from a few dollars to $10 or $20. The largest price hikes are found among the luxury cuvées, many of which cost upwards of $150. Remember, though, that Champagne is often discounted, so it pays to shop around.

Eleven vintage Champagnes earned classic ratings (95 to 100 points). The just-released Krug Brut Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil 1995 (98, $776) is seamless and classy, laced with graphite, honey and citrus flavors. Its sibling Brut 1990 (97, $224) exhibits more muscle, yet also shows finesse, with complex notes of coconut, whole-grain bread and ginger.

Salon Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne Le Mesnil 1995 (96, $240)—also from the grand cru-rated village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger though not from a single vineyard—has improved with time. This is the third disgorgement since the wine's initial release in 2003, revealing intensity and depth in the biscuit, graphite and honeysuckle flavors. For a mature Champagne experience, Charles Heidsieck's Brut Champagne Charlie 1985 (96, $125) shows the concentration of the '85 vintage along with plenty of coffee and candied fruit notes.

The best values among the vintage-dated releases are Charles Heidsieck's graceful, coffee- and pastry-infused Brut 1995 (95, $65) and the A.R. Lenoble Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne 1996 (95, $58), harmonious with toast and mineral flavors.

The popularity of rosé Champagne is on the rise in the United States. The category is seeing significant increases in the number of cases imported, and, according to the Office of Champagne, USA, is outpacing Champagne overall in terms of rate of growth in U.S. markets. During the 10-year period from 1995 to 2004, rosé shipments increased 313 percent, as opposed to 61 percent for Champagne overall. Much of that growth occurred in the past three years.

Rosés draw on the three main grape varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier—and can be made by one of two methods. Most winemakers add a small amount of still red wine (6 to 18 percent) to the blend. This produces colors ranging from onion skin to pink and flavors of light berry and cherry. Others prefer to allow the skins to remain in contact with the juice before separating the two components. This method, called saignée, produces a style of rosé that is deeper in color and tastes more like Pinot Noir with bubbles.

In this report, I found the rosés more consistent as a group than the non-vintage bruts. Krug won top honors with its Brut Rosé NV (95, $293). Nicolas Feuillatte makes a distinctively spicy Brut Rosé NV (92, $40). The Comte Audoin de Dampierre Brut Rosé Oeil de Perdrix NV (91, $65) makes a bold statement with its woodsy flavors, while the Pommery Brut Rosé NV (91, $60) shows gentler qualities, from a pale hue to soft berry notes. In the vintage category, the Deutz Brut Rosé Cuvée William Deutz 1996 (94, $203) tops the list, packed with dense cherry, spice and citrus notes. All are made by blending still red wine into the cuvée. An impressive example of the less common saignée style is the Volnay-like Jean Milan Brut Rosé Charles de la Milanière NV (92, $59), a one-off from this small grower.

When the label reads blanc de blancs, Chardonnay takes the spotlight. Whereas Pinot Noir brings structure and depth to the blend, on its own Chardonnay displays apple and citrus fruits and freshness, gaining a rich toasted-bread or pastry character with age. The Jacquart Brut Blanc de Blancs Millésimé 1998 (92, $44) brings both toast and freshness to its peach and citrus flavors, while the Jean Milan Brut Blanc de Blancs Jean-Charles Milan Cuvée de Réserve NV (92, $59) exhibits a mineral streak, with a firm structure and a drier style.

Most wine lovers look for non-vintage cuvées when buying Champagne. A blend of the three grape varieties from two or more vintages, these bubblies are aged a minimum of 15 months and are ready to enjoy upon release. Some growers and houses hold the wines beyond the minimum aging required by law, since it is through the process of blending and aging that producers achieve a signature style.

However, I found many of the current non-vintage blends lacking in intensity. Their structures are either soft, causing a lack of focus and length, or sharp, resulting in lean, austere profiles.

I attribute the disappointing results to the base years of the blends. Most cuvées now in release relied on either 2002 or 2001 as the major component of the blend. 2001 was one of the worst years in the past two decades, with double the average rainfall and cool temperatures during the harvest. Rot was rampant.

In contrast, the 2002 harvest yielded ripe, rich grapes, yet its hallmark is lower acidity, which acts to balance the light, sharp elements from 2001. But the blends based on 2001 itself needed to include wine from earlier years to achieve a more robust constitution and a consistency of style and quality.

Nonetheless, there are some excellent Champagnes this year. Several houses and growers made successful cuvées despite the difficult raw materials. These wines prove that the system of blending works.

The top non-vintage Champagne from my tastings is, as is often the case, Krug Brut Grand Cuvée NV (94, $172). Its quality and price, however, make it more like a luxury cuvée, since most non-vintage blends cost less than $45. In this range, the top scorer is the Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV (92, $40). It features a seductive mélange of toast, coffee and hazelnut flavors. Chef de cave Régis Camus blended a base of 2000 with reserve wines from 1998 back to 1990.

The Piper-Heidsieck Brut NV (91, $35) seemed richer than usual, boasting vanilla and candied berry flavors. From Duval-Leroy comes a Brut NV (91, $30) that is vibrant and complex, displaying an intense floral character. The Charles Ellner Brut Premier Cru Réserve NV (91, $38) was made entirely from the 1999 harvest and reminds me of a maturing Mosel spätlese with its peach, honey and citrus notes. These wines are also excellent values. If you want to try a bottling from a small grower, the A. Soutiran Brut Perle Noire NV (91, $60) is a mouthful of baking bread, vanilla pastry and hazelnut flavors.

In trying to achieve consistency, quality-oriented producers deepened their blending. At Louis Roederer, technical director Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon drew on 20 percent reserve wines—twice the usual amount—and older stocks from every year between 2000 and 1994 to add depth to the house's Brut Premier NV (88, $52). The result is a complex, balanced mix of candied citrus, berry and malt notes.

Other winemakers employed a stricter selection than usual, declassifying a higher percentage of grapes. "We have eliminated much more than 45 percent of our grape supplies, while in a normal year, we would eliminate between 25 percent and one-third," explains Bruno Paillard, owner of the house that carries his name. He also used 35 percent reserve wines, which at Paillard are themselves blends of previous years, as in the solera system used to make Sherry. The Paillard Brut Première Cuvée NV (88, $44) shows balance and a racy structure supporting its lemon and ginger notes.

Despite the ebbs and flows from vintage to vintage, the system of blending minimizes the effect of this variation, preventing the wild swings in quality that occur in regions making still white and red wines from a single harvest. Knowing that many producers looked deeper into their cellars to please you should be a convincing reason to raise a glass of Champagne this holiday season.

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


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