Champagne Gets Serious
With new names to discover and great vintages to savor, it's time to stock up
By Jim Gordon
As a host of outstanding Champagnes from an expanding spectrum of Champagne makers reaches wine shops, this is a season of discovery for wine lovers. First, a new wave of handcrafted Champagnes from small vineyard estates has just reached American shores, offering quality that rivals that of the best wines from the more famous Champagne houses--often at less than half the price.
Second, the grandes marques themselves are not to be outdone and have released a great collection of highly rated vintage Champagnes from a trio of great years: 1988, 1989 and 1990. Krug and Veuve Clicquot, to name two, turned in virtuoso performances with their highest-priced cuvées. All things considered, the current supply of top-quality Champagne is probably unprecedented.
As usual, Champagne doesn't come cheaply, but when the quality in the bottle is as high as it is in the spicy elegance of the Krug Brut 1989 ($125) or the full-bodied sophistication of the Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1989 ($100), each of which scored 94 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, you are getting what you pay for. These and literally dozens of other exciting bottlings turned up in Wine Spectator's biggest tasting report ever on the wines of Champagne.
I blind-tasted 195 Champagnes over the past year, a majority of them in recent weeks, and all the findings are presented here and in the Buying Guide (full tasting notes begin on page 184). An unprecedented 58 Champagnes scored 90 or better, and more than three-quarters of those were vintage dated. If you pick any real Champagne off the shelf from 1988, '89 or '90, you stand a very good chance of experiencing what only Champagne can consistently deliver: a superbly balanced sparkling wine that tastes crisp and refreshing yet supple, while layering on rich flavors that linger on the finish.
The news about non-vintage Champagne is not as universally positive. Very few of them were bad, but many of them tasted merely good. They didn't have the vibrant fruit flavors of the vintage wines, nor the complexity or length. More than 30 rated 84 points or less, and the least expensive of these has a suggested retail price of $24. Despite what the owners and importers of the big brands say, non-vintage Champagne, blended from base wines from different years and from different districts in Champagne, often is not consistent in quality from year to year.
Unless you insist on serving "real" Champagne on principle, you generally will find much better value in non-vintage California sparkling wine (see Jeff Morgan's report, "Sparkling Values," beginning on page 78). On the other hand, with so many outstanding vintage Champagnes starting at $35 or $40 a bottle, it's smart to trade up from the non-vintage wines. It's also worth noting that many wine retailers put heavy discounts on non-vintage Champagne, so bargains can often be found. Three of my favorite non-vintage choices are the lush, seductive Cattier Brut Champagne Antique (91, $30), the mature and assertive Montaudon Brut (91, $30) and the refined Pommery Brut Royal Apanage (90, $27).
Probably the most exciting news for Champagne connoisseurs is that an American wine importer, Terry Thiese of the Kronheim Companies, has made a cause of finding and importing high quality Champagnes from small family-run estates. When I visit Champagne, I am always amazed by the size and diversity of this wine region. Hundreds of wineries there make high-quality wines in small quantities, like their counterparts in Burgundy, yet almost none of these bottlings come to America. Why should the big brands be the only taste of Champagne that most of us can experience?
Thiese, who has long championed small-production German wines, asked himself the same question. So he sought out the small, basically unknown Champagne houses, tasted their wines and selected 10 to introduce to the United States this fall. Eight of the 10 are covered in this report--Henri Billiot, Chartogne-Taillet, Gaston Chiquet, Rene Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, Larmandier-Bernier, A. Margaine and Vilmart. The majority are quite exciting, both for the quality of their wines and their reasonable prices, but don't expect them to be easy to find soon.
Look especially for two that carry the designation "Special Club," a name bestowed by a group of growers on worthy wines after a taste test. Gaston Chiquet made a powerful but sophisticated Brut Champagne Special Club 1990 (92, $39), and A. Margaine released a plush Brut Blanc de Blancs Special Club 1989 (90, $43). These wines beat out many of the higher-priced Champagnes, including Dom Perignon 1990 (89, $110) and Louis Roederer Cristal 1990 (87, $150), to earn this designation.
Another source of Champagne new to the United States is a cooperative of 1,800 growers called Union Champagne, most of its exports designated as de St.-Gall. It's an impressive lineup: three out of the five wines I tasted broke the 90-point barrier. All three were Blancs de Blancs, made solely from Chardonnay grapes, and the best was an absolutely stunning Cuvée Orpale 1985 (95, $49) made strictly from grand cru vineyards. Union Champagne will be hard to find, because the brand is just getting established here.
The Orpale was not the only Champagne from 1985 that scored 95 points. This increasingly rare vintage, in which a severe spring-freeze drastically reduced the size of the grape crop and boosted the quality of what remained, accounted for three of the top four wines in this report. The Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé 1985 (95, $55) has been available for a few years, and this year it tasted better than ever.
Two of the other top-scorers were from Krug, the small, family-operated, Remy Martin-owned house known for barrel-fermenting its base wine and setting prices that make the other houses seem frugal in comparison. Krug's Brut Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil 1985 (96, $210), from the tiny, historic, walled-in clos in the Chardonnay village of Mesnil-sur-Oger, really came into its own this year, combining a plush texture with harmonious, mature flavors in truly classic style. Krug's Brut Rosé NV (95, $150) was nearly as impressive in its own right, subtle in flavor and seamless in texture.
Veuve Clicquot also deserves special mention for the quality of its two recently released Grande Dame cuvées, the top wines of its line, scoring 94 points apiece. The Brut Grande Dame 1989 ($100) totally redeemed the relatively poor showing last year of the 1988. The first U.S. release of a Grande Dame Rosé, the 1988 ($195), is delicate, dry and cherry-scented--a class act if you care to spend that much.
The great showing by many of the older Champagnes in this report is no accident. Champagne does improve in the bottle, especially in the 55° natural cellars in Champagne, dug out of the pure chalk subsoil. But Champagne can also improve in your cellar at home, if you have a cool one. This season is an opportune time to buy a case or two of a vintage-dated Champagne that you like and study how it changes and improves with maturity.
The 1990s are prime candidates for the cellar. Many are quite young: They taste rather straightforward, powerfully fruity but without much nuance yet. Even Moët's Dom Perignon 1990 still seems to be in an awkward phase and should improve with time.
The other advantage of stocking up now is that you will be sure to have some good bubbly on hand when the millennium celebrations begin. Rumors about the scarcity of Champagne are unfounded. Abundant supplies of non-vintage Champagne, at least, will be available. But vintage Champagne is made in such small quantities to start with--perhaps only 10 percent of a typical house's output is vintage--and the current vintages on sale, specifically 1985, 1988, 1989 and 1990, are so good, that an investment in one of these would be a wise move even if New Year's Eve 1999 weren't just around the corner.
Champagne the region came before Champagne the sparkling wine. And although winemakers in certain other parts of the world (particularly California) persist in using the term champagne for their own sparkling wines, French Champagne from the Marne Valley is the original.
Bubbles are not the only thing that sets the wines of Champagne apart. 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 the 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 these lees.
Champagne further tries to outsmart nature by using different grape varieties. The three main ones are 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. Blanc de Blancs are made from Chardonnay only.
Winemakers get further flexibility from their widely scattered vineyards, and from the practice of blending the crops from two or more years together to make the traditional non-vintage Champagne.
Champagne may be known as the drink of celebration, and it does go very well with appetizers, or is quite enjoyable as an apéritif. 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.
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