Tuesday, November 25, 2014

WS 2012: Beyond the Bubbles

‎Upgrading Vintage 2004 to 92 vs 90.

A closer look at the wealth of offerings from Champagne

Alison Napjus
Issue: December 31, 2012

France's Champagne region has worked hard to establish itself as a symbol of luxury and celebration. But there's solid achievement behind that frothy image. Champagne is the world's premier region for sparkling wine, producing an impressive range of styles and doing so with consistently high quality.

Since our last report ("The Tapestry of Champagne," Dec. 31, 2011 - Jan. 15, 2012), I've reviewed nearly 425 Champagnes from more than 120 different producers. A large majority of them received outstanding scores of 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, with more than a dozen rating classic. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

Of the classic-rated wines in this report, there are a number of bottlings from Krug Champagne, including the two high-scorers, which top the charts at 98 points. Krug's 2000 Brut Blanc de Blancs Clos du Mesnil ($859) is a study on the interplay between finesse and power, while its 1998 Brut ($269) offers lovely harmony and luxurious texture.

Both of these are vintage wines, produced from grapes harvested during a single year and meant to capture the unique character of that growing season and harvest. Our tastings, reflecting the current offerings in the marketplace, are dominated by the 2004 vintage, a year that produced a bumper crop but paired quantity with quality. The resulting wines are vibrant, with good structure and elegance, and based on the strength of the 2004s in this year's tastings, I have upgraded the vintage's overall rating to 92 points.

The two top-scoring 2004s are like stylistic bookends for the vintage, with the delicacy of Veuve Clicquot's Brut La Grande Dame 2004 (94 points, $165) acting as a foil to the richness of Vilmart's Coeur de Cuvée 2004 (94, $148). I also recommend the well-priced 2004 Brut Grand from Baron-Fuenté (92, $40) and the Roland Champion Brut Blanc de Blancs 2004 (92, $66), a wine made from 100 percent Chardonnay, a variety that excelled in 2004.

In addition, vintage bottlings from 2005 and 2006 are beginning to have a presence on retail shelves and wine lists. 2005 was a variable vintage in terms of weather during the growing season and harvest, and as a result it's best to choose carefully and stick to top producers. A fine example is Louis Roederer's Brut Cristal 2005 (94, $249), a mouthwatering wine that shows a layered flavor range wrapped around smoky minerality.

Cristal's success in 2005 may be attributed, in part, to the biodynamically grown vines from which the grapes are sourced. Roederer technical director Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon believes that organic vineyards often fare better in difficult years. Referring to Roederer's biodynamic practices as "haute couture viticulture," he says, "It's about pushing boundaries while revisiting the traditional experience."

It will be easier to assess the overall quality of 2006 as more wines are released, yet the vintage shows more promise than 2005, largely thanks to excellent weather at harvest that year. But there are a number of quality offerings already available. The Vilmart Brut Grand Cellier Rubis 2006 (95, $151) is a delicate rosé for its aromatics and finesse, but also shows a lot of power in an elegant package. And two blanc de blancs offer good value: Jacquart's refined Brut Blanc de Blancs 2006 (92, $55) and J.L. Vergnon's firm and fresh Brut Blanc de Blancs Resonance 2006 (92, $52).

Like all fine wine, the best bottles of Champagne can have a long life, and many houses put aside part of their vintage production to release at a later date—sometimes very much later. Krug's current release of this sort is its Brut Collection 1989 (97, $549), a racy, tightly knit wine that is just beginning to show hints of age with accents of ground coffee, oyster shell and dried fruit.

Krug has been offering its Collection wines since the 1990s. Veuve Clicquot launched a similar concept this year with the Cave Privée series. The Cave Privée wines are specially selected vintages that have not been offered to the market since their original release many years ago. This year's releases include the 1989 Brut Rosé Cave Privée (95, $295), a creamy wine with finely tuned acidity that is aging beautifully, and the 1990 Brut Cave Privée (94, $175), which is rich, with baked fruit, bread pudding and molasses notes, yet remains elegant and persistently fresh.

Both of these Clicquot bottlings were disgorged in October of 2008, in anticipation of their release this year. Disgorgement is an important part of the Champagne production process, wherein the sediment that accumulates during the secondary fermentation and subsequent aging of the wine is removed, before the final step of adjusting the wine's dosage.

"Champagnes age very well before disgorgement, but they can age very well after disgorgement as well," says Veuve Clicquot chef de cave Dominique Demarville, regarding the value of disgorgement for the Cave Privée wines. "It is very important to have both to put the best wine on the market."

The Cave Privée wines list the wine's disgorgement date on the back label of the bottle, joining other houses and producers such as Bruno Paillard and Philipponnat who have been doing so for many years. (For more on the subject, see "Debating Disgorgement Dates," page 104.)

Vintage Champagnes deliver generally high quality and allow producers to craft distinctive wines that reflect the personality of a particular year. But it is non-vintage wines that dominate the marketplace, making up nearly two-thirds of the Champagnes I reviewed this past year.

Non-vintage wines typically offer a good introduction to Champagne, in part because their price point is usually more approachable, and because their general aim is consistency from year to year. They are produced by blending wine from at least two or three vintages (and sometimes more), a method historically designed to balance the dramatic differences between vintage conditions in a cool-climate wine region such as Champagne.

Krug shows its expertise once again with the two highest-scoring non-vintage wines of this report. The Brut Rosé NV (95, $299) is rich and finely cut, and the Brut Grande Cuvée NV (95, $169) offers lovely texture, with layers of fruit, almond, honey and spice flavors. These wines regularly receive high marks within their categories, largely because Krug's attention to detail during its production goes the extra mile and then some.

Non-vintage Champagne need only be aged for 15 months before being released, but Krug's rosé is aged for five years and its Grande Cuvée for six. And while many non-vintage wines blend two or three vintages, Krug's bottlings get added depth and complexity from five or six vintages for the rosé, and as many as 12 vintages (going back to 15 years of age) for the Grande Cuvée. Olivier Krug, director of the house, explains how the additional vintages add more range to the wines: "The idea about reserve wines is to keep specific ingredients from certain vintages."

Other houses also show the ability to partner quality with consistency among their non-vintage bottlings. Alfred Gratien's spicy Brut Cuvée Paradis NV (94, $145) is just a step ahead of the creamy Brut Rosé Cuvée Paradis NV (93, $165) and minerally Brut NV (93, $70), with the rich, well-knit Brut Rosé NV (92, $80) not much further behind. Bollinger's offerings are also impressive: The Brut Special Cuvée NV (93, $75) is very elegant, with fresh, focused acidity, while the Brut Rosé NV (93, $110) shows a briny hint of minerality underscoring fruit and graphite notes.

About a third of the non-vintage wines reviewed for this report are offered this year at a lower price compared with last year's bottlings. Lee Schlesinger, director of marketing for Winesellers, Ltd., the U.S. importer of Besserat de Bellefon Champagne, explains that this price decrease is simply due to the stronger dollar. "2012 prices are a little lower thanks to an improvement of almost 10 percent in foreign exchange."

This means that for the first time since the recession hit, it's possible to find a number of producers offering non-vintage bottlings in the $30 to $35 range. If you're looking for a delicate, aperitif-style wine with bright acidity, try the Montaudon Brut NV (90, $35), while Baron-Fuenté's well-balanced Brut Grande Réserve NV (91) is an excellent value at $30 a bottle. For something with a little bit more richness, Heidsieck Monopole's Brut Blue Top NV (91, $35) is well-defined and energetic.

For just a few dollars more, the Ayala Brut Majeur NV (91, $39) is dry and creamy, and the Vollereaux Brut NV (92, $40) is rich and refined. Piper-Heidsieck also shows well with its Brut NV (93, $50), offering rich layers of brioche, graphite, fruit and spice.

Still, Champagne remains an expensive wine, even in the non-vintage category. But it's important to remember that you're not simply paying for the designer label. Champagne is one of the most technically difficult and labor-intensive wines to produce, and the region delivers some of the most distinctive and ageworthy sparkling wines in the world. They stand out for their diversity and their character, and deserve a place at the table as much as a starring role in your next celebration.

Senior tasting coordinator Alison Napjus is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne.

Debating Disgorgement Dates

Disgorgement is a fundamental part of the Champagne method. It refers to the process of removing the sediment that accumulates during secondary fermentation and bottle-aging on the lees. Following disgorgement, a dosage (usually sugar syrup) may be added to the wine, and then the bottle is corked and prepared for release.

French law regulates the amount of time a wine must spend maturing on the lees before disgorgement: at least 12 months for non-vintage Champagnes and three years for vintage bottlings. (Many producers will age their wines even longer, sometimes as much as five years or more for vintage versions.) After disgorgement, producers must keep the finished bottles in their cellars for at least three months for non-vintage Champagne and at least a year—though sometimes more—for vintage cuvées.

Champagnes age differently on the lees, or before disgorgement, than they do on the cork, or after disgorgement.

A Champagne from the 1990 vintage that was disgorged in 1994, for example, then aged on the cork until 2010, may be very different in character from a 1990 Champagne that was not disgorged until 2008 and then opened in 2010. Many experts believe that the lees nourish the wine, adding complexity and preserving youthfulness, but it's a matter of personal preference, and also very much dependent on the character of the wine itself.

Until recently, there was no way for a consumer to know how long a bottle of Champagne aged on its lees before disgorgement. But some houses have begun to indicate a disgorgement date on their labels. Unlike a vintage year, the disgorgement date does not give any specific clues as to the potential quality and character of the Champagne in question; but like the vintage date, it may give some idea of how the Champagne is aging.

Many of the region's récoltant-manipulant, or small growers who produce Champagne from vines they own themselves and do not buy any grapes, have always listed a disgorgement date on their wines. Among the larger négociant houses, Bruno Paillard has included a disgorgement date on all of his house's wines since 1985, including both its vintage and non-vintage bottlings. Philipponnat has done so since the late 1990s, while Lanson started in the last decade. Krug began this year to mark several of its wines with an ID that indicates the quarter and year a bottle was disgorged.

Paillard is a strong advocate for disgorgement dates, believing they help to counter the idea that Champagne doesn't age. "The motivation was to try and explain to consumers that Champagne is, or can be, a great wine, and as such it has its life and its specific kind of maturation, including after disgorgement," he says. "[We want] to encourage people to discover the wonderful extra complexity which post-disgorgement maturation can offer, and the first step is to know when the disgorgement actually happened."

Paillard's conviction regarding the importance of disgorgement dates is matched by those who adamantly oppose them, such as Peter Wasserman, a wine broker who works with Le Serbet, which represents many Champagne producers in the U.S. Wasserman agrees that it benefits vintage wines to include the disgorgement date, but thinks it can be misleading on non-vintage wines.

"It does not tell you either how long the wines have been aged on the lees, or what the composition—the base year plus the reserve years—is of the wine," he says. "You need the whole explanation each time you put a disgorgement date. There is no way to extrapolate [more information]."

There's also the possibility that some consumers might mistake the disgorgement date for a vintage date, or assume that they only want the "freshest" disgorgement date, overlooking the fact that bottle age may be a plus for the wine overall. But at the end of the day, it's additional information for the consumer, and as with any fact or figure, in order to get the most from the data you need to understand what it means and how to put it in the proper context.

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