Tuesday, November 25, 2014

WS 2014: Champagne Shines On

‎Champagne 2006 Vintage Rated 94, on par with 2002 and two points higher than 2004

New wines add greater diversity to the already high quality from France's preeminent sparkling wine region
Alison Napjus
Issue: December 31, 2014

American wine drinkers have a growing thirst for Champagne, and producers are answering the call.

With 18 million bottles of  Champagne arriving on U.S. shores in 2013, the country is still well behind the world's top markets for Champagne—France and the United Kingdom. But of the three, the U.S. is the only market to show an increase in imports from 2012 to 2013, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. In addition, early data for 2014 points to robust growth; according to French trade figures, imports increased during the first six months of the year nearly 12 percent compared with the same period in 2013.

My blind tastings over the past year reflect this growth. Since my previous report ("Brilliant Bubbles," Dec. 15, 2013), I have reviewed more than 450 Champagnes in our New York office. That figure, the highest ever for Wine Spectator, represents a 10 percent increase over last year. Among the tastings were wines from nearly 150 different producers, including 26 producers reviewed for the first time. (An alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted begins on page 99 and is available.)

Much of the latter group is composed of wines from the region's récoltant-manipulant, or grower-producers, who have greatly increased their presence in the U.S. over the past decade. Known as "small growers," these producers make Champagne from their own grapes, often highlighting a specific terroir. (The larger Champagne houses, or négociants, produce Champagne from both estate-owned and purchased fruit and typically blend grapes sourced from multiple sites.) This style of winemaking helps make grower Champagne distinctive, generating excitement and keeping the négociants on their toes. In terms of sheer volume, however, the U.S. market continues to be defined by the big houses, which account for nearly 90 percent of all Champagne shipments to the U.S. (versus 5 percent for grower Champagne) and, generally speaking, still set the bar for quality.

A fine example of the benchmark set by Champagne's biggest names are the top-scoring wines of this year's report, three bottlings that each rated 98 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. With its first new release in three years, Salon offers the 2002 Brut Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil ($480). It's an ethereal wine, defined as much by the chalky minerality of the soils from which the grapes are sourced, in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, as by the complexity and ripe fruit character of the exceptional 2002 vintage, one of the best thus far of the new century.

Also at 98 points are two bottlings from the 1998 vintage, a less-lauded year that nonetheless shows good intensity and balance and can really shine in the hands of top producers. Krug's rich and exotic Brut Blanc de Noirs Clos d'Ambonnay 1998 ($2,399), first reviewed in 2011 at 96 points, is an excellent example. This is a wine that's only improving with time and benefiting from more recent disgorgements.

The other 1998 is a new expression from Moët & Chandon's Dom Pérignon—the beautifully detailed Brut Plénitude P2 1998 ($399). The P2 replaces the the former Oenothèque label as the house's bottling of a high quality vintage that spends additional time on the lees—in this case another nine years on top of the seven years seen by the release of the original 1998 Dom Pérignon. Expansive and persistent on the palate, the wine is marked by a streak of salinity to complement the fruit, pastry and spice flavors.

Like these three top-rated wines, many of the most expressive Champagnes I reviewed are vintage-dated bottlings (as opposed to the non-vintage versions that are more common in the marketplace). There was a wide range of vintages on offer this year, with my tastings spanning 30 years—from Veuve Clicquot's rich Brut Rosé Cave Privée 1979 (94 points, $530), a new release from its library collection, to Louis Roederer's vibrant Brut Rosé 2009 (94, $80), a wine that's hard to stop sipping. Yet for the most part the vintage-dated bottlings I reviewed are from four recent vintages, 2004 through 2007.

Of these vintages, 2006 is the standout. The vintage offers powerful wines with firm acidic structures, yet the best examples show a grace and integration that makes them enjoyable and accessible now but also recommends them to the cellar. It's like the power of the 1996s with the finesse of the 1995s. Though several notable producers have yet to release bottlings from 2006, I rate the vintage 94 points based on the strength of the more than 80 wines I have already tasted.

Drappier succeeds in the vintage with its tête du cuvées, the Brut Grande Sendrée 2006 (93, $120) and the Brut Rosé Grande Sendrée 2006 (93, $130), both sourced from a 12-acre vineyard located in the Aube, the most southerly area in Champagne. (For more on the region, see "Wine First, Bubbles Second.") The former is a more elegant example from the vintage, with beautiful texture and charming spice and graphite accents. The latter shows steely acidity and the power of the vintage, but it's reined in by the creamy mousse and fine integration.

The 2006 vintage also offers a number of excellent values, several for only $10 or $20 more than a typical bottle of non-vintage Champagne. Moët & Chandon's Brut Grand Vintage 2006 (94, $60) partners rich flavor with racy structure; the 2006 Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Fleuron from Pierre Gimonnet & Fils (93, $72) is a well-cut and graceful example with a floral overtone and a long, chalky finish; and the Montaudon Brut 2006 (91, $43) is a crowd-pleasing sparkler at a wallet-friendly price, offering pretty pear, honey and spice flavors.

Beyond 2006, the 2004 vintage still holds a lot of spots in wineshops and on restaurant wine lists thanks to the year's large crop and high quality. I previously rated the vintage 92 points, and the year's vivacious bottlings are still expressing the vintage's ripe fruit character, with some picking up additional complexity with age.

Fresher examples are available from the 2005 and 2007 vintages. Both years experienced variable to difficult conditions during the growing season and/or during harvest. As a result, quality is not as consistent, and vintage-dated bottlings are less common than from the more successful 2004 and 2006 vintages. I previously rated the 2005 vintage 90 points for its open-knit and approachable bottlings, and based on a limited number of tastings I give 2007 a preliminary rating of 89 to 92 points, with a final rating to be determined next year, pending additional reviews.

Most likely, the 2007 vintage represents a step up from 2005 in terms of overall quality. With slightly higher acidity than is normal for the region, these are fresh, lively wines, enjoyable today and in the short-term, with expressive fruit and flavor profiles. Pierre Péters' Brut Blanc de Blancs Les Chétillons Cuvée Spéciale 2007 (94, $134) is an excellent example from the vintage, offering a lively mousse and real mineral drive, with rich glazed apricot, salted almond and spun honey notes. I also recommend the 2007 Brut from Henri Billiot & Fils (93, $84), for its vivacious character and its appealing mix of blackberry, black cherry, toast and spice flavors.

The other side of the coin in Champagne is non-vintage bubbly, bottlings that blend at least two or three vintages, and sometimes many more. Non-vintage Champagne is the historic result of the region's northerly, cool-climate conditions, which led producers to blend vintages in the attempt to offer wines of consistent quality and style, even in lesser years. Today, vintage conditions are more reliable from year to year, but non-vintage bottlings still make up the majority of the Champagne market, representing about two-thirds of my tastings.

Krug shines again with the two top-scoring non-vintage Champagnes, both at 95 points. The Brut Grande Cuvée NV ($179) is rich and smoky, with a beautiful spiced profile, and the Brut Rosé ($299) is a vivid, mouthwatering version, with a lovely, silky texture. Both versions blend many vintages and see additional aging—several years as opposed to the 18 months required by French wine law—helping them to reach the pinnacle of quality and expression from non-vintage Champagne.

Just a step behind Krug's bottlings are two distinctive Champagnes, each rated 94 points. The Henri Giraud Brut Champagne Fût de Chêne NV ($200) shows the power of the wine's fermentation in oak, with a creamy texture and rich flavors of bread dough, honey, spice and coconut, while the Gosset Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Celebris NV ($167) is a unique bottling made from a blend of the 1995, 1996, 1997 and 1998 vintages. (Non-vintage Champagnes on the market right now more typically base their blends on 2010.)

These high-scoring cuvées represent the crème de la crème of non-vintage, with price tags to match. But many bottles of non-vintage Champagne are available for much less—$40 to $70 a bottle is more common. Two fine examples are the Ployez-Jacquemart Extra Brut Rosé Champagne NV (93, $55), which offers a pretty palate of ripe raspberry and strawberry fruit and good definition, and the Diebolt-Vallois Brut Rosé NV (93, $52), well-spiced and elegant. Champagne lovers can also look for Piper-Heidsieck's toasty Brut NV (92, $40), J. Lassalle's harmonious Brut Cachet Or NV (91, $39) and Louis de Sacy's aromatic Brut Originel NV (90, $30), among others.

More Champagne is arriving to America each year, with greater diversity among the offerings. Champagne houses and growers alike are exploring different styles and more specific terroirs, yet quality remains high and consistent—a win-win for American wine drinkers.

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

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