Champagne’s Polish

France's leading sparkling wine region produces shining examples despite variable vintages

Excerpted from the Dec. 15, 2018, issue

Every wine lover has a “wow” moment with a memorable bottle. One of mine came in the midst of my annual blind tastings of Champagne this year.

Krug’s newly released 2002 Brut Blanc de Noirs Clos d’Ambonnay is a stunner. I rated it 99 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, the highest review I’ve ever given to a wine. From Krug’s Clos d’Ambonnay vineyard, this 100 percent Pinot Noir powerhouse is amazingly graceful and expansive of flavor, seamlessly integrated while offering lovely tension throughout.

At $2,500 per bottle, the Clos d’Ambonnay is also far and away the most expensive Champagne I reviewed this year. Yet in some ways this bottling illustrates what consumers might expect from the Champagne category as a whole: You may pay more for Champagne on average, but in return you’re assured of a very high and consistent level of quality. From a broader perspective, few of the world’s wine regions deliver in similar fashion.

The Krug also underlines the significance of a great vintage, in this case 2002, one of the best to date in the 2000s. Bottlings from great vintages help to bolster the overall quality of a region like Champagne, especially when release dates vary from producer to producer and a wine can be a new release 16 years after its vintage date. In Champagne, both greater and lesser vintages are the backbone of the region’s non-vintage wines, and thus vintage plays an important role even when vintage character is not considered relevant.

Since my previous report (“Enduring Quality,” Dec. 15, 2017), I’ve tasted more than 325 wines in blind tastings at our New York office, the vast majority of them earning outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

In addition to the Krug, highlights from some of the most exciting vintages available right now include a number of beautiful 2008s, such as Louis Roederer’s Brut Cristal 2008 (97 points, $279) and Moët & Chandon’s Brut Dom Pérignon Legacy Edition 2008 (96, $180), along with an early look at the highly touted 2012 harvest from a handful of producers, including Vilmart’s Brut Grand Cellier d’Or 2012 (94, $91).

From the broader non-vintage category, Jacques Selosse’s Brut Blanc de Blancs Initial NV (95, $185) is long and graceful, Egly-Ouriet’s single-vineyard Brut Blanc de Noirs Les Crayères Vieille Vigne NV (94, $173) maintains its track record of success, and Ruinart impresses with a pair of 93-pointers ($90 each): the focused Brut Blanc de Blancs NV and expressive Brut Rosé NV.

These are some of the high points, yet there are discoveries to be made across the range of the region’s offerings. Among the two main types of Champagne, non-vintage and vintage-dated bottlings, there are both opportunities and pitfalls in choosing the best options.

The Champagne market may be dominated by the non-vintage category, but in my opinion, the real excitement this year is among vintage-dated bottlings.

Vintage Champagne accounts for less than 10 percent of the marketplace for Champagne in the U.S. Yet despite the smaller total quantity of vintage offerings, they’re not as hard to find as you might think. Almost any good wine list will include vintage Champagne selections, and practically every wine retailer offers at least some vintage Champagne for “special occasion” shoppers.

These shoppers are typically steered toward the crème de la crème of the region—prestige or tête de cuvée bottlings, created by a producer only in the best vintages or under ideal conditions. Most of these wines start at roughly $200 per bottle and only go up from there. Even for an important celebration, such a price point may cause sticker shock.

As an alternative, consumers should look to standard vintage bottlings. Whereas prices for non-vintage cuvées start at $40 to $50 per bottle, prices for regular (not prestige) vintage cuvées begin at about $60 per bottle. In total, half the vintage Champagnes I reviewed this year are available for less than $100 per bottle.

Look for José Dhondt’s well-cut Brut Blanc de Blancs Mes Vieilles Vignes 2010 (93, $69), Gaston Chiquet’s harmonious Brut Or 2008 (92, $63) and Nicolas Feuillatte’s mouthwatering Brut Blanc de Blancs Collection 2012 (92, $45), an exceptional value from this cooperative of about 4,500 growers that consistently delivers high quality at fair prices.

Moët & Chandon’s chef de cave Benoît Gouez shows his skill with vintage releases, and the house offers an elegant pair from the 2009 vintage, both at 94 points: The Extra Brut Grand Vintage 2009 ($65) is sleek and creamy, and the Extra Brut Rosé Grand Vintage 2009 ($70) is firm and well-meshed.

The 2008 and 2009 vintages contributed in equal parts to the majority of my vintage Champagne tastings, including both prestige and standard bottlings. Both are vintages for Champagne lovers to enjoy now or to cellar, and both will see new versions on the market in coming years as additional houses deem their 2008s and 2009s ready for release.

The ’08 and ’09 vintages illustrate the two poles of expression and character in Champagne today: classic versus modern.

The classicist is 2008, with a cool, rainy growing season more in keeping with conditions typical of vintages 30 or 40 years ago. The resulting wines are firm and focused, but there’s a lovely viscosity to their texture, which plays nicely with the acidic backbone. Louis Roederer’s 2008 Cristal garners the highest marks from the vintage so far, at 97 points. Showing the year’s vibrancy, it has a focus and grace to the structure that suggests it will stand the test of time.

The modernist, 2009, follows in the footsteps of several warmer Champagne vintages since the turn of the century. After a rocky start in the spring, most of the summer was dry and warm—even hot come August. The 2009s are generous in flavor and approachable on the palate, showing fine balance right out of the gate. Along with the 2009 Grand Vintage bottlings from Moët & Chandon, other standouts include Deutz’s creamy Brut Amour de Deutz 2009 (94, $180) and Geoffroy’s seamlessly knit Brut Volupté 2009 (94, $87).

Interestingly, neither vintage seemed like a surefire hit at the conclusion of harvest. It goes to show that Champagne is always a long-play game: It’s not only a function of the vintage character, but also the blending and winemaking skill of the chef de cave, as well as the effects of the Champagne production process (specifically lees-maturation and disgorgement) on the finished wine.

“You have the vision in the vineyards, the vision at harvest,” says Gilles Descôtes, chef de cave at Bollinger, speaking about vintage Champagne production as a whole. “But then sometimes it’s unpredictable. Sometimes you wait, and then you try it, and the wine lacks the emotion. Other times nothing works well through harvest, but all of a sudden two months later you have something amazing.”

In many ways, 2008 and 2009 remind me of the 1995 and 1996 vintages, but in stylistic reverse. The 1995s were balanced and graceful from the start, whereas the huge acidity of the 1996s resulted in blockbuster Champagnes that were more widely heralded at the time of release. Today, many chefs de cave and critics agree that the overall harmony of the 1995s has won out over time, while some 1996s never fully integrated.

A similar debate has already begun over the 2008 and 2009 vintages. Advocates for 2008 include Veuve Clicquot’s chef de cave Dominique Demarville.

“2008 is a year I love, very much,” says Demarville. “I’m not sure I’ll have another possibility in my career to have such a vintage. To me, it is one of the best of the last 20 to 30 years.”

Demarville took a dramatic leap in 2008, shifting to an almost entirely Pinot Noir–dominant blend for Veuve Clicquot’s tête de cuvée label, La Grande Dame. The 2008 is 95 percent Pinot Noir, while the 2006 was only 53 percent (with the rest Chardonnay). The 2008 La Grande Dame (95, $150) shines for its sculpted frame of acidity and minerality finely dressed in a lovely range of black currant and spice notes.

Gouez champions 2009. “Globally, 2009 is superior to 2008,” he says. “To me, it’s a vintage of very accomplished maturity.” He cites the fact that potential alcohol levels were consistent in 2009 from the beginning to the end of harvest, while they rose 1.5 percent during that same period in 2008, which indicates ongoing maturation during harvest and the possibility that at least some unripe fruit may have been harvested early on. “2009 has the greater potential for harmony.”

The high levels of acidity in 2008 prompted a number of Champagne producers to release younger vintages, such as 2009, ahead of their 2008s. Because of this, my tastings this year include a significant number of newly released 2008s, almost all of which rated 90 points or higher, including five wines in the classic range of 95-plus. As a result, I have revised my overall rating of the vintage, increasing it from 92 to 95 points. Based on my tastings thus far, the 2009 vintage sits behind the 2008 vintage with a preliminary rating of 91–94 points, pending the tasting of additional releases next year.

France’s Champagne region retains its place as the world’s premier producer of sparkling wine, supplying high quality versions to the U.S., where the market for bubbly continues to expand. Going beyond its association with luxury and celebration, Champagne is often enjoyed as an aperitif, on the table alongside food, and in a wider variety of settings that lend new ways to experience the region’s offerings.

Like any wine region, Champagne will have its ups and downs. But the ability of producers to confront the region’s challenges—not only through blending, but also through the expertise associated with the Champagne production method—addresses much of the potential variability. As a result, Champagne remains a reliable option for wine lovers seeking high quality, while the breadth on offer from the region today extends the tableaus in which this premium sparkling wine can be enjoyed.

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

For the complete Champagne tasting report, including scores and prices for both current vintage and non-vintage releases, read the full article, “Champagne’s Polish,” in our online magazine archives.