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An Assessment of Vintage Champagne
By Ed McCarthy
May 20, 2014
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Until recently, the U.S. has not been a big market for Vintage Champagne.  Non-Vintage Bruts, the least expensive Champagnes, have dominated Champagne sales.  Those buyers who desired a status Champagne would buy a Prestige Cuvée such as Dom Pérignon or Cristal-- not caring about the vintage of these Champagnes as much as the name. 

Most wine aficionados have always known that “vintage” definitely matters for traditionally important wines such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Barolo.  If anything, the matter of vintage is even more important in Champagne, a cool, marginal region for winemaking that has often struggled to consistently make Vintage Champagnes in the past.

In fact, non-vintage Champagnes exist for this very reason:  Vintage Champagnes could not be made every year in the Champagne region, creating a need to blend wines from several years.  Voila!  Non-Vintage Champagne became the standard type of Champagne!  Vintage Champagnes really only started appearing regularly on the market in the 20th century.

Typically in the past, the Champagne region experienced decent enough weather to produce only three or four Vintage Champagnes each decade.  With the recent global warming, things have changed in Champagne--as in many other wine regions--starting around 1997.  Now, almost every year is warm enough to make Vintage Champagnes (not always great vintages, however).

I do see a trend towards more interest in Vintage Champagnes in the U.S. lately, as Champagne lovers become more sophisticated.  For me, Vintage Champagnes are generally so far superior to the basic NV Bruts that I seldom buy the latter.  (The major exception to that is that many Grower-Producers, some of whom often don’t make enough Champagne to afford the luxury of producing a Vintage Champagne plus a Non-Vintage, often make a high-quality NV Brut).

Vintage Champagnes are invariably better than non-vintage for several reasons:  They’re made with the best grapes from the choicest vineyards;
they are usually aged for two or three years longer than NV Champagnes;
most Champagne producers use only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Vintage Champagnes, not the shorter-lived Pinot Meunier; and finally,
Vintage Champagnes use the grapes from one year only, an above-average year at least, and a superb year at best. Extra aging adds more complexity and maturity to Vintage Champagnes, and they will have more concentration of aromas and flavors.

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Recently, a group of Champagne-loving friends got together in a local BYOB restaurant in NYC to assess the quality of Vintage Champagnes.  We were especially interested in comparing the 1995 and 1996 vintages, two generally esteemed Champagne vintages, but both very different in style.  I will comment on the Champagnes we tasted, as well as intersperse my assessment of the quality of vintages in the Champagne region over the past 35 years.

Probably very few wine drinkers (including me) are fortunate enough to own any 1979 Vintage Champagnes.  Jump at the chance to try any Champagne from this year if you get the opportunity.  Ironically, 1979 was unheralded at the time, but the ugly duckling turned into a beautiful swan with time.  Krug’s Clos du Mesnil (a single-vineyard blanc de blancs) debuted with the 1979 vintage, and it remains one of Krug’s greatest Champagnes.

On the other hand, the much ballyhooed 1982 vintage has faded quite dramatically in the past decade.  It has never really lived up to its reputation.  A good, but not a great vintage.

We began the tasting with the oldest bottle on the table, a 1983 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires, a blanc de blancs, also making its debut in 1983 as Charles Heidsieck’s new Prestige Cuvée.  The 1983 vintage was very average in Champagne, and most 1983s have long since faded away.  This wine was the biggest surprise of the night.  Not only was it complex and delicious, but it also was surprisingly young and fresh, one of the finest Champagnes of the tasting--proof, I guess, that Prestige Cuvées can indeed be special.  But it also proves that Vintage Charts are very general; good wines are made by good vintners in so-called poor years all the time.

The 1985 vintage also received a lot of attention as a great vintage.  But most 1985s are on the decline now.  The best 1985s are still fine.  In general, 1985 is doing better than 1982.

We did not try any 1988s at our tasting, but I have consumed many 1988s over the past two years and know 1988 Champagnes well.  This cool, austere vintage is finally ready to drink--although 1988 Krug as well as Billecart-Salmon’s ’88 Blanc de Blancs still need some time.  The 1988 has proven to be better than the more heralded 1982 and 1985, and I also prefer it to the richer, well-acclaimed 1990 vintage.

The 1990 vintage in Champagne has been very good indeed, but at this point in time only the best ‘90s are still in good shape.  We tasted a good 1990, the Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires.  But this Prestige Cuvée is definitely a wine to drink now; I am sure it was better four or five years ago.  The 1983 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires, in fact, tasted younger and fresher.  About two years ago, I compared the 1988 Cristal to the ’90.  The 1988 was fantastic; the ’90, although still good, seemed a bit tired.

Vintages 1991 through 1994 were all mediocre in the Champagne region; very few producers made a Vintage Champagne in these years.

Both the 1995 and 1996 vintages were very good.  I will re-visit them later in this column.

With the 1997 vintage, things started to change in the Champagne region.  This relatively warm year produced easy-drinking accessible wines that are long past their best drinking.

The 1998 vintage has proven to be very average, and has received more acclaim than it deserves.  We tasted the 1998 Piper-Heisieck Rare (in magnum), a Prestige Cuvée.  None of us were bowled over.  This vintage is one to drink now; it will not improve.  A few years ago, a very famous Champagne winemaker told me he preferred his 1998 to his 1996.  I found this very difficult to believe (The 1998 was a huge vintage, with lots of bottles available for sale at that time).

Both 1999 and 2000 are average vintages producing Champagnes that are drinkable now. The 1998 generally was slightly better than both.

The 2001 vintage was awful, very rainy.  Practically no one produced a Vintage 2001 Champagne (Exception:  Philipponnat Clos des Goisses--but Clos des Goisses, a perfectly-located Prestige Cuvée single-vineyard on the Marne River, always yields exceptional Champagnes). 

The 2002 vintage, still generally available, is drinking beautifully now, and should last for another decade.  We tasted the 2002 Piper-Heidsieck Rare, and it easily outshone the magnum of 1998 Rare in magnum that we tasted previously.  It is rich, very powerful, and young, and was one of the best Champagnes in our tasting.  For Piper-Heidsieck--as well as many other producers--2002 was a great vintage.

The 2003 vintage was far too warm and produced very few Vintage Champagnes.

Both 2004 and 2005, currently available, are average vintages.  I prefer the 2006; some producers have released their Champagnes from this vintage.  Unlike the ’04 and ’05, 2006 Champagnes will need some time to mature.  Probably not too many producers will make a 2007; it is shaping up to be very average.

The most exciting news out of Champagne is that the 2008 vintage will be great--the best since the incredible 1996.  I personally cannot wait to try them.

It is fortunate that 2008 appears to be great, because 2009, ’10, and ’11 all seem to be not good enough to make decent Vintage Champagnes.  On the other hand--although it is still very early--there are high hopes for the 2012 vintage.

The main focus of our tasting was to compare the 1995 and 1996 vintages in Champagne.  I have spoken to not a few Champagne producers who prefer the 1995 to the 1996 vintage in Champagne.  I completely disagree.  At our tasting, we tried three 1995s; two Prestige Cuvées, the Bollinger R.D. and the Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, and the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Brut.  We also tasted two 1996s, the Charles Heidsieck Brut Vintage, and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne. 

We all agreed that both ‘96s were the two best Champagnes in the tasting (followed by the 2002 Piper-Heidsieck Rare, for me).  The ’96 Charles Heidsieck is explosive; its great acidity and great fruit team up for a perfect tasting experience.  The ’96 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne is one of the best (if not the best) Comtes I have ever tasted.  It is so young, vibrant and fresh.  Both 1996s have long futures ahead of them.

The three 1995s were good, more quiet, and ready to drink.  They were lovely Champagnes, but could not compare to the ‘96s.  I have been drinking up the 1995 Champagnes that I own.  A couple of them have been tired, but most are at a perfect stage to drink now.  The 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc de Millénaires, still currently available, is one of the better ‘95s that I have tasted. 

I am saving my 1996s; most still need more time.  The great ones--such as Krug Vintage, Krug Clos du Mesnil, Roederer Cristal and Rosé, Dom Pérignon, Salon, Cuvée William Deutz and Rosé, Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs--will outlive most wine lovers over 50.

The 1996 vintage combines high acidity, high alcohol, and great fruit.  A few producers, I hear, picked the grapes too soon, and made unbalanced wines that will not age well.  That might be true, but I personally have not come across any less-than-great 1996s.  Advocates of the very good 1995 vintage assert that it is more consistent than the 1996.  But for me, 1995 Champagnes are quiet, less exciting, and are ready now, whereas most 1996s are outstanding now, and will last for decades.  Some critics compare 1996 to such outstanding vintages of the past as 1928 and 1921.  Well, we can’t get those vintages now, but we can still drink the 1996s.

Summing up, my favorite vintages of the past 30 years are 1996 and 1988, in that order, followed by 2002.  And I’m looking forward to the 2008s!