The best Champagnes for the 2011 party season
The golden age
Champagne’s finest houses are enjoying exceptionally good fortune this year, and all just in time for the party season. From aromatic blanc de blancs to sparkling rosés, we’ve tasted and rated the very best.
It’s golden times for anyone who enjoys a glass of great fizz from France, as things don’t get much better than this. The big names are offering higher quality wines than ever before and several of the very famous are in sparkling form. In addition, we have a huge array of growers’ Champagnes, small houses, rosés, terroir-focused Champagnes, sans sucre styles, excellent vintages, exciting flagships and even some ridiculously expensive fizz as well.
As ever, houses concentrate on their non-vintage releases. A consistent house style is all important but that doesn’t mean occasional tinkering doesn’t go astray. Benoît Gouez, the brilliant chef de cave at Moët & Chandon, is making tiny but important modifications and the wines have never been better. Big can be beautiful. A slight lowering of the level of dosage has ensured the wines look fresher and finer than ever. Didier Mariotti at G H Mumm, has transformed the house from one that was under-performing to one of today’s most vibrant and exciting; a return to its glory days. He has also revived their flagship, the Cuvée R Lalou, with the 1998 and 1999 vintages. I think they exceed any of the earlier releases, and for those who enjoy prestige Champagne, they are a must try. These are just two of many examples.
And of course, in Champagne there is always an anniversary if you need a reason for a party. This year, Bollinger celebrates the 50th birthday of its wonderful Cuvée Bollinger RD (see page 68), though that is small bikkies compared with Perrier-Jouët notching up an amazing two centuries.
A few years ago, rosé Champagne was all the rage. Undoubtedly still popular, it has made the transformation from frivolous and fun to a Champagne style that is almost mainstream. There is still a curious tendency to match it with desserts but, notwithstanding its popularity, more and more lovers of fizz understand that it can be just as serious as any style of Champagne.
There was a brief upsurge in non-dosage, extra brut, sans sucre – whatever you wish to call them. This promises to be little more than a niche product over time. Good ones can be truly exciting but, more than with any other Champagne, there is no place to hide. Normally, Champagne allows its makers, with methods including a variety of blending opportunities and dosage levels, many options to paper over any cracks that may appear in a wine. Not so with these bone-dry efforts. And some consumers find them confronting. There is also a school of thought that believes that this style does not age well.
The move to terroir-based and single-vineyard wines is partly a forced one, as we see more than a few of the small producers and tiny growers offering wines in their own names. They simply do not have the resources to do otherwise. But beyond that, there is a genuine interest in wines that are so sourced. It is, in many ways, a curious move as no region is more the antithesis of that style – blending vintages, varieties and vineyards. In general, this is a sans-terroir region, if one discounts the terroir of the entire place. That said, one feels that these wines have a much more promising future than many of the sans sucre Champagnes.
While we are not quite in the midst of a trio of glorious years like 1988, 1989 and 1990, or even a thunderous duo such as 1995 and 1996, there are many good vintages on the shelves. There has also been a trend – possibly a slowing of sales or a move to greater complexity from extra time on lees – to far more “years” being available, from various producers, than one used to encounter. Once, it seemed every house had the same year, or very close to it, as the current release. Now, vintages range across a decade.
While there is precious little 1995 and 1996 still on the shelves, there are still a number of wines from both 1998 and 1999. Interesting years, as they tend to divide Champagne lovers. I find more character and intensity, more finesse and complexity in the earlier year but it is not consistent across the board. Others disagree, of course, and cons-umers should look on it as a house-to-house proposal. 1999 is marked by low acidity – it had looked like a cracker till rains in mid-September. Like 1988, the reputation of 1998 is increasing with time in the bottle.
2000 has some exciting wines, some impacted due to hail, but attractive and reas-onably soft wines. 2002 is the current stellar year, with the pinot noir especially highly regarded. It is one for the long term. 2003 was horrendously hot, though also had some much cooler periods, with considerable frost damage. It was the earliest year since 1822. Claims that it sits with years like 1947, 1959, 1976 may have some basis in the soulless numbers but as yet, there is little evidence that it matches them in qualitative terms. Indeed, for me, one of the reasons we are seeing such a lovely range of non-vintage wines at the moment is that the houses have moved past ’03 as a base.
2004 is, for many, the next best thing to 2002. It is a high-quantity and high-quality year. Although it might seem too early for us to be considering 2005, it is seen as a reasonable, though not great year. Chardonnay is the winner. 2006, even earlier, is another chardonnay year and should exceed ’05. Anecdotal evidence suggests that 2008 will out-do them all.
Sales of Champagne are on the up. From 2009 to the first half of 2010, exports increased by 40 per cent. It was estimated that consumption in 2010 would be between 300 and 325 million bottles, well ahead of 2009, though that year was a reduced one, due to issues like the GFC. There are conc-erns as to whether discounting will impact on reputations, though the region has dealt with these matters before and escaped relat-ively unscathed. Of more potential harm to its credibility might be the emergence of the ‘bling’ Champagnes – purely celebrity-driven, gaudily packaged, wildly expensive wines. While reviews are scarce, for obvious reasons, there are almost none that seem genuinely favourable, in comparison with the truly great Champagnes.
Meanwhile, here are some of the very many, very fine Champagnes that are available, and do not require the equivalent of sovereign debt. Note that some of the smaller houses release their Champagnes as non-vintage, even though they are from a single vintage as this allows them more scope in production, freed from the constraints of the rules for vintage wines.
The Big Guns
Why not start with something really special? The 2002 Bollinger La Grande Année (A$220) is a wonderfully complete Champagne, seamless and rich, intriguingly complex and very long. It has notes of hazelnuts, stone fruits, minerals and honey (97 points). The NV Bollinger Special Cuvée (A$110) now sees around four years on lees, and is in great form. Fresh and bright, with spice, wet stone, stone fruits and more (93). The NV Bollinger Rosé (A$145) has strawberry notes and a delightful creamy texture (92). Ayala is now part of the Bolly empire. The pick is the 2004 Ayala Blanc de Blancs (A$115), a lovely fragrant style with toast, spice, lemon and nuts. It’s rounder and more forward than some 2004s (90).
While Bolly’s 50 years for their RD deserves a party, 200 years requires a serious celebration. Perrier-Jouët is a famous house, with its distinctive Belle Epoque bottle known around the globe. The NV Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut (A$90) is a fine subtle style, with gentle red berries; it’s elegant and fragrant and has a lingering finish. A joy (90). The 2004 Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque (A$299) is one of the best Champagnes around at the moment, arguably the pick of the 2004s, along with Roederer’s Cristal. It’s 100 per cent grand cru, has six years on lees and is an even split between chardonnay and pinot noir. Beautifully elegant yet quite piercing. A finely balanced, exquisite wine (96).
Pol Roger is a much-loved producer and it never fails to impress. The ever-popular NV Pol Roger Brut Réserve (A$90) is always a classic – underlying power, elegance, balance, a hint of grapefruit, and delightfully fresh (92). The 2000 Pol Roger Brut (A$130), pinot noir dominant, has balance and endless flavours, with citrus, spice, nuts and florals (93). The 2000 Pol Roger Rosé (A$130) is even better, with lingering fragrances and a strawberries-and-cream note. (94).
Deutz is a house in glorious form. The NV Deutz Brut Classic (A$80) is tight with an intriguing mix of lemon and raspberry notes (90). The 2005 Deutz ($110), certainly an early release, gives hope to those considering the vintage. Good complexity and a hint of truffles poking through (92). The flagship, 1999 Deutz Cuvée William Deutz (A$250) is a fine example of the gentle style of that vintage. Mushrooms and figs. Good acidity for the year (92).
Billecart-Salmon has its usual array of superb releases. The NV Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve (A$85) is the personification of elegance in a wine. Enticing aromatics and fine balance (93). Their pinnacle must surely be the 1998 Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas Francois Billecart (A$170), an ethereal, delicate wine; tight, complex and very long. It has a great future and will become even more exciting in a few years (95). The NV Billecart-Salmon Blanc de Blancs (A$120) is as fresh as rain on forest leaves. It opens up on the palate. An exquisite wine from one of the finest houses (92).
The NV Charles Heidsieck Rosé Réserve (A$127) is fascinating in that it is so pale, one would hardly think it a rosé. The colour may deceive as there is underlying power and steeliness here (91). The NV Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve (A$90) has its usual concentration, power and length and a smoky bacon note to go with rich citrus characters (92). Its sibling, Piper-Heidsieck, offers far less complex wines, though the NV Piper-Heidsieck Rosé Sauvage (A$103) has some pleasant cherry notes (88).
For me, the top wines from Gosset far outstrip their lower level efforts. The 2000 Gosset Grand Millésimé (A$160) has a mix of minerals, honey, spices and florals (92). NV Gosset Grand Rosé (A$135) is even better, with fresh red berry and clotted cream notes. Bright acidity and good intensity (93).
I’ve never encountered a better set of releases from Henriot. The NV Henriot Brut Souverain (A$80) is a seamless, classy, balanced wine. It uses 2006 as the base year and shows honey and citrus (93). The 2000 Henriot Brut Millésimé (A$130), nine years on lees, is complex and refined, with a hint of toast emerging (95). The NV Henriot Blanc de Blancs (A$99) is also superb, supple, silky and complex (94).
Lanson is a house that has been tugged every which-way over recent decades but is re-establishing itself. The 1999 Lanson Gold Label (A$85) has wet stone, florals and touches of toast (90).
Laurent-Perrier, yet another of the region’s great names, produces the most famous of the sans sucre styles, their NV Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut (A$135). Limes, minerals, river pebbles and fine acidity (91). The 2002 Laurent-Perrier Millésimé (A$120) is refreshing with an appealing mix of creamy lemon notes, apricot and honey (91). The NV Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Brut (A$150) is fragrant and delicate, with gentle spices and hints of raspberry (91).
Louis Roederer’s wines are always exemplary. The NV Louis Roederer Brut Premier (A$90) is fresh, floral and elegant with lemon blossom notes and minerality (92). The 2005 Louis Roederer Brut Vintage (A$135) is special. Tight and restrained, needing time to open, it has laser-like focus and great persistence. There was 30 per cent barrel fermentation, four years on lees, 70 per cent pinot noir and 10 grams per litre residual sweetness, for those into the numbers (95). The 2006 Louis Roederer Vintage Rosé (A$135) is amazingly subtle, just the merest hint of red berry notes. Lovely rosé (93). And the pinnacle, the 2004 Louis Roederer Cristal (A$350), is just magnificent. Subtle, delicate and still very young. A hint of almond, grapefruit, spice. Underlying power and a great future. A wond-erful Champagne (97).
The world’s biggest Champagne producer, Moët & Chandon, is in rare form. The NV Moët & Chandon Impérial (A$85) offers a hint of nuts and citrus with impressive length (90). The 2002 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage (A$106) is more complex, with more focus and length and a lovely, endearing soft palate (92).
And the world’s oldest Champagne house, Ruinart, is finally getting due exposure here. The NV Ruinart Blanc de Blancs (A$120) has 2004 as its base. Spice, citrus, a hint of honey, stone fruits – and finishing with a fine crispness (92). The NV Dom Ruinart Rosé (A$120) has spices, red berry notes and dry herbs but really comes to life on the palate (93). The 1998 Dom Ruinart Blanc (A$320) is seriously good, and in some respects is more a wine than a Champagne. Warm bread notes and a creamy texture (94).
Veuve Clicquot has been at the top of its game for many years now and the current releases are no different. The NV Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut (A$89) is one of the very best standard non-vintages going around. Fine balance and excellent length (93). The 2004 Veuve Clicquot Vintage ($132) is first class. Balanced, intense, ripe and rich. It has great promise (94). The 2004 Veuve Clicquot Vintage Rosé (A$148) is a stunner. Alluring and seductive, more gentle than some of the wines from this house, this is seamless, fresh and very long. A hint of blackberry (95). The 1998 Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame (A$200) is wonderfully complex and developing superbly. It epitomises how good the wines from this house have become (96).
If any house has undergone a major transformation, it must surely be Mumm, fast re-establishing itself to its former glory. The NV G H Mumm Cordon Rouge (A$75) has spice, dry herbs, stone fruits and raspberry notes. A firm finish (90). A personal fave has long been the NV G H Mumm Blanc de Blancs Mumm de Cramant (A$199) and it is as good as ever, no surprise when one learns that it is based on the 2002 vintage. Jasmine, stone fruits and much more (93). The 1999 G H Mumm Cuvée R Lalou (A$399) may be one of the wines where the 1999 edges the previous vintage. This is a subtle, soft, comp-lex, special wine (94).
Pommery is another house which showing great recent form. The one to chase is the NV Pommery Apanage Rosé (A$150), a lighter style with fine structure and good length (92). The 1999 Pommery Cuvée Louise (A$250) is interesting. It’s spent 10 years on lees and has some honeysuckle and bready notes. It is certainly a fine Champagne (91).
Jacquesson is a special maker. The NV Jacquesson No 734 (A$85) has warm brioche, oatmeal and citrus notes (93). The 2000 Jacquesson (A$199) has peach pit, citrus, apricot and bready flavours (93). The star is the stunning 2000 Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs (A$165) with a layered creamy texture, complexity, spice and honey. Tightly structured and very long (96).
Taittinger has a fine array. The NV Taittinger Prélude Grands Crus (A$130) is a highlight with delightful suppleness and a mix of lemon and mineral notes (93). The 2004 Taittinger Brut Millésimé (A$140), again offers lemony notes and is bright, fresh and long (91). The 2003 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé (A$415) is an attractive, full-flavoured and generous style. Lots of red fruits (92). More exciting is the current 1998 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (A$320). There is an appealing richness with orange blossom, honey and warm bread notes. Building in complexity. Spine tingling (96).
Krug is simply one of the great wine prod-ucers on the planet. The Krug Grande Cuvée ($349) is no mere non-vintage, but rather an exquisite multi-vintage (which is what Krug prefers it to be called) wine of soaring complexity and class. As usual, it benefits from some time in the cellar but you’ll enjoy it whenever you drink it. Most houses would give their souls for a flagship this good, let alone as their standard (95). The NV Krug Rosé ($529) is, quite simply, the antithesis of the usual image for rosé, frivolous and fun. This is an impeccably structured and slightly lean Champagne. Again, ageing will reward.
Gentle red berries (96). If you had to say something negative about the 1998 Krug ($449), you could mention that it may not quite match the glorious 1996, though this is like saying Shane Watson doesn’t quite match up to Bradman. There are orange rind notes, mandarin and nectarine, spices and warm biscuity notes. A hint of white chocolate? Brilliant (97).
No reason you can’t love both Krug and Dom Pérignon, but they are such different styles that they can split the crowd. The 2003 Dom will soon hit the shelves, after initial reports that none would be released. Impossible to imagine, especially with this producer making truly superb wines for so long, that they would release anything that could in any way harm their stellar reputation, but it hardly seems a vintage suited to their elegance and finesse. Time will tell. The good news is that there is still plenty of the spectacular 2002 Dom Pérignon (A$275) available. It’s the personification of finesse. This is exquisitely balanced, very persistent and with hints of citrus, pebbles and creamy vanilla, though it is so well composed that it is hard to pick out individual characters (98). The 1998 Dom Pérignon Rosé (A$780) is like grand-cru Burgundy with fizz. Attractive berry notes, complexity, fresh acidity, this still has many years ahead of it (94).
Salon is legendary, for good reason, so the release of a new vintage 1999 Salon Brut (A$700), only the 37th, is news, though launching it with a feed of fish and chips, as they did in the UK, may raise a few eyebrows. There is a wonderful richness here, complexity certainly, and notes of warm bread, grapefruit and jasmine. It may just be the best Champagne from 1999 (97).
A final thought. If the economic situation is getting you down, avoid the regret of one of the most famous economists of all – John Maynard Keynes claimed his only regret was that he did not drink more Champagne!
TEXT KEN GARGETT PHOTOGRAPHY JAMES MOFFATT
This article is from the December 2011/January 2012 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.