As I promised last week, this Champagne Friday I am going to review some of the vintage wines in current release that we tasted at our Champagne Summit. This is a good time to be drinking Champagne, as a honeymoon with climate change has blessed the region with many good vintages, and more declarations of vintage wine than at any other time in history. Since this is a big project, I am going to break it down into pieces, starting this week with 1999-2003. I don’t like to pigeon hole vintages or over generalize, so I’ll start with a quick overview, and then give examples from each to flesh it out:
1999: A vintage that seemed light in the beginning, but now has a lot to offer. This was a large harvest with good ripeness and excellent consistency. This is our most ready-to-drink vintage in general, and most of our best tasting vintage Champagne for today comes from this harvest.
1999 Billecart-Salmon "Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart" NFB Brut Champagne $99: This Champagne is composed of 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay and is 1/3 barrel fermented. It is aged for three years on the lees and is dosed at a tiny 3g/l of sugar. It has a pretty white gold color and an incredible bouquet of cream, high quality toast and even some nutella. It is rich Champagne with plenty of texture, but the very low dosage snaps it right into focus. It has all the complexity one could ask for in a Champagne.
1999 Thiénot "Cuvée Alain Thiénot" Brut Champagne $99: This classy vintage Champagne is composed of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. Like all of the Thiénot vintage wines, this bottling is entirely estate grown from the family's nearly seventy acres of vines. The Alain Thiénot has so much aroma that I thought it would be a giant Champagne from smelling the walnut bread and dark cherry fruit that was jumping from the glass. On the palate this is a very balanced wine with great clarity of flavor and a light bead. The long aging of this Champagne has done so much for it--to think that the most famous names in Champagne are selling wine that is four or even 6 years younger shows Thiénot's commitment to quality in the bottle. It is extremely focused and long on the finish and a must-try for anyone who loves luxury cuvées.
2000: A difficult vintage, with lots of spring and summer storms that (like in Bordeaux) was saved by good weather at the end. A lot of folks in the trade, myself included, thought that it was a cynical declaration and that producers were cashing in on the millennium. Luckily, I was wrong, and these broad shouldered, softer wines offer a lot of enjoyment for the present and the near future.
2000 Charles Heidsieck Brut Champagne $89.99: This wine is composed of 58% Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay and is no doubt the toastiest, broadest, most “English style” Champagne in stock at K&L. This big, leesy, impressive bottle has a ton of flavor to offer! It is interesting how every magazine reviewer has a different varietal breakdown in their notes… I got mine from the tech sheet that the winery generated, but this wine is more about toast than it is about Pinot or Chardonnay!
2001: A rained out vintage, where the average potential alcohol for the region only reached 8.6%. A lot of producers call this the worst harvest in a generation. It is very rare to see any vintage dated wine from this harvest. Our friends at De Meric passed on the entire harvest and made no wine in 2001… It was that bad! That being said, some very good non-vintage wines were made… The 2001 based Krug Grand Cuvee is the CEO of Krug’s favorite, but it pre-dates the Krug ID, so finding it is next to impossible.
2002: A powerful, concentrated vintage that has both ripeness and structure. This was one of my first few vintages that I tasted as vin-clair, and the growers were reticent at the time about declaring it great… The Champenois are a different breed than the Bordelais, who declare everything that is not completely washed out “the vintage of the century”! That being said, looking back at my notes, many producers made a lot of vintage dated wine and weren’t afraid to say so. The Ariston’s, who in a normal “vintage” year make 12,000 bottles of vintage, made 20,000 bottles in 2002.
2002 Piper-Heidsieck "Cuvée Rare" Brut Champagne $144.99: This is the top of the line wine from Piper-Heidsieck and may be the greatest tête-de-cuvée Champagne that you have not tried. It is composed of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir and vinified in stainless steel tanks with full malolactic. This is one of the last 2002's on the market, as most houses sell much younger Champagne even for the top of their range. This was a vintage of both great concentration and finesse, and the Rare shows this. It is a very finely balanced, elegant wine with great length. This wine is drinking great now, but judging by how well bottles from the 1980s taste, it will continue to improve for decades to come.
2002 Ayala "Perle d'Ayala" Brut Champagne $129.99: This was a big favorite from the staff Champagne summit, and was finer and higher toned than most of the rich 2002’s. It had an excellent bouquet, with both wonderful chalk and baguette like toasty aromas. In the mouth it was a fresh, electric wine with a very long finish. This is a class act! It is composed of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir, entirely from Grand Cru vineyards and has been aged for 11 years on the lees. It is very dry at just 6 grams per liter of dosage. This house has been missing from the US market for a while, but with Bollinger’s purchase of it in 2005, it is a house to watch.
2003: I used to call the 2003 vintage “The end of the honeymoon with global warming”, but the good times have returned for now. This vintage was precocious, and the heat in the spring caused very early budding. Unfortunately, frost struck with a vengeance, and 2/3 of the entire Chardonnay crop was destroyed over night. The intense heat of the summer made for the earliest harvest in more than 100 years, and many people in France died in the heatwave. To top it all off, local hail was strong enough to kill some vineyards outright… The Ariston’s lost some of their oldest vines in one of these storms. The wines are uniformly oversized and lacking in acid. It surprised me how many producers declared vintage wines, but luckily most are gone from the market now. Some exceptions exist, and for those looking for big style Champagne, the 2003’s deliver size in spades. We didn’t taste any for the summit.
Next week, I hope to at least get through the 2004’s… There is so much to crow about when it comes to Champagne from that vintage!
A toast to you!