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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Collecting Champagne #2: Vintage Champagne

Tasting 2007 vintage "vin-clair" with the late Pascal Leclerc 

This is the second in a series of three articles on collecting Champagne. For the 1st, please click here.

When wine lovers think of collecting Champagne, the first type we think of is vintage Champagne. Unlike most of the other fine wine regions of the world, Port, Sherry and Madeira being the others that pop to mind, Champagne producers rarely make vintage wine every year. While the rest of the world sees vintage as a point of fact, and wines as the product of one harvest, the Champenois have a different perspective.

Speaking to the producers the feeling among them is that vintage Champagne must have two important attributes. The first is that it must come from a special harvest, one that is noteworthy for conditions during the growing season. The second is that the wine selected must reflect those conditions. In the past two decades, special harvests have been much more common due to climate change, with many producers commenting that history has stopped repeating itself when it comes to the weather. Many wine fans find it strange that a lot of Champenois do not make vintage wines from their oldest vines, citing the fact that the wines are too consistent from year to year for vintage flavor.

A mini-vertical of Bonville: 2005, 2006, 2007

When it comes to collecting these wines, the most important step is the first one: make sure you have enough non-vintage to keep your hands off the young vintage! This advice comes from experience. A well stocked larder of non-vintage Champagne in every style that you like is essential to ageing the rest… As I mentioned last week, off-site storage helps as well! Vintage Champagne is generally delicious on release, but its best days are in the future- this makes them hard to keep, but the reward is great if you can do it.

A case of 1996 Krug is a nice thing for the cellar! 

Unfortunately, most wine critics and journalists do not travel to the region regularly, so choose your sources carefully when reading up on Champagne vintages. One of the best in the business is Peter Liem, with his excellent, a web based publication that is worth the subscription for big Champagne fans. John Tilson of the Underground Wine Letter also does a fantastic job with Champagne. Here are my impressions of recent vintages in Champagne that are in the market now.

2002: A very strong year in Champagne, marked by very good ripeness. Some of the ripest parcels were low in acid, and blended with the high acid 2001’s for non-vintage blends- a novelty at the time that is now common place because of climate change. While hail and botrytis caused some problems in the Cotes de Blancs, good producers wines from this vintage will easily make great drinking past their 20th birthdays.

2003: The worst vintage for Champagne in quite a long time. A spring frost destroyed 2/3 of the Chardonnay crop over night, and searing hot temperatures in summer called for an August harvest of mostly low-acid grapes. Some very good red wines were made in the region, a sure sign of too much sun. The wines tend to be soft at best, and taste like sparkling wine from a hot climate at worst.

2004: My number one pick for collectors in today’s market, this vintage offers a style of wine that is on the endangered species list in Champagne. When I tasted the wines in tank in 2005, I heard the same description over and over from the producers, a “classical” Champagne vintage. This cool, even year produced sleek, lean long distance wines that I believe will become very special with time. While the weather used to reliably produce a vintage like this twice a decade, the last vintage like 2004 was 1988, and they haven’t had another since. This is one to buy, and keep for the long haul. The best of these wines will outlive us.

2005: Big yields and good sunshine had all the growers smiling at when I visited during the harvest in 2005. These are great wines for the medium term with extroverted personalities and good richness. This is the kind of vintage to buy to help keep our hands off of our long term gems. These will provide plenty of pleasure from now until their 15th birthday.

2006: The producers loved this vintage for its “solar” power, and we will be seeing some great press on these wines as they get released. The late spring and early summer were a virtual drought in the region and the vintage was saved by 14 days of August rain that refreshed the vines. The end of August was sunny and dry but not too hot and this good weather held into late September for the harvest. The wines had high potential alcohols and relatively low acidity, but good overall balance. I think this will work out like 1990 did, and like that vintage, the wines that have been released are showing well now. This will be a good vintage to own for its flexibility, they should make charming 20 year wines, but will drink nicely anytime between!

2007: This very strange year ended up making some very good wines. When I came for my spring trip in mid-April, it was warmer in Champagne than it was here in California, very odd! They had some of the earliest budding in the history of the region, and everyone was very scared of spring frost with 2003 still fresh in their minds. Everyone was relived when the “sans glace” date past in May, but late July brought non-stop rain until mid-August! The sun came back, and the anomalous early-harvest, high acid 2007’s were brought in at the end of that month. These fresh wines are lovely, bracing drinks now, and seem to have the structure to age, but with no precedent to compare with only time will tell. I think it safe to say they will make 20, even though they taste like they should make very good 50 year olds. We’ll have to see!

2008: A repeat of 1996, but even better, no other vintage in Champagne has created as much excitement with the producers as this one in my experience. My own notes on the vin-clair’s were effusive, and now that some of the wines are being released the finished product seems to be delivering the goods… This is a great vintage, one of the best in a generation. With ripeness that surpasses 1990, and acid just short of 1996, it truly has it all. The wines will need time, but should outlive us. Keep an eye peeled for these as they come out!

Another thing to think about when collecting vintage Champagne is verticals. Collecting each release from a beloved producer as they come out can be one of the most rewarding things to do with your Champagne cellar. These verticals can be used for tastings, pairing menus or even comparing over a month of Champagne Fridays… While vintage charts like mine above can be handy, good producers always surprise in odd vintages. I love collecting Bonville, and their 1992 is a mind blowing wine from a vintage that most have forgotten. For your favorite affordable producers it is worth buying some every year to see the development of the house style and the diversity of the harvests!

Happy collecting and a toast to you! -Gary

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