New Vintage Champagnes

Hard numbers say that Champagne is more popular in the United States than ever before, with over 23 million bottles imported in 2006—up 12% from the previous year. Unfortunately, prices too have never been higher. Most of this problem reflects the harsh reality of the slumping U.S. dollar, which, as American wine lovers know by now, has severely affected retail pricing for most European imports. But don’t freak when you see the prices listed here: as I have said before, use the listed prices as a guide, not as gospel. Various wholesalers and retailers are apt to apply wildly different pricing formulas to Champagne.

Recent vintages. The record heat of 2003, which so strongly afflicted the vineyards of Europe, did not spare Champagne. It is no overstatement to call 2003 the most extreme vintage in Champagne’s history, or at least since records have been kept. An early spring freeze reduced the crop by nearly 50%, and conditions were even worse in the Côtes des Blancs, where up to 75% of the chardonnay was killed off. A second generation of buds that emerged a couple of weeks after the freeze produced grapes that also managed to achieve higher-than-normal ripeness while retaining their usual high acidity, and this element helped add at least a touch of relief from the overall superripe character of this infamous heat-wave vintage. The harvest commenced on August 21, the earliest start ever recorded in Champagne. Due to the very low quantity of wine produced and the often over-the-top, low-acid personalities of these wines, most 2003 wine will be blended into non-vintage (NV) bottlings, although a few 2003 vintage Champagnes are starting to pop up in the market.

Based on what I have seen so far, 2002 looks to be a well-above-average vintage and the best year for Champagne since 1996, even if it’s not in the quality league of that great vintage. The weather was nearly ideal from the beginning, with a dry, moderate season throughout, allowing the harvest to begin on September 16, which is fairly typical for the modern era. Grapes were brought in under warm conditions and the harvest lasted until the first week of October. By most accounts, grape sugars and resultant alcohol levels were on the high side (actually, the highest since 1990) and acidities were lower than normal, but nowhere near the extremes experienced in the following vintage. The warm end to the season resulted in some passerillage (dehydration of the berries due to sun and/or wind), giving the wines increased concentration. So far, the 2002s appear full and flavorful, and many are already drinking well, if not showing their full potential.

The upper crust. My coverage of Champagne in this article is limited to vintage releases, although I also plan to offer tasting notes on the best non-vintage Champagnes on the IWC website in the coming weeks. In the course of my tastings this fall, I tried a number of outstanding tête de cuvée Champagnes that gave me chills both while drinking them and later when I saw their suggested retail prices. Bottles with price tags in the $200+ range are now common, with some heading north of $300, $400 and even $500. As good as many of these wines might be, it is tough to say that asking prices reflect objective reality or the costs of production. Whether they represent value is strictly relative, of course, but in very few cases does a quantum leap in pricing from a house’s “regular” vintage release to its luxury bottling guarantee a correspondingly significant leap in quality, at least to my palate.

Current releases. Note that because of the staggered release schedules and widely different holding periods of producers, many current vintage Champagne releases are the same vintages I reviewed last year. Readers should reacquaint themselves with the best wines featured in Issue 129 as they comb the market, especially since well-stored bottles that were brought into the U.S. last year could be considerably less expensive than the same wines bought by the trade this year with a much weaker dollar.