Champagne for Everyone

Tasting 200 or so Champagnes is always hard on the palate (hey, somebody got to do it), but this year it was particularly enjoyable labor. In my most extensive fall tastings to date of current Champagne releases, I discovered more great bubbly than ever before, including dozens of excellent to outstanding basic non-vintage brut and blanc de blancs bottlings. Perhaps it's simply a function of the high prices of most other collectible categories of wine, but this year I can use "Champagne" and "value" in the same sentence-quite a turn of events considering that Champagne's producers have historically cultivated their wines' snob appeal. With most basic non-vintage bruts retailing in the $30-$35 range, the best of these wines deliver excellent quality/price rapport.

No doubt the most important reason for this year's high quality is that many "classic" (i.e., non-vintage brut) Champagnes on sale today are blends based largely on the superb '96 vintage, as well as on the above-average '97 (and perhaps the excellent '95, too), plus greater or lesser percentages of older reserve wines, depending on the producer. In addition, it is likely that, before being shipped to the U.S., the non-vintage Champagnes in the market this fall enjoyed a bit more aging in the deep, cold cellars of Champagne following their disgorgement. Disgorgement is the process whereby the sediment is removed and the still-dry wine is topped up with a solution of wine and sugar, the sugar content of this dosage varying according to the intended sweetness of the finished wine.] Certainly, this autumn's non-vintage releases seem a bit less raw than usual. One possible reason: Shipments of Champagne soared to a record 27 million bottles in '99 (roughly a 40% increase over the previous year), largely due to a pre-millennial buying binge, but with demand back to normal levels this year, wines do not have to be rushed to market.

Recent vintages. Among recent vintages, 1985 remains my top pick. These wines have it all: vibrant, complex aromatics; concentration and firm structure; finesse and unusual persistence on the palate. The best of them will be long-lived. 1988 is just a half-step behind, having produced steely, penetrating, slow-developing Champagnes that are just beginning to round out. 1989 is considered a very good year for Champagne in the local French market; but although some very rich wines emerged from this warm harvest, many examples were overripe to begin with and have developed much too quickly. Too many wines show oxidative qualities without having earned them through extended evolution in bottle.

1990 is a big, rich vintage that yielded many outstanding bottles, although some wines display a tendency toward heaviness. The best '90s are still quite young, so much so that a few top examples have not even been released yet. This is a vintage to buy now and to lay down. The '91 through '94 vintages were a difficult period for Champagne due to rain-plagued harvests (although '93 and '92 produced many more good wines than '91 or '94). 1995 yielded an excellent set of wines, substantial and ageworthy; many early releases from this vintage are now in the marketplace. In fact, 1995 risks being overshadowed by all the advance buzz for '96, which looks to be the most consistently outstanding vintage for the Champagne region since 1985.

In the tasting notes that follow, wines rating less than 85 points are simply listed without description; those I scored 84 or 83 are denoted with asterisks. I have reprinted a few notes from Issue 87 on special vintage bottlings no longer offered by importers or distributors but still widely available at the retail levels; the scores for these wines are shown in italics. In addition, numerous vintage wines that were included in last year's coverage were retasted in recent weeks for this issue; new notes and scores are provided for these bottles.