Champagne: The 2023 Spring Preview
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MAY 23, 2023
Champagne is one of the most dynamic regions in the world.
Change and innovation continue at an increasingly fast pace. Many of
the most coveted wines now command Burgundy-like premiums, a relatively recent
phenomenon here. There’s a lot more going on beyond the obvious, though, and
plenty to explore.
This report covers wines I have tasted so far in 2023,
including those from a week I spent in Champagne this past March. The producer
mix leans a bit towards the larger houses only because they tend to release
their wines with more time post-disgorgement than the growers, only some of
which have new wines ready to taste in the early part of the year. As is
customary, my larger, more comprehensive report will follow later this
Amphoras in one of the
cellar rooms at Henri Giraud, where they are a complement to the heavily
curated selection of oak barrels used for most of the wines.
Grower Champagne - A New Era
Champagne has been all the rage for the last twenty or so years. For readers new
to the category, grower estates are small, family-owned domaines that started
making Champagne from their vineyards as contracts to supply larger houses
expired, similar to what happened earlier in regions like Burgundy and
Piedmont. These wines were frequently marketed as purer, artisan expressions of
place – Champagnes with more personality, often made with a greater focus on
sustainable viticulture and low-intervention cellar practices. They also cost, or used to cost, substantially less than grand marque Champagnes, which were
often portrayed as essentially soulless corporate products with flashy
packaging. It was a good story and often true. Over time, the maisons lost
visibility on restaurant lists and in the minds of passionate consumers as
grower Champagnes exploded in popularity.
Today, the grower Champagne movement has reached an
inflection point. As I have written a few times in recent years, today we are
witnessing a sort of convergence, where the differences between these two
categories – once stark – are now far more nuanced.
The idea of small production, artisan Champagne made by a
vigneron and their family offers plenty of romance. There is no question about
it. But the realities of running a business that lacks scale can be pretty harsh. For
that reason, many grower estates are quietly and gradually increasing
production, introducing new wines and testing the upper end of the market with
regards to pricing.
In the middle of a large cellar expansion, Francis Egly
explained that he is comfortable growing his output now that his two children
are involved in the business. Olivier Collin, who is marking the 20th
anniversary of his domaine this year, proudly told me he bottles more lieu-dit
Champagne than any grower as we tasted through a vertical of his Rosé de
Saignée Les Maillons for an upcoming article. I did not do the math to see if his
statement is totally accurate, but it doesn’t matter. The intent is clear. And
that intent is scale. Scale that is necessary to survive and grow in today’s
world. That said, increases in production are not going to turn small grower estates into large maisons. The difference in size between the two types of wineries remains significant.
Champs with his son, Thomas, at Vilmart, which has long been a beacon of
quality for polished, artisan, grower Champagne.
Investment is another hot topic. Many smaller domaines, including
Pierre Péters and Vilmart, have impressive new cellars and/or tasting rooms. Brothers
Raphaël and Vincent Bérêche spun out their holdings in Les Monts Fournois and created a new estate that is run by their cousin, Juliette
Alips, whose resume includes stints at G.D. Vajra, Roederer and Château
Latour. The Bérêche brothers have also decided to triple the price of Reflet d’Antan, their
flagship wine, so they can make important investments in their
business. “Most domaines our size use mobile equipment for disgorging and
bottling,” Raphaël Bérêche explained. “We want to move these operations fully in-house
so we can totally control the bottling process, which we believe is fundamental
in improving quality. We are also very concerned about the lack of skilled
labor in Champagne and want to be in a position where we don’t depend on
outside contractors. Ultimately, my job is to ensure the domaine is in a solid
position for the future.” Having some experience in this subject, I am
certainly not going to criticize anyone who invests meaningfully in their
Prices for a number of wines have become stratospheric, à la
Burgundy, as more and more consumers discover the most coveted growers and
wines. Some of these prices strike me as absurd, but the market can move very,
very quickly when production is tiny. For growers and wines that are established,
it is what it is. I am more concerned with the trend of young producers with
little or no track record commanding high prices. If the wines are good, the
market may very well absorb those prices. If they aren’t, it’s a house of
To be sure, many of grower estates aren’t the same sleepy
domaines I started visiting 15-16 years ago. This is not to say the values of
hand-made artisan Champagnes have been lost. They haven’t. But small grower
estates have to adapt in order to thrive in today’s world. Finding value in
grower Champagne is still possible, but it takes work.
There is change at the big houses, but it is slow. Roederer
continues to be the most innovative of the grand marques. Roederer was the
first of the maisons to focus heavily on organic and then biodynamic
viticulture. The Brut Nature Champagnes done in collaboration with Philippe
Starck and a bevy of new, small-production bottlings are further manifestations
of a grower spirit wrapped in the luxury image of a grande marque. Bollinger
has followed by adding several new cuvées to a lineup that was essentially unchanged for many, many
years, if not decades. Ruinart has just recently released a new Brut Nature
Blanc Singulier, which represents an important stylistic shift, at least for
that wine. In short, the maisons are shaking things up.
Fred Savart with some
of his new glass wine globes, a modern-day version of the demijohn.
What’s New Under the Sun?
As is true around the world, the paradigm for Champagne has
been turned upside down in the last thirty years or so. “When I came to
Champagne from Bordeaux in 2000, the fear was rot,” Chef de Caves Vincent Chaperone
explained at Dom Pérignon. "Hygiene of the fruit was the first parameter of
quality. Today, botrytis is a second or third priority. Back then, we picked
based on sugar and acid levels. The window from reaching ripeness to rot in
most years was very compact. Alcohol potential was a pretty good measure of
physiological ripeness. Today, because of climate change, we live in a time
where there can be great disassociation between the elements of phenolics,
aromatics, acidity and alcohol potential. We have other challenges, including
excess heat and drought. Off aromas and flavors, like mushroomy notes
(ACF-Arôme de Champignon Frais) are hard to detect because they only show up
A recent development is the growing use of alternative aging
vessels to retain freshness. These range from larger wood barrels and casks to
amphoras made of various materials. Glass wine globes are the latest rage.
Globes are a modern-day version of demijohns and have several advantages over
oak beyond capturing freshness, including longer durability. Globes also
require much less water to clean, which addresses the growing concern that a
lack of water is potentially a long-term threat to viticulture and life
The Coulon family, Louise,
Edgar, Isabelle and Eric, at their cellars in Vrigny.
A Look at Recent Vintages
These are a few observations on recent vintages in
Champagne. Readers should note that thus far, a majority of the wines from the most
recent years are either NV Champagnes or single vintage grower Champagnes
where the vintage is not officially declared. Unlike other regions, gathering a
complete view of a vintage in Champagne takes a number of years and is only
possible once a representative sample of the top wines has been released.
Intense heat and drought have fundamentally changed the
ripening cycle and altered the standard parameters used for decades to think
about vintages. For example, in years such as 2015 and 2020, it is quite clear that
some grapes were not fully ripe, as we will examine in further detail below.
Tasting vins clairs
and reserve wines at Roederer.
2022: A Solar Vintage
Two thousand twenty-two is going to be fascinating to
follow. It was the second warmest vintage ever in Champagne (after 2018), as
measured by growing degree day data provided by the Comité Champagne. Not
everyone agrees. “I think of 2022 as a very dry year, but not
especially hot,” Charles Philipponnat told me. “Yields were abundant, and that
was a help. I see the wines as closer in style to years with higher yields
rather than to very hot years.”
For sure, though, there is no other region in the world where
the concept of “ripeness” is as variable as it is in Champagne. “It was a year
in which we had to wait to get to the optimal ripeness we seek, which is around
12% potential alcohol, but I have plenty of colleagues who picked at 9% on the
first official day of harvest,” Fred Savart explained, illustrating this point
vividly. “All our 2022s are 12.5% or higher,” Guillaume Selosse told me.
Vigilance in the cellar was critical. “We lowered the time on lees; the wines
were rich on their own,” Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon highlighted as we tasted
through several dozen samples at Roederer. "We plan to make all our
wines," Ruinart Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaïotis relayed. "It was a
challenging year. We had to stop picking in August because of a heat wave.
Potential alcohols are in the 10.8-11% range, while pHs are around 3.15 as
opposed to a more typical 3.08 or so."
The 2022 vins clairs I tasted are gorgeous.
Extrapolating that into an analysis of quality is much harder because so much
of Champagne is based on the art of blending. Moreover, the reality is that producers are
likely to present only their very best examples of the year at this stage.
The embryonic 2022s offer quite a bit of
richness, that is obvious. But is this Champagne? As alcohols
creep up, the gap between vins clairs vinified for the purpose of making
Champagne and still wines like those one might taste from barrel in Burgundy is
narrowing. This is one of the reasons why Coteaux Champenois as a category continues to grow.
The quiet end of day at Billecart-Salmon’s
Clos Saint-Hilaire in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Quality is up across the board at
Billecart these days.
2021: Cool & Rainy
Two thousand twenty-one was a cold, wet year. Fruit
struggled to ripen in many places. Some wines will be down substantially in
production. At Roederer, the only vintage wine is Cristal. That’s it. At
Selosse, production for the Aÿ and Ambonnay lieux-dits was so heavily impacted by frost that the small amount of fruit that survived was picked and co-fermented for what will be a very singular vintage, tiny production of Contraste. I missed the vins clairs last year, so my early thoughts on
the year are based only on a small sampling of reserve wines. A clearer picture
will emerge in about a year or so, when the first 2021-based NV Champagnes hit
2020: The Modern Day Dilemma
Two thousand twenty is shaping to be an irregular vintage in
Champagne. Some of the 2020-based NV wines I have tasted so far remind me of the
2015s in that they have a slight vegetal quality. These notes are not quite
as strong as they were in 2015, but they are there. Achieving phenolic ripeness without
soaring alcohol has become the biggest challenge in Champagne today. Finding
balance in the vineyard is very, very hard in warm, dry years. It will be
interesting to see how the vintage develops. Five years ago, a top grower was
not especially pleased when I noted a vegetal quality in his wines. Today,
there is no question it is there. At the same time, those green notes are less
evident in the very top cuvées from 2015. If the past is any indication, readers are
advised to approach the 2020-base NV Champagnes with caution. Naturally, it
will be a number of years before the tête de cuvées are released. A more
complete vision of the year will be possible at that time.
2019: Potential Greatness in the Making
Two thousand nineteen was a dramatic year punctuated by two
unprecedented heat spikes. I was in Champagne for the first, which took place
between late June and early July. Temperatures soared and remained high for
several days, resulting in fruit that burned on the vine. The second spike, a
few weeks later (I was in Chablis for that), was suffocating in its intensity.
Even so, the 2019-base Champagnes I have tasted so far are gorgeous, exciting
wines. The vintage reminds me a bit of 2012 in its exuberance and creaminess. I
look forward to tasting more wines as they are released. The tête
de cuvées will start showing up in a few years’ time. For now, the 2019-based
NV Champagnes are immensely pleasurable.
2018: A Bit Much
Two thousand-eighteen is the hottest year on record in Champagne.
Yields were also quite generous. The 2018-base Champagnes are attractive but
also decidedly light in feel and structure, most likely a reflection of high
yields. I find the wines lacking in the mid-palate creaminess found in years
such as 2019. Although 2018 is not a vintage with obvious shortcomings (such as
2020 and 2015), many wines lack the character and depth of truly important years.
Readers can look forward to a series of smaller articles in
the coming weeks and months, and then a large report this fall.
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