Champagne Update

The quality level of Champagne available to American wine drinkers has never been higher, but prices have also never been as lofty, especially at the level of vintage and tete de cuvee bottlings. Will the U.S. market absorb a growing array of $75-and often much pricier-Champagnes? The good news for consumers is that in most major markets Champagne is regularly discounted, especially during the holiday season, which commences at roughly the same time this issue is published. Discounting is especially aggressive for the big houses, with their importers and wholesalers making an extra end-of-year effort to reach sales targets. So, if you are able to take advantage of a competitive retail market, use the suggested retail prices as very rough guides.

On the subject of large houses, note that more than two-thirds of the Champagnes I tasted this year were made by small grower-producers (recoltants-manipulants), reflecting a recent surge in distribution of these Champagnes in the American market by smaller boutique importers. These smaller producers generally offer consumers wines that are more individual if not more idiosyncratic than those shipped by the larger houses, which typically prize consistency above all. That is not to say that all large houses are producing yawn-inducing wines. Far from it, as the large number of impressive bottlings from the big firms I sampled this year bears out. This is especially the case at the level of tetes de cuvee, which can be as fine as any Champagnes made, albeit at a price.

Also worth mentioning is the emergence of more zero-dosage Champagnes-bone-dry, steely, and, in the view of their fans, crystal-clear expressions of the often-great terroirs of the region, unsullied by the adornment that some sugar brings. Detractors-and there are more than a few-often find these wines austere, even severe, so bear this in mind if you're going to give them a go. There is also a growing number of Champagnes available that are raised partially or completely in wood, and often made in a vaguely oxidative and/or low-atmosphere (i.e.,less bubbly) fashion, with nutty, dried-fruit qualities. Those who believe that Champagne's first duty is to be bright, racy and refreshing will likely find such wines curious at best, and flat-out flawed at worst. At the table, however, such Champagnes can really shine, working wonders with rich fish and lighter poultry preparations or, even better, with cheese courses.

Recent Champagne vintages. Two thousand three looks to follow the style of white wine produced across most of Europe in that scorching season: ripe, full, low in acidity, and, at their best, exotically rich. It will be interesting to see which producers attempt to pull off vintage bottlings from this vintage. Most of the juice will find its way into non-vintage blends, and I expect that 2003's superripe, opulent qualities will mark many upcoming non-vintage bottlings, though probably only to a modest degree as the crop level in 2003 was pitifully small.

Two thousand two is shaping up to be a year of impressive finesse and clarity, giving wines that are "finely wrought and articulate," in the words of importer Terry Theise. A number of early-release 2002 vintage bottlings tasted this year performed extremely well, showing delicacy, good concentration and, above all, balance. Vintage 2001, on the other hand, produced wines that are often meager and tart. Houses that specialize in non-vintage Champagnes will no doubt be happy to have these wines on hand for blending with the juice of warmer vintages as a means of adding acid support.

The following wines were tasted in September and October and represent current releases. Many producers now make it possible for consumers to read the often puzzling lot numbers of their various bottlings, which usually begin with an "L" and are followed by a chain, sometimes long, of numbers and letters. (Even vintage-dated Champagnes can be released over an extended period and disgorged at multiple times). Where a disgorgement date was provided on the label, I have indicated it at the beginning of my note-just in case you have the chance to buy the same bottling that I tasted.