Focus on Champagne

Whether it is true, as some have maintained, that the major Champagne shippers are holding back much of their best juice for special millennium bottlings to be released in 1999 is impossible for the Champagne outsider to know for certain. But in my recent tastings of Champagnes on the market this fall, there were more disappointments than pleasant surprises among the current crop of non vintage bruts. Many basic bruts that impressed a year ago seemed to be distinctly green or coarse or dull today, and several showed distinct signs of oxidation. On the plus side, at least a few houses that previously seemed content to offer mediocre basic brut bottlings (some of these firms appear to invest more heavily in brand marketing than in the quality of their raw materials and elevage) are now shipping far better wine to export markets.

This is the reason I try to sample current Champagne bottlings every year. Obviously, new vintage designated releases vary significantly from one year to the next, but so do non vintage bruts even if the reputations of most major houses are said to hinge on the quality and consistency of their non vintage blends. After all, juice from weak years must go somewhere.

Certainly, the care taken by importers and their distributors introduces a major variable into the equation of Champagne quality: Champagne is extremely sensitive to rough handling and exposure to heat. So it is entirely possible that the wines released by some shippers are better than they will taste in your dining room this holiday season. But then the bottles I've sampled in the past couple of months are far more likely to resemble the ones you'll be buying in the coming weeks. You can raise your odds of getting fresh Champagne by purchasing wines from shops with reasonably good storage conditions and, better yet, with rapid turnover of Champagne stock.

A word on the 1990 vintage.

Among the wines reviewed on the following pages are a number of examples from the 1990 vintage, a year that provided the raw materials to make outstanding, complete wines. The 1990s may not be quite as pristine or refined as the '85s (for intensity and complexity of flavor, balance and backbone, ageability and sheer class, the '85s are the best vintage of the past generation), but they offer a rare combination of richness and extract on the one hand and acid backbone on the other. As a group, they are larger scaled wines than the '85s. The better '90s possess the sheer richness to provide early pleasure and the structure to gain further with bottle aging. The best of them will make perfect bottles for welcoming the new millennium.

In the tasting notes that follow, wines scoring less than 85 points are simply listed without description; those rating 84 or 83 are denoted with an asterisk. In some instances, American importers are still offering the same vintage bottlings and luxury cuvees that were on the market last fall in most cases because the producer has not yet released the new vintage of a particular wine or because the importer still holds stock of the previous release. In a number of such cases, I have simply reprinted my notes from Issue 75; the scores for these wines are shown in italics. However, some wines that were included in last year coverage were retasted in recent weeks for this issue.