New Vintage Champagne Releases

Due to a heavier than usual tasting and travel schedule in recent months, my coverage of Champagne this fall is limited to vintage-designated wines, plus a few non-vintage brut bottlings that essentially derive from a single harvest. I am happy to report that I've never before tasted a higher percentage of excellent Champagnes than I did this year.

Most of today's new vintage releases are from 1995 through 1999. A few comments on these vintages are in order. First, the '97s appear to be firmer wines than I expected in light of conditions for chardonnay and pinot noir in the Côte d'Or that year. Many '97 Champagnes show an enticing floral character and are surprisingly fresh and young. The '98s are well-balanced, rather stylish wines from moderately ripe fruit. I suspect this will always be an underappreciated vintage, in much the same way that 1993 has been. Thus far, I am a bit disappointed by the '99s: of the early releases I've tasted, more than a few offer only moderate concentration or simply lack grip. No doubt high crop levels were a factor, but many growers also reported low acidity and very high pHs in 1999.

I have expressed my feelings before on 1996 and 1995. Vintage '96, with its uncanny combination of high grape sugars and high acidity, it is in the same quality league as 1990 and 1985, which is to say that it's a five-star vintage. While many of these wines are still painfully young—sometimes even a bit youthfully disorganized—they should be extremely long-lived in the context of Champagne. If you have a cold cellar, you owe it to yourself to buy and lay down a selection of the best 1996s. But 1995 is also excellent: I rate this vintage four stars out of five. The best wines offer especially dense texture without sacrificing the elegance that distinguishes Champagne from the rest of the world's sparkling wines.

In today's mostly calm international wine market, there is little incentive to rush new vintage Champagnes to market. So a number of my favorite houses have not sent new vintage releases to the U.S. since I last reviewed Champagne in depth last fall. (Notable omissions include Gosset, Pierre Peters, Pol Roger, Salon and Taittinger.) Other Champagne producers have just a single new release in the U.S. market. In order to provide more inclusive coverage, I have therefore reprinted my scores from additional vintage Champagnes reviewed in these pages last year and likely still to be on retail shelves.

The following currently available vintage Champagnes are from producers who are not featured in this article: Chartogne-Taillet: 1996 Brut Cuvee Vieilles Vignes (90+). Pierre Gimonnet: 1999 Cuvee Gastronome Blanc de Blancs (91). Gosset: 1998 Celebris Rose (91(+?), 1996 Grand Millesime Brut (93(+?)). Alfred Gratien: 1996 Brut (91(+?)). Pierre Peters: 1997 Blanc de Blancs Cuvee Speciale Brut (90), 1997 Blanc de Blancs Brut Millesime (90). Pol Roger: 1996 Brut (90(+?)), 1996 Brut Chardonnay (94(+?)), 1996 Rose (90), 1995 Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill (92(+?)). Salon: 1995 Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil (94(+?)). Taittinger: 1998 Brut Millesime (90), 1996 Comte de Champagne Rose (95), 1995 Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (97(+?)).