New Vintage Champagne Releases

Apparently the large Champagne houses are convinced that the world economy is back on track, if this year’s (suggested) price hikes are any indication. I hope their crystal ball is working, in a larger sense, but I’m alarmed at the fact that many of the most sought-after Champagnes, at least those from the Grandes Marques houses, have escalated in price—in some cases dramatically—since my tastings a year ago. Of course, the hard reality is that the market—through importers, wholesalers, retailers and ultimately consumers—will decide if those higher prices will actually be realized and if they will hold. It’s one thing to ask a price and quite another to actually get it, as any American homeowner or New World syrah producer can attest.

My own opinion is that in a tough economic market such as the one we’re dragging through right now, jacking up Champagne prices at all, much less by 25% or more, is irrational exuberance or simply hubris, or both. Complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. dollar lost about 10% of its value against the Euro between the time I started my Champagne tastings in late summer and the end of October. The most commerce-minded producers and their often hyperactive marketing machines like to promote Champagne as a celebratory beverage, but, to paraphrase British singer Jarvis Cocker, “I don’t see many people smiling here.”

One thing to keep in mind when buying Champagne is that with few exceptions (the small growers being the most obvious), these are emphatically not limited-production wines. To compensate for that fact, some producers go into marketing overdrive and create bottlings with special labels, intricate and expensive boxes, and so forth. You can buy Champagne in a leather box, in a humidor, with a label imitating a dead artist’s work, or wrapped in fake gold leaf, if packaging and presentation matter to you. And as long as so many consumers use Champagne as a token of their wealth or largesse, that packaging is likely to succeed.

All this gaudy wrapping detracts from wine that is often downright superb, especially if it comes from the almost uniformly outstanding 2002 vintage. It’s depressing to think of how much amazingly complex, or potentially complex, 2002 tête de cuvée Champagne will be chugged down mindlessly at nightclubs, fashion shows, movie openings, polo matches, record release parties, automobile shows and art shows over the next couple of years, especially when it is obvious that those are the worlds some Champagne houses have targeted with their marketing. In most cases the wines can stand on their own merits, but apparently that isn’t enough. There’s a story, which I hope is apocryphal, that in the 1980s an owner of one of the most prestigious Champagne houses said, “it isn’t enough to be the best, you must be the most expensive.” That notion will always echo through the Champagne world as long as their wines are promoted and perceived as luxury items, like so many watches or handbags, rather than as some of the world’s most complex wines.

The fact is that those 2002s, which are now entering the market in a relative flood, are, as a group, the best Champagnes released since the 1996s. Picture-perfect weather throughout the growing season and a warm harvest ensured proper ripeness, and yields were slightly lower than normal, ensuring good concentration. In general the wines have a felicitous combination of depth, power and vivacity that will allow them to be drunk young or stashed away for another decade. Decanting Champagne was until recently considered an affectation, even blasphemy, but it has been de rigueur at wine-centric French restaurants since at least the late 1980s, when I witnessed it firsthand at a number of Michelin-starred places that I can’t afford to visit anymore. The most tightly wound ’02s benefit enormously from aeration, which decanting accomplishes quickly. Try it. I also encourage readers to serve Champagne in white wine glasses rather than flutes as this will allow the wines’ bouquets to expand more easily. Even tulip glasses are preferable to the now-ubiquitous flutes, which are often simply glass tubes perched on stems, especially at restaurants or catered events, where so much Champagne is pounded down in America.

Two quick notes: First, I will offer extensive coverage of the best new non-vintage Champagne bottlings in the market later this fall. While these wines aren’t exactly cheap anymore, there are always some very good relative values among them. Also, although we are not in the habit of providing more than one tasting note on a given vintage Champagne bottling, I have offered a few second notes in this article in cases where this year’s new release of the wine was different enough from an earlier version to require comment.