Vintage Champagne

Champagne lovers have a lot to be happy about these days thanks to a recent streak of good to great vintages beginning with 2002.  But there's also reason for teeth-gnashing over prices, especially among buyers coveting the region's most sought-after producers and collectible bottlings.  For those who absolutely, positively must have trophy Champagnes, it's a sellers' market, plain and simple.  The prestige bottlings of the region are luxury goods on a par with the top wines of Bordeaux and, increasingly, Burgundy, and deep-pocketed buyers around the world are chasing the same names.  So you'd better get used to competing against oil and communications barons from Russia, Asian tycoons and other international high-rollers if you insist on owning the marquee marques of Champagne. 

What's sad is that the highest-profile Champagnes of all can also be among the best of the region, despite the sour grapes put forth by many buyers who instinctively reject brand names.  A concomitant effect of the surge in popularity of the grower Champagne movement has been a parallel growth in the number of brand-averse consumers who declare that the wines made by large houses are by definition boring, industrial products that "lack soul."

While image and Champagne are inextricably linked, I'd wager that large Champagne houses have attracted more derision from egalitarian drinkers for their carefully crafted and maintained images than has any other set of wine producers from any region in recent years.  Even large producers in Burgundy like Louis Jadot and Joseph Drouhin have been getting fawned over recently by picky fans of the region and the same goes for first-growth Bordeaux chateaux and even Napa Valley cult wines.

My advice to the open-minded is to judge the wines for yourself, meaning check out the small producers and also try the Champagnes of the big houses (the best ones, please).  As for the nobility of spending your wine dollars, rubles, yen, pesos, euros, riyals or yuan to support a small farmer rather than a corporate-owned house, that's a highly personal call that might or might not be influenced by what's ultimately in the bottle.

On the subject of recent vintages, 2009, which was as warm in Champagne as in the rest of Europe, produced some of the ripest grapes in the region's recent history, with high sugar levels and moderate acidity.  My early look at the wines suggests that they will mostly be fresher than the 2003s but still in a style that will probably be better suited for early drinking than cellaring.  I suspect that quite a bit of 2009 wine will be destined for non-vintage bottlings, to fatten up and give depth to the leaner 2008 and 2007 wines, but there should be a number of outstanding vintage Champagnes, especially for those who favor a powerful style.

The 2008s and 2007s are hitting the market in a wave right now, and these are both years where producer trumps vintage even more than usual.  A cold summer in 2008 was saved by a heat spell in early September that spiked sugars, to the relief of growers and winemakers across the region, but one can't ignore the chilly lead-up to the harvest season.  While a few outstanding 2008s are or will soon be available, there's no avoiding the fact that it's a mixed vintage and one to approach carefully.  The same goes for 2007, which also witnessed a cold, rainy summer, with a huge crop (especially of chardonnay) that was brought in far earlier than normal, near the end of August.  Predictably, that means mostly dilute fruit and high acidity, so expect a large proportion of the '07 wines to be reserved for non-vintage Champagnes rather than for vintage bottlings.