Serious Boys: Decoding Vintage Champagne
In his elegant and occasionally very funny book about Bollinger, the British writer Cyril Ray relates a story about how champagne became known as “the boy” in late-Victorian England. According to Ray, it began at a summer shooting party; the not-yet-corpulent Edward VII, Prince of Wales (at left), insisted on the presence of a lad with a wheelbarrow full of bubbly packed in ice. It was a hot day, and the thirsty prince hollered “boy!” so many times that the heavy swells in attendance—especially those who wanted it to be known that they’d been shooting with the heir to the throne—began to throw the epithet around. Some perverse toffs began to spell it “the bhoy.” It stuck for more than a half-century.
It can be difficult not to feel a little like the porcine Edward when you spend several months draining champagne bottles, as I did this winter. Yet once an obsessive begins the long descent down the rabbit hole of secondary fermentation, questions begin to outnumber answers. Besides being expensive, champagne turns out to be uncommonly complex; the importer Peter Wasserman once compared it to a chess game. No wine has more moving parts—none is more difficult or time-consuming to produce and requires more decisions on the part of the maker. This is particularly the case with vintage champagnes, when those decisions—blending, dosage, lees aging and scores of others—are complicated by the vagaries of a single season’s climate. The whole thing sounds like a complete pain in the ass.
At least some in Champagne think so, too. “Although it’s hard to get any champagne-maker to say as much or, at any rate, to say it for quotation,” Cyril Ray wrote, “I believe many of the finest houses would be glad to devote all their skill and all their resources to producing the best non-vintage wines they are capable of producing; to have the fine wine of vintage years in reserve to blend with and to better the non-vintage; and to be judged by them.” He goes on to claim that most makers put out the vintage-dated stuff because of the press attention each release brings them, and, mostly, because all of their competitors produce it and no one wants to be left out. So make it they do, with the best grapes and methods at their disposal, and price the stuff correspondingly.
After a spirituous winter, I’ve discovered that while vintage champagnes are often more interesting than non-vintage ones, they are not always “better.” Consider red burgundies—generally they start out deliciously fruity before a fraction begin to close down, and some admirers prefer to always drink them “on the fruit.” Champagne, on the other hand, is rarely at its best upon release. “Personally, I believe that all champagnes do improve with at least a year of post-disgorgement aging,” champagne sage Peter Liem wrote me. “The components integrate better with one another and acquire better harmony, and the fruit has a chance to settle down and feel more complex. Many people think that non-vintage champagne should be drunk as soon as possible, but last year I tasted a Larmandier-Bernier blanc de blancs based on the 1985 harvest, and it was still lively and delicious.” Non-vintage blends, at least, are calibrated to drink well soon after release, but vintage wines can stay disagreeable for ages, particularly those made in the most acclaimed years. So time spent in bottle turns out be at least as important as the year of the harvest, a predicament complicated by the fact that most champagne makers continue to keep disgorgement dates to themselves.
And the vintages? (First, an aside about the wines discussed below: all came from champagne houses. The growers’ broader stylistic range would have made comparisons that much more challenging, and many don’t release a vintage wine. Most bottles were provided by importers. Increasingly I find marathon sit-down tastings to be close to pointless, so the wines were poured at a series of smaller events, where four to six tasters sampled them with food over the course of several hours.)
A vintage chart won’t tell you much about what it’s like to drink these champagnes today; in practice, the years turn out to be as varied in their personalities as a bus of kindergarteners. The oldest current-release champagnes you’re liable to find in stores are the ’98s. With a couple of exceptions: though Lanson has put a 2000 on the market, its US importer is still offering the ’97 as a current vintage. Whatever the reason, it’s a gift to the consumer, as the wine has had plenty of time in bottle and the vintage is begging to be drunk. Last winter it was my favorite among the champagnes we tasted; a year later it wasn’t quite as impeccably balanced, and even more secondary, with rich nutty, meaty flavors overtaking the fruit, but it was still full-on delicious, and a bargain at around $55. (The vintage “Gold Label” is a favorite among Lanson’s wines; the more expensive Noble Cuvée, from ’98, struck me as savagely austere and a touch sweet.)
The other ’98s were as easy to like as a Norman Rockwell and, for the most part, proved delightful. The Henriot ($80), which tasted as a bit showy a year ago, has firmed up and taken on the autumnal flavors of Pinot, and came across as altogether compelling and serious; I suspect it will get even better with time. (If you search, the even tastier ’96—all lovely salinity, beautifully knit-together—is still around in stores.) I wasn’t overly familiar with champagnes from Mumm, but the ’98 Cuvée R. Lalou ($140), the firm’s “luxury” bottling, turned out to be orchestral: kaleidoscopic yet precise, imbued with the uncanny focus that comes with age and a long, layered finish. Culled from a handful of grand-cru parcels, so far it has only been released once; it costs as much as Dom Pérignon and less than Cristal, yet its maturity makes it more approachable today than the current-release versions of those more famous wines. Savvy Escalade owners take note. And though it isn’t dated, the underpriced Mumm de Cramant ($50), one of the most distinctive champagnes around, comes from a single vintage. Once taken around by a liveried driver to friends of the house, it comes from two parcels in the classic Chardonnay village of Cramant and is bottled at lower-than-usual pressure, to soften the mousse. After 15 minutes of air, it filled out into a chalky, delicate blanc de blancs that would be a perfect start to a long, boozy A.J.-Liebling-style dinner.
As hard as I tried to warm up to the ’99s, I couldn’t find much to like about them. When I bellyached about the warm-weather vintage to Liem, he demurred. “The ’99s show much better today than they did in their youth,” he wrote. “Everyone thought that the ’99s, with their low acidities and high alcohols, ought to be drunk up as quickly as possible, yet the fruit has stayed primary for much longer than anybody expected, and today many are fresher than their 2000 counterparts.” It’s true that the ’99s drink fresh and surprisingly fruity, yet what irks is the character of that fruit: cloyingly sweetish, recessed in the middle, with neither enough structure nor acidity. I’m a fan of the always-well-considered champagnes from Bruno Paillard and Delamotte, yet I’d choose to drink the non-vintage wines over their ’99s (particularly in the case of Delamotte’s pretty saignée-method NV rosé). Even the usually stellar blanc de blancs from Pol Roger came off a bit simple and lackluster. The tastiest was probably the ’99 from Alfred Gratien, but for me even the barrel-aging and the firm British style couldn’t completely overcome the Bazooka-Joe fruitiness of the vintage.
Mildew, caterpillars and hailstones the size of eggs conspired to make 2000 difficult. Another low-acid year, it produced uneven champagnes that I preferred vastly to those from the preceding vintage. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that they’re drinking as well as they ever will. My favorite was the stupendous ’00 from Pol Roger ($100); “magisterial” may be an odd adjective to apply to a wine, but imagine Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire distilled into a champagne bottle. Bollinger’s even fuller ’00 Grand Année ($90) was nearly as good; shut tight at a tasting last summer, it has since thrown open the hatch to leesy, almost eggy goodness. Laurent-Perrier’s Bardot-like ‘00 brut ($50) was bosomy with fruit yet firmly-packed; dense and youthful, as well as a deal, it was miles better than L-P’s innocuous ’99. Jacquesson’s ‘00 ($100, the last vintage blend the firm will make) would likely have appealed to Edward’s taste for its appetizing dryness and backbone—his shooting-party drink was Ayala Extra-Dry 1865—but tasted like it was still a few years away from showing its cards. Gosset’s millennial brut, on the other hand, smelled like a bowl of freshly-picked raspberries; though I know some love it, for me the house’s distinct style is disconcertingly fruity, though perhaps with age the wines may become extraordinary. And the ultra-delicate ’00 Perrier-Jouët blanc de blancs, sourced from Cramant Chardonnay, was interesting in a sparkly, gossamer kind of way, but I’m not sure what to say about the spray-paint-huffing price of $375.
Written up by many as the most profound vintage in a decade—since ’90, maybe even ’88—’02 produced champagnes that should come with an FDA warning label. One day they’ll no doubt prove orgasmic, but that day isn’t coming anytime soon. For the moment, like red burgundy and Bordeaux from ’05, they’re more impressive than pleasurable. “Your comments about the ['02] wines being austere and hollow at the moment are indicative of a vintage that’s in a closed state at the moment,” Peter Liem writes. “There’s no reason that a nine-year-old champagne from a top vintage should be anything but painfully youthful.” Excellent as they are, Pol Roger’s rosé ($100), Perrier-Jouët’s brut ($125) and rosé ($300), even Bollinger’s already-delicious Grand Année rosé ($130)—’02s all—only hint at what they may become. Another house I hadn’t been familiar with, Joseph Perrier, located in Châlon-en-Champagne, bottled probably my favorite among the ’02s—their top-of-the-line Cuvée Josephine ($200). Tightly coiled at the moment, it showed excellent balance and length plus an exuberance I attributed to Perrier’s fondness for Meunier from the Marne Valley. I was just as impressed with the value of its rich NV blend, and was surprised to learn that currently the house has no distribution on the East Coast. Someone please dial their digits.
Happily, I’m of one mind with Peter Liem on the excellent ’04s. “[It’s] a vintage that has never shut down, which is curious,” he wrote. “The wines are simply delicious, and they should remain that way for quite a while.” My experience with the vintage is still limited, but Roederer’s ’04 rosé and blanc de blancs (both around $68), more classic than the zaftig ’03s, are already showing off their richness and finesse. And Deutz’ ’04 blanc de blancs ($65), charmless and turgid last winter, has sprung into elegant, Technicolor life.
Interestingly, the tête-de-cuvée luxury bottlings that houses advertise as being akin to liquid cocaine, and price accordingly, don’t always offer better drinking than the straight vintage wines. Many are blended for longevity and as a result take longer to fill out. The reductive Dom Pérignon is a well-known example. Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, the winemaker at Roederer, readily acknowledges that Cristal, too, needs the most time among his champagnes to come into its own. I was happy to taste the delicious ’04 ($200), yet Roederer’s vintages, at a third of the price, are more complete and satisfying today. Likewise, Henriot’s Cuvée des Enchanteleurs ’96 ($200), just born after 13 years on the lees, isn’t as expressive and mature as the firm’s crazy-good brut from the same year; being a King-Kong-sized baby, it may take ten years or more to find itself.
One champagne I met this winter stands out for its mystery. In the past I’ve struggled with Taittinger’s vintage bubblies, finding some to be hard and impenetrable in their youth; what I can’t figure out is why the firm’s top wine, the all-Chardonnay Comtes de Champagne ($120), works so differently. I wasn’t expecting much from the ’99, having mostly disliked the vintage, but drinking the elegant, rosemary-scented Comtes felt like being put into a headlock by a goon in a cashmere sweater. Unctuously rich but not burly in the Krug mold, and generously open, the wine overpowered but didn’t oppress; it was easily the finest ’99 I’ve come across. As for the ’98 ($130), imagine the aroma of Bâtard-Montrachet and then amp it up until it becomes as rich as pork—the Comtes literally smelled like pancetta cooking in a skillet, the richest Chardonnay I’ve tasted. According to champagne frequent-flyers, Comtes is known both for being able to age for decades and for maturing early. I’m stumped as to why this should be so—no aspect of the winemaking appears too far out of the ordinary, and though I’ve asked, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger remains mum.
Nothing in the drinking life promises as much joy as champagne. For all its serious drawbacks—the haggling over vintages, the waiting, the palm-sweating expense—the best of these, to quote Richard E. Grant from Withnail and I, happen to be among “the finest wines available to humanity.” They are also hideously habit-forming. Recently I called a friend, a seasoned expert who helped me taste through nearly all these bottles. “My reintroduction to cava is going poorly,” he told me.
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