Brilliant Bubbles

Champagne shines on with high quality in a diverse range of styles
Alison Napjus
Issue: December 15, 2013

Champagne continues its reign as the premier wine region for sparkling wine, backed by its rich history and tradition, as well as its overall high quality. Since my last report ("Beyond the Bubbles," Dec. 31, 2012 - Jan. 15, 2013), I have reviewed more than 400 Champagnes, with impressive results. Nearly 350 of the wines I tasted, or about 85 percent, received scores of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, a consistency few of the world's wine regions can claim.

Among the highest-scoring Champagnes, I found 14 bottlings that earned classic ratings of 95 to 100 points. Krug dominates at this level with several offerings, both vintage and non-vintage, including the report's top score of 98 points for the 1998 Brut Blanc de Noirs Clos d'Ambonnay ($2,400). This single-vineyard bottling from Krug's 1.7-acre Pinot Noir vineyard is remarkable for its power paired with an overall sense of finesse. I also enjoyed the smoky minerality and beautiful texture of Ruinart's Brut Dom Ruinart 2002 (96 points, $130) and the vibrancy and length of the Brut Grand Cellier NV from Vilmart (95, $77).

At the classic level, Vilmart's Grand Cellier offers the best value, while the lofty price tag on the Krug Clos d'Ambonnay reflects the top dollar that Champagne can command. Along with the prestige associated with these wines, vineyard land in Champagne is among some of the wine world's most expensive, with an acre going for as much as $550,000. Champagne is also one of the most technically intricate wines to produce (see "Making Champagne," ) adding expense but also helping producers to reach high levels of quality on a more dependable basis.

Because of the consistency the region offers, it is possible to find value in Champagne, despite the high price tags typically attached to the wines. About a quarter of the Champagnes in this report retail for $50 a bottle or less, with roughly two-thirds of that total rated 90 points or higher. (An alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines.)

A juicy version from Moutard Père & Fils, the Brut Chardonnay Champ Persin NV (92, $42) offers ripe fruit and rich accents of ginger and coconut, as well as a chance to try the blanc de blancs style of Champagne—made entirely from Chardonnay as opposed to the more common blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Réserve NV (90, $37) is an example of Champagne produced using all three grapes; its balance, along with its fresh and floral character, recommend it as an aperitif. And for those who like to drink pink, look for the mouthwatering Brut Rosé NV from Jacquart (91, $45), which features black currant and honey flavors.

Most of the more affordable bottlings from Champagne are non-vintage wines. These versions, produced every year, blend wine from the fruit of two or more harvests—and in some cases many more—to make a bottling that is consistent in style from year to year. This production technique has been Champagne's traditional answer to the region's northern climate and frequently poor or uneven growing seasons. Today, with climate change, this is less of an issue, and vintage bottlings, which in the past were only made in the very best harvests, are possible almost every year.

Bottlings of vintage Champagne are typically higher in price than non-vintage versions, but even among the vintage Champagne I reviewed this year there were some well-priced offerings.

I recommend Louis Roederer's Brut 2006 (94, $78), a beautifully balanced version that offers refined texture and a skein of ground spice winding through the wine. At slightly lower price points, two bottlings from the 2005 vintage are stylistic bookends. The Brut Saphir 2005 (93, $41) from Louis Barthélémy is fresh and elegant, with subtle black cherry and white peach fruit notes, while the Heidsieck Monopole Brut Gold Top 2005 (93, $50) is well-cut and toasty, with rich notes of roast hazelnut and honey.

The 2005 vintage is one of the years currently available on the market, along with bottlings from 2004 and 2006. French wine law requires all vintage-dated Champagne to be aged in a producer's cellars for at least three years before release, and many wait even longer. The 2004 harvest delivered a large crop of outstanding quality—I give the vintage an overall rating of 92 points—and bottlings from 2004 will likely be on retail shelves and wine lists for several years to come.

By the end of my tastings for last year's report, I had only reviewed a small number of 2005s, with mixed results. Parts of Champagne had experienced mild to serious problems with mildew in August 2005, though excellent weather during harvest largely slowed the development of mildew and allowed grapes to complete ripening. Having now tasted nearly 60 Champagnes from 2005, the vintage seems to be more of a success than I initially thought, and I give it an overall rating of 90 points.

Chardonnay did particularly well in 2005. Many of the vintage's best wines rely heavily on this grape, and blancs de blancs offer the year's safest bet. I recommend the firm, focused Alain Thiénot Brut Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Stanislas 2005 (92, $100) and the pleasingly creamy Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs Oenophile 2005 (91, $74), with ripe fruit flavors and minerality.

Looking ahead, the 2006 vintage will undoubtedly surpass 2004 and 2005 in terms of overall quality; pending additional tastings and reviews, I give it a preliminary rating of 93–96 points. Though many producers have yet to release their 2006s, I've already reviewed a classic version: Louis Roederer's tête de cuvée, the 2006 Brut Cristal (95, $249), which shows a verve and vitality that gives the wine drive and power, while remaining refined and graceful throughout.

"The weather played a big role," explains Géraldine Lacourte of Lacourte-Godbillon. "2006 was not typical conditions—with August rain right after a hot, dry summer. But it produced a very good balance, and extremely sunny weather in September was very important right before harvest." Wines from Lacourte-Godbillon, which Lacourte produces with her husband, Richard Désvignes, from 20 acres of vineyards in and around the village of Écueil, were new to my tastings this year. At 93 points, the house's 2006 Brut ($65) was a fine introduction, displaying chalky minerality and appealing flavors of blackberry crumble and poached quince.

Another standout in this year's tastings is rosé Champagne, a category that, like rosé wine in general, continues its growth in the U.S. market. "Rosé makes up more and more [of our market share]," says Enguerrand Baijot, managing director of Lanson in the United States. "It's growing like crazy, and it's hard to supply the demand sometimes." Some producers, like industry leader Moët & Chandon, have produced rosé virtually since their founding, while others added rosé to their lineups over the past decade, in response to market demand.

Rosé Champagne, however, can be difficult to perfect. "This is the hardest cuvée to produce," says Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave for Dom Pérignon. "Now, after 10 years, I'm really mastering the color and style." At 95 points, Geoffroy's 2003 Dom Pérignon Brut Rosé ($299) is a testament to that mastery, a harmonious version that caresses the mouth with its delicate texture.

Other producers are also finding success with their rosé Champagnes. Ninety percent of the more than 75 dry rosés in this report received ratings of 90 points or higher, in comparison to a decade ago, when only a third of the wines under review received outstanding scores. Most of the rosés I reviewed this year are non-vintage, and the progress rosé has made may be due in part to the region's more consistent climatic conditions.

"Before, it was hard to make a consistent style of non-vintage rosé," says Cyril Brun, senior winemaker at Veuve Clicquot. "We needed less swings in nature in order to keep reserves of red wine." (Most producers blend in still red wine to produce the rosé color of their bottlings.)

Veuve Clicquot's silky Brut Rosé La Grande Dame 2004 (94, $295) is among the year's highest-rated rosé Champagnes. Among non-vintage rosés, Veuve Clicquot's bright and expressive Brut Rosé NV (91, $69) is also oustanding, while the rich, toasty Brut Rosé NV from Henriot (94, $70) shows impressive integration, and the Alfred Gratien Brut Rosé Cuvée Paradis NV (94, $145) offers a lovely interplay on the palate between creamy texture and mouthwatering acidity. At slightly lower price points, look for Pierre Paillard's Brut Rosé NV (92, $56), an open-knit and accessible version, and Montaudon's aromatic Brut Rosé Grande Rosé NV (90, $38).

Whether it's rosé or the latest vintage that brings you to the wines of Champagne, these bottlings represent the best the world has to offer when it comes to sparkling wine. Though well-grounded in its traditions, the Champagne region is looking to the future and taking change in stride, producing even higher and more consistent quality and yielding more ways to explore this dynamic wine region.

Senior editor Alison Napjus is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Champagne.

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