AMERICANS’ LOVE AFFAIR WITH SPARKLING WINES SHOWS NO SIGN OF DIMINISHING, with bubblies in a range of styles from diverse regions enjoying a rise in popularity. But the pinnacle of quality is still French Champagne.
“I think there is definitely a big interest in Champagne,” says Vitalie Taittinger, who regularly tours the U.S. market promoting her family’s Taittinger Champagne. “It’s even more than before. [People are] focusing on the diversity of Champagne—its new cuvées, its new vintages.”
Champagne sent more than 1.5 million cases of sparkling wine to America last year, a solid increase of 4.5%, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. Credit is due to the industry’s sophisticated marketing, but also to vintners’ success in crafting delicious and distinctive wines.
Since my previous report (“Champagne’s Polish,” Dec. 15, 2018), I have reviewed nearly 300 Champagnes, with the vast majority of them earning outstanding scores of 90 points of higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. The region’s diversity is on full display, with differing production techniques and vintage conditions resulting in an array of styles and interpretations. Yet taken as a group, my tastings showcase many engaging wines marked by mouthwatering acidity, lively minerality and luxurious texture: the hallmarks of fine Champagne. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted begins on page 65.)
The clearest way to approach Champagne is via the dividing line between non-vintage and vintage-dated versions. You’re much more likely to encounter the former, since they dominate the marketplace, representing about 70% of the region’s exports to the U.S.
Historically, non-vintage bottlings have made a virtue of necessity. Because this northern wine region often struggled to ripen its grapes, blending multiple vintages helped mitigate challenging growing conditions and erratic harvests. The idea was to produce a bottling that was consistent and recognizable year after year—a calling card that consumers would remember and order again. This in turn would create a reliable sales base.
In addition, the region’s legal regulations for non-vintage Champagne require a minimum of 15 months aging in bottle before disgorgement, a much shorter period than the 36 months required for vintage-dated bottlings. Although many producers go beyond these mandated minimum aging periods, the contrast is still pronounced: Non-vintage offerings spend less time sitting in cellars and therefore begin earning revenue more quickly.
These factors contribute to the greater affordability of non-vintage Champagne. Nearly all of the non-vintage bottlings in this report are priced at $100 or less, while a quarter of them are available for $50 or less, with the lowest-priced versions starting at about $35. Considering the overall quality of the wines—more than 80% of the non-vintage bottlings under review earned scores of 90 points or higher—this is clearly the category to focus on when looking for value in Champagne.
Among the versions under $50, two 93-pointers are stylistic bookends: Ployez-Jacquemart’s Brut Extra Quality NV ($47) is a rich and toasty Champagne, while Doyard’s Brut Cuvée Vendémiaire NV ($48) is a mineral-driven example, firm and chalky. For good value partnered with wide availability, seek out Piper-Heidsieck’s lithe and vibrant Brut Cuvée NV (92 points, $47) or Moët & Chandon’s creamy Brut Impérial NV (91, $40), the 150th anniversary edition of this celebrated label.
The increasing demand for Champagne has led many new players to come on the scene in recent years. I’ve made a point of reviewing producers that have never been reviewed before by Wine Spectator, typically focusing on a non-vintage cuvée for this first presentation. There are hits and misses among this group, but for a Champagne lover with an open mind and palate it’s a welcome opportunity to explore the breadth of the region’s offerings in greater depth.
Among these debuts is an excellent value from a small family estate founded in 1874 whose total production is just 5,000 cases a year. The well-balanced Duménil Brut by Jany Poret NV (90, $35) emphasizes Pinot Meunier, often considered the “lesser” grape variety in Champagne. Duménil is also one of the region’s récoltant-manipulants, or grower-producers, that use only fruit sourced from their own estate vineyards for production.
These wines may be harder to find, but in my opinion, grower-producers like Duménil are making significant contributions to the overall excitement and dynamism of the Champagne market in the U.S. So too are labels from smaller négociants and cooperatives that purchase grapes for their production. According to the CIVC, a trade group, the volume of Champagne exported to the U.S. has grown by nearly 25% in just five years, and though the region’s biggest names have certainly driven that growth, the proliferation of little- or lesser-known names is adding to the action.
At the opposite pole are producers with long and consistent track records for quality, the best of them on the expensive side. Two producers that are regularly among my highest-rated non-vintage Champagnes lead the way at 95 points: Krug’s Brut Grande Cuvée 167ème Édition NV ($160) is intense and enticing, while Jacques Selosse’s Brut Blanc de Blancs Initial NV ($200) is abundantly aromatic, mouthwatering, long and expressive.
There are more accessible prices among the better-known houses as well. Look for the rich Brut Blanc de Blancs NV from Ruinart (93, $73), as well as Gosset’s harmonious Brut Grande Réserve NV (93, $59) and vibrant Brut Rosé Grand NV (93, $87).
Also worth seeking out are small growers, like Jacques Selosse, with decades of history in the U.S. market. Try Geoffroy’s refined Brut Expression NV (93, $53), Vilmart’s satinlike Brut Grande Réserve NV (93, $62) and Diebolt-Vallois’ mouthwatering and linear Brut Tradition NV (92, $40).
WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews for all wines tasted using the online Wine Ratings search.
This category, also known as multi-vintage, is produced by blending base wines from the most recent harvest with smaller amounts of reserve wines (base wines from one or more past vintages). By law, non-vintage Champagne must be aged for at least 15 months before disgorgement.
Although many of the region’s chefs de caves would argue that consistently producing a high quality non-vintage Champagne is more challenging than making wine from a single harvest, vintage bottlings thrill for their expression of unique character and often earn the highest ratings. They are typically made only in the best years, which also contributes to non-vintage Champagne’s dominant market position.
Among this report’s vintage-dated Champagnes are 13 wines earning classic ratings of 95 points or higher, including two library releases and 11 offerings new to the market. By regulation, vintage versions require a minimum of 36 months of aging, yet all of the new wines were held much longer; the youngest is a decade old. These wines are proof that top sparklers can mature as well as many reds, few of which age so long in the cellar before release.
Leading the high-scorers are two wines at 97 points. The Krug Brut 2006 ($285) is beautifully creamy and complex, with a core of black currant and tangerine fruit, while the vibrant Piper-Heidsieck Brut Rosé Rare 2008 ($450) delivers intense flavors of nectarine, ripe raspberry, grilled nut, espresso and graphite.
Krug is probably the last Champagne house to release a 2006, and the wine was certainly worth the wait. This is a vintage that I’ve liked from the get-go, with a ripe generosity to the fruit character and overall structure. At the end of the harvest that year, Olivier Krug told me that it was “a marvelous crop,” thanks to three weeks of beautiful weather in September. Krug and chef de cave Eric Lebel captured the opulence of the vintage and married it to laser-like focus and vibrancy, resulting in a seamless wine that delivers on all fronts.
The Rosé Rare 2008 is similarly a study in precision, but here chef de cave Régis Camus takes the power of the vintage’s intense acidity and wraps it with expansive flavors and graceful texture. Though rosé bubbly has seen rapid sales growth in recent years, Camus’ idea for a Rare rosé to complement Piper-Heidsieck’s already-established Rare blanc dates to the early 2000s. The first Rare rosé bottling, from 2007, was released in 2016 and rated 95 points, highlighting Camus’ expertise as a winemaker and his ability to deliver a stand-out wine from a challenging vintage.
With 2008, Champagne’s best vintage of the new century, all the pieces were in place for this bottling to shine. The Rosé Rare 2008 now claims its place alongside Louis Roederer’s 2008 Cristal, which was reviewed last year at 97 points, as the vintage’s top-scoring Champagnes to date.
“I’d say the 2006 was more of a wine than a Champagne. The 2008 is still a wine, but more properly a Champagne,” says Nicolas Feuillatte chef de cave Guillaume Roffiaen, referencing the classic, acidity-driven character of 2008, a vintage that rivals some of past century’s most notable years. The plush Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Rosé Palmes d’Or Intense 2008 (95, $200) is a blend of Pinot Noir from vineyards located in two of Champagne’s most esteemed villages for the grape, Bouzy and Les Riceys.
New releases from the 2008 vintage make up an important part of my vintage tastings this year. Many chefs de caves have been holding their 2008s for additional aging before release because of their extraordinary structure and power. Though the wines are tempting now, these qualities recommend them to further aging in consumers’ cellars. Many of them should show beautifully 10, 20 or even 30 years down the line.
In the interim, Champagnes from other vintages are ready to drink now and in the near future. With all the acclaim for 2008, the 2009s have been somewhat overlooked, but these are lovely, harmonious Champagnes. There’s good concentration to the wines’ expressive flavor range, and the fine balance shown in many examples makes them approachable now while also suggesting the ability to age. Having tasted additional 2009s for this report, I give the vintage an overall rating of 93 points.
In the past, vintage-dated bottlings were only possible two or three times a decade in Champagne. But climate change has shifted that balance. It’s now possible to make vintage Champagne from nearly any harvest, particularly for experienced winemakers, and some small growers produce vintage-dated versions every year as a matter of philosophy. Some of the lesser years have resulted in current releases that are showing well now.
The 2007 vintage is a good, if surprising, example. Most Champagne producers did not make vintage versions from this hot, rain-soaked year—they made non-vintage bottlings only. But two tête de cuvée rosés stand out among the year’s new releases: Taittinger’s Brut Rosé Comtes de Champagne 2007 (96, $263) and Ruinart’s Brut Rosé Dom Ruinart 2007 (95, $365). Both are elegant examples, lacy and refined in texture, showing more expression and depth of flavor than other 2007s.
“2007 was a difficult year—not really a vintage year. We worked very hard during harvest to follow the ripeness,” says Taittinger chef de cave Alexandre Ponnavoy, who explains that despite the threat of a weather change and a whole team of pickers standing by, Taittinger completely stopped harvest for a few days to allow additional ripening of the grapes. “Sometimes it’s not a decision about the global focus [of the vintage] in Champagne, it’s about specific terroir and the specific wine”—in this case, the Comtes de Champagne rosé.
There are also a limited number of releases from the erratic 2010 vintage on the market now, along with a handful from the atypical 2011 vintage, both of them years in which Chardonnay fared better than Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These are also vintages where sorting and selection were key—to combat disease in the case of 2010 and to find the ripe grapes among heterogeneously developed bunches in 2011.
Approach both of these vintages cautiously. Among the 2010s, the best are blancs de blancs (made from 100% Chardonnay) or from top producers in the Chardonnay-dominated Côte des Blancs region of Champagne.
Because Champagne is a highly technical wine requiring specific skills in the vineyard and cellar, producers tend to be conservative, even as they strive to evolve. Longtime winemakers like Krug chef de cave Eric Lebel bring their experience and expertise to Champagne, working alongside young teams contributing enthusiasm and new energy.
“I haven’t changed any fundamentals,” Lebel told me late last year as we discussed his 20th anniversary at the house. “But over time, there’s the analogy of a large ship with many nuts and bolts, and with a diverse team tightening all the pieces. It’s given more precision to what we do.”
“Today, Champagne is at a crossroads,” muses Godefroy Baijot, a young Champenoise reinvigorating his family’s Besserat de Bellefon Champagne house. “There is a generation in the coming years who will pass hands to the new generation, and things will change. But we need to do this—Champagne is not only for special moments, not only for elite people. We need to break the rules. The true luxury of Champagne is its simple, undeniable pleasure—simplicity in a chic way.”
Senior editor Alison Napjus is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Champagne.
WineSpectator.com members can access complete reviews for all wines tasted using the online Wine Ratings search
This category is produced by blending the base wines from only the most recent harvest, thus allowing the Champagne to be vintage-dated from that single year. This is only done when the harvest is deemed to illustrate exceptional character. By law, vintage Champagne must be aged for at least 36 months before disgorgement, although many producers go beyond this minimum.
Known as the méthode Champenoise, the traditional method of Champagne production begins like all standard wine production, with harvested grapes being crushed and fermented into still wines. Called vins clairs in Champagne, these base wines are blended into a final cuvée that goes into the same bottle that will later be delivered to the consumer. A mixture of sugar and yeast, the liqueur de tirage, is added to the bottle, kicking off a second fermentation and the creation of bubbles. ■