The third Friday of every October has become an unofficial “Champagne Day”, when lovers and producers of this great wine come together in celebration. Sure, it may be a contrived marketing gimmick for the most part, but the idea that we should celebrate the wine that’s become synonymous with celebratory occasions is a good one – especially if you’re buying bottles from the last 10 years or so.
Last July, the JamesSuckling.com tasting team reviewed more than 350 champagnes in the region itself. We met with the winemakers and the champagne- house owners, and we came away with one clear conclusion: Champagne is delivering some of the highest-quality and best-value premium wines in the world at the moment.
And many are doing so using low-intervention, natural and organic methods.
On one day after we’d tasted about 100 bottles, we collected the best champagnes and tasted them together all over again. That doesn’t happen very often at JamesSuckling.com, and it crystallised for us how diverse and interesting the world’s greatest sparkling wine has become.
Today’s best champagnes emphasise both house style and winemaking prowess, highlighting the differences in the soil and climate of key areas and vineyards. This is very different from years ago, when champagne primarily relied on house blends, bottle-ageing times and vintages.
Vintages, of course, do have a profound influence, particularly in delivering structure and quality to champagnes. The quality of the 2008 vintage champagnes in our tasting last year shone through, exemplified by the 100-point 2008 Cristal, which was just one great example.
In last year’s tasting it was hard to choose between the Jacquesson Dizy Corne Bautray 2008 and the Billecart-Salmon Champagne Le Clos St-Hilaire Brut 2002 for top honours. Both are elite selections of outstanding parcels and both are the product of outstanding vintages. Both are awarded 100 points. Also note the great 2008 Dom Pérignon, which we rated in 2018 and is currently on the market, as an ambassador for this great vintage.
Some of the top champagnes rated in 2019 came from 2007, and show a brightness and energy, especially in blanc de blancs. “When I think of 2007 I think of 1995 – and 2008 is 1996,” says Clovis Taittinger, the export director of his family’s champagne house. “You have a style of our family champagnes with 2007, 2005 and 2004. They’re wines with good tension and a hyper elegance.”
However, the longer-term trend of warmer vintages in Champagne (and most of Western Europe) has also pushed some winemakers to capture greater natural ripeness in the vineyard, resulting in champagnes with fuller flavours and denser textures. This gives greater character to the wines, but can make many heavy and over-ripe bottles, particularly in blanc de blancs. We prefer champagnes with balance as well as richness.
A benefit of the hotter weather is that vineyard growers can use fewer chemicals, so biodynamic viticulture is an option. Many now make a point of farming sustainably and they also make better wine as a result. This is a wonderful development in Champagne that we applaud – we look forward to more producers working this way.
Take Louis Roederer’s production from biodynamically farmed grapes. The work it is doing really sets a benchmark for other larger producers to follow. “In 2008, 40 percent of the grapes for Cristal were biodynamically farmed,” says chef de cave Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon. “And 2012 is our first Cristal produced from 100 percent biodynamically farmed grapes.”
The entire Cristal estate was certified organic in 2018 and today 52 percent of Roederer’s production is organically certified.
A number of wines from the 2012 harvest are coming into the market. It’s a harvest that was really defined by a warm and dry summer, producing terrific quality and texture, particularly in Pinot Noir. Production was relatively small. This is a year that supports champagnes with a greater reliance on fruit quality. The vintage shows extremely good balance and delivers high quality across a range of styles.
A number of winemakers said that 2013 is better than 2012 and should provide some excellent vintage champagnes. According to Guillaume Roffiaen, head winemaker for Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte: “2013 is along the lines of 2008 with structure and freshness.”
Champagne’s most recent vintage, 2018, is different again. High temperatures burned acidity away in grapes and very high crop yields mean less-than-optimum quality in base wines. Some growers reported the equivalent of three harvests in one. High alcohol levels may also be a problem.
Yet, a number of producers are fascinated by the extreme nature of the harvest. “This notion of pH is very important in champagne,” says Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy of Champagne Geoffroy. “Acidity is the image of the year and pH is the DNA of the terroir. I’m sure of that because each year I have almost the same pH for the same plots, even in this extreme 2018 harvest.”
Personalities are coming through all the best champagnes now, and they’re derived from people as well as places and climates. We can expect great bottles of champagne now and in the future.