Champagne vintage years are not automatic. Like port wine, they are declared by individual producers in years thought to merit the production of a blend limited to that growing year. They are aged longer, and made from more carefully selected grapes. They are also, at $40 to $75 a bottle, more expensive. Good past vintages that you may still find are 1985, 1988, 1989, and 1990. The 1995 vintage is said to be excellent, and the 1996 better still. However, the 1996 cannot be on the market this fall, but some 1995 might be. Your benchmark vintage for quality now is 1990. If as some predict shortages of vintage champagnes take place owing to Millennium demand, look first to see if any 1995 champagne has reached your retailer, before settling for a lesser vintage. You can drink vintage champagne as soon as it is released. It will keep perhaps a dozen years (Salon is an exception), and tends to keep a plateau of quality. The quality of French champagne has risen markedly. Always a landmark product, producers have decided to lay down certain benchmarks, and raise the standard generally for producing champagne. Better standards of production governing yields, the improvement of wines held in reserve, pruning, and other essential matters were decreed in 1987 by the Comite Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). Another step forward was the 1992 decision to eliminate the third pressing of grapes for champagne. Now only the first pressing, or “cuvee,” and the second, or “taille,” may be made. The result is finer wine, depending on a lower yield of wine per ton of grapes. The offshoot also is a far better Quality Reserve, the wine that is put by in a good vintage year to improve wines in late years. The CIVC also decreed that vintage wines must be aged in the bottle for at least three years (and non vintage for 15 months) before shipping. Bottling may not take place before the January following the harvest. That means that the 1995 vintage, for example, would receive its minimum aging in the bottle by January of this year, for those producers who adhere to the minimum standard. Why was the 1990 vintage so good? There was an early harvest, and an abundant one. It was the warmest weather in Champagne in forty years, with just enough rainfall for an excellent harvest without the grapes becoming soggy. Also, the abundance of the harvest meant that the reserve wine improved the non vintage champagne for years to come. Here are my choices for vintage champagnes. They range from light to full, for your taste in champagne styles depends upon yourself. All are fine champagnes. Light:
- Taittinger 1992 ($43). This was crisp and fuller bodied than I had expected. Tasty and very, very good. For those who like a light champagne, Taittinger sets the standard.
- Moet Chandon 1993 ($40). Flavorful, crisp, yeasty and good. A quality vintage champagne at what has become a reasonable price.
Medium to Full:
- Veuve Clicquot 1991 ($46) and 1990 ($50). The 1990 was a good, fuller-bodied of fine quality. The 1991 formed an interesting contrast. It will please those who want something lighter. This shows what Veuve Clicquot can produce in a “lighter” vintage year, as 1991 was by comparison with the benchmark 1990.
- Pol Roger Brut Chardonnay 1990 ($65). This is a “blanc de blancs,” or champagne made only from white chardonnay grapes. As expected it was somewhat lighter in taste than the Pol Roger Brut 1990 ($65), made from 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay grapes, which I also found excellent. (By the way, for those who must have a special Millennium bottle, there is a magnum Pol Roger Millennium 1990 that retails for $150. I didn’t taste it, but judging from Pol Roger’s reputation — they age their vintage champagnes five years in the bottle — and the taste of these two 1990 vintage champagnes, it should be excellent.)
- Bollinger Grande Annee 1990 ($73). This was a superior full-bodied champagne. Bollinger only uses the first pressings of grapes, exceeding mandatory quality standards. Just ask James Bond!
Special blends are even more expensive ($100 plus). They are produced in fine vintage years from the choicest areas of Champagne, which are themselves classified in complicated patterns. At their best, these are “ooh and ah” champagnes when you want something of the highest quality. In saying that, I do not wish to demean non vintage or other vintage champagnes. The best should not be the enemy of the good. Whether they are worth the prices they command is another story, best left to the individual, his (or her) accountant, and his (or her) conscience. Here is my top list, graded from light to full-bodied. Light:
- Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rose 1993 ($180). This surprised me, for in general, I don’t like rose champagnes. (Good rose wines in the summer are another matter.) I found this Taittinger distinctive, light, and very refreshing. It was very flavorful and excellent. If your Millennium plans include an engagement ring, this is the wine to serve.
Light to Medium:
- Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1990 ($105). Aged 6 years in the bottle, this is a superior champagne, a treat of high quality.
- Moet Chandon Dom Perignon 1992 ($110). This was very effervescent and “all-together.” A festive and delicious champagne.
- Deutz Cuvee William 1990 ($100). This was an outstanding champagne, very fresh, with a delicious and unexpected undertaste of pears at the finish. Distinctive and excellent.
Medium to Full:
- Salon 1988 ($142) and Salon 1985 ($180). This was my first tasting of these pricey, limited production (6-10,000 cases per vintage year) champagnes. It is said that the house’s founder, Eugene-Aime Salon, didn’t like the champagnes he was getting, and decided to make his own. He may have begun the “blanc de blancs” style, and his house still only uses highly selected grand cru chardonnay grapes from the village that he chose. Salon only declares vintages every other year or so, and they age their champagnes a record 8-12 years before final bottling. Only some 2-3,000 cases are released each year. These wines age far longer than most vintage champagnes: twenty years is not uncommon. I found the “more feminine” (whatever that means) 1988 excellent, tasty, light and flavorful. The 1985 was superb, “even better, more full-bodied, stronger finish.”
- Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1990 ($96). This was a distinguished full-bodied wine, a touch austere perhaps. Fine quality, but for dollar value, you may prefer the equally full-bodied Bollinger Grande Annee 1990 ($73) discussed earlier.
Oh yes, one last matter. Most champagne houses will tell you to use the tall flute style champagne glasses. The bubbles keep better than in the broader, shallow glasses. The latter, legend has it, were designed as a compliment to the charms of Madame de Pompadour. Take a close look at the glass and you’ll understand. If you enjoyed this article, you’ll love our ongoing discussion of French Food and Wine! Bill Shepard learned to love the wines of France when he served as Consul General there. You can read more about his life as a consul in Can the U.S. Embassy Help in a Crisis? Copyright (c) 1999 Paris New Media, L.L.C.