Some Very Good and Not So Good Vintage Champagnes

Less than four bottles of champagne in 100 are made from a single harvest. This statistic seals Champagne’s fact-pact with Port, where the proper vintage-dated stuff is under 2% of all Port made. And like Port, vintage champagne is only made in exceptional years, when the sun shines (but not burningly too hot!), the grapes are healthy and the all important succulent fresh acidity is substantial and stays in balance. That’s the story, anyway. Some producers regularly seem to think lots of years are great and the wines they make seem rather average.  But they know a vintage champagne is always sold for one and a half times the price of non-vintage (NV), at least. And the de luxe bottlings for much more. But there are always pleasant surprises even in weaker years.

Vintage champagne should give more than the quality of the producer’s NV.  Its grapes should be ruthlessly selected as the best to be had from the best sites available to a producer.  It’s about selection, selection, selection.  Vintage champagnes should show more intensity and concentration than NV.  And more complexity.  They traditionally are aged on the second lees in bottle far longer than NV and this gives not only the tell-take superior champagne baking and biscuit ‘autolytic’ notes, but a silky mousse texture and a longer lingering finish in the mouth. Finally, while the champagne will reflect the specific conditions of that year it will also reveal the winemaking signature of the producer, and sometimes even the tastes associated with the vineyards the grapes have come from. I remember Richard Geoffroy, Chef de Cave of Dom Perignon saying once that they make “the vintage within the envelope of Dom Pérignon” but above all “repetition is the enemy.” Not all vintage ‘x’ champagnes are alike, thank goodness, just as the vintage wines of any region show the different vineyards and predelictions of their makers.  In the end, the specific year has to shine through the prism of human intent.

Here are my verdicts on a recent chance to taste a big range of vintages you can buy pretty easily. Of course, this is a selection from what was in the tasting, not everything that’s out there.  But it does include all the standouts.  I had tasted a good number of these before; the value in the exercise was to judge them side by side. The order goes from oldest to youngest on show. The star ratings are:

Very dull *    Fair if unexciting **   Good to Excellent ***    Outstanding ****   Speechless *****

Alfred Gratien Millesime 2000 Developed but fresh; real yeasty bite and some power. Not as soft and soppy as some 2000s now, by any means. ***

Besserat de Bellefon Cuvée des Moines Brut 2002 Served too warm  and slightly foaming texture. Firm and forcing very 2002 character but a tiring note of toffee oxidation creeping in now.**

Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicolas Francois 2002 Very fresh, some development but tip top. Winey, mango and melon and a clean, chalky cut to the texture.  Very good and no hurry to drink. ***

De Castelnau Blanc de Blancs 2003 Open and fruity and enticing.  No great mineral cut or intensity. Comfortable, fleshy, polite champagne. **

Bruno Paillard Brut Blanc de Blancs 2004 Complex; clean and neat and very 2004. Compact but magnifies. Quite biscuit but biting after the finesse of the nose and entry. Very good indeed. ***

Gosset Grand Millésime 2004 Lovely whisky and winey aldehyde notes. Exotic and spicy wood influence. Texturally alluring fine bubbles, well set. So impressive and a big future. ****

Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale 2004 Biscuit and nutty and firm and a touch of oxidation toffee starting but not problematic. But would drink up soon.  A rather predictable toasty style here. **

Pol Roger Brut 2004 A slightly pooey reduction smell. Rich style and a note of burnt toffee that is not very attractive to me and I’ve noticed on this wine often. Firm and very pinot, and muscular but not at all cloying. More of a burly fast winger than an old style outside half. ***

Ruinart Dom Ruinart 2004 Seriously smoky toasty style.  Real bite and cut but perhaps too young for the Chardonnay finesse to show through much. Archetypal and admirable but not genius or terribly striking. But impressive of its type ***

Bollinger La Grande Année 2005 Served too warm. Quite oxidative style but oh so detailed and really complex magnetism.  Butter and nuts but a really fine texture stops them being plonky. Mango and quince and a sort of mashed yellow compote. A second, colder bottle showed it rich but with a more impressive balance. Such assurance, a real ‘f-off’ wine.  Two people asked my if I thought it was quite right. It definitely is! This is very Bollinger and distinctive. ****

Charles Heidsieck Brut Millésime 2005 Yellow, quite developed and a little touch of toffee. Great depth and length and biscuit complexity. Savoury, meat stew but mango too! Such mellifluous texture too.  Must be a contender for a house’s champagne of 2005, a vintage which can so often be a fail with me. ****

Chassenay d’Arce 2005 Respectable, simple, fruity and fresh. I am not bowled over by this coop’s wines. *

Paul Déthune Grand Cru Ambonnay Brut 2005. A very good RM domaine. Wow! Really big structure; fresh high tensile stuff. Very pinot and assertive but complex and stately too. Wood-influenced with a whisky note. Full throttle but a good deal of finesse from its terrific balance. ****

Lanson Gold Label Brut 2005 A bright and lively cut, but complex behind. Linear and fresh and rather appealing. ***

Paul Goerg 2005 The Vertus coop that with a bit of legal jiggery pokery manages to put NM on the label. A touch ashy and nondescript in a light Blanc de Blanc style.  But this is nothing distinctive or showing finesse. *

Pommery Grand Cru 2005 An earthy note of reduction on the nose. But fine on the palate. A nice dry impression when so many Pommery wines seem over-sweet.  A fresh and biscuit finish. Rather successful wine. ***

Devaux ‘D Millésime’ Brut 2006 Attractive saline whiff on the nose, but then quite soft and open and very 2006. Not exciting.**

Duval-Leroy Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut 2006 Fresh and lemony and jasmine boiled rice, but quite soft and open and easy drinking .  This will surely be a very winsome popular wine. Charm but a little empty in the end. **

GH Mumm Le Millésime 2006 Has really fresh stuffing for 2006. Tense and some early biscuit, lively and exciting.  Quite classic and impressive in a vintage which is so often too well-girthed, ripe and comfortable to really make us take notice. ***

Jacquart Blanc de Blancs 2006 Lively, fresh and lemony but lacks middle interest.  A straw note and accurate Blanc de Blanc proportion.  But not compelling and a bit short. **

Laurent-Perrier 2006 In the context of round and forward 2006, one of the freshest. Quite gorgeous, bright and lovely. Lemon posset, red berries and some mineral cold stones. Not forcing but good. ***

Henri Mandois Millésime Brut 2006 Slightly soft and sweet and fruity. An OK popular style and very open; well made and still fresh on the nose and attack. ***

Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2006 Note of reduction. Then very lively and smokey biscuit and a rather stately assertive balance for 2006. Persistent and well turned out. ***

Nicolas Feuillatte Blanc de Blancs 2006 What a nice surprise from this giant coop! A complex whisky note and still lively and fresh.  A touch confected maybe but the white chocolate and mango note is luxurious and the whole thing is a neat package. ***

Thiénot 2006 Again, a real surprise. Very fresh and still firm. Not massively complex but in the mango and biscuit spectrum and its feet lightly but surely on the ground. ***

André Jacquart Le Mesnil Grand Cru 2007 Very marked by new oak but the oak also gives the wine vibrant clarity of texture, showing precision and finesse.  Real intensity from ths Vertus RM I have long admired and terrific balanced detail  Positively hums, even in this young and rather slight 2007 model. Classy wine. ****

Ayala Blanc de Blancs 2007 Lean and lively and a steely cut with lemony fruit.  But the texture is finely done and quite long.  This slimline 2007 vintage is such a contrast to 2006 and 2005. ***

De Castellane 2007 Quite easy drinking, simple and biscuit. **

De Saint Gall Premier Cru 2007 A round and easy pastry pie style from the large Union Avize coop. **

Delamotte Blanc de Blancs 2007 Served too warm,  But a baby with a lovely balance. Steely for now rather than the usual nougat ice-cream style of Delamotte. ***

Deutz 2007 Tight and too wound up yet. This will unfurl but will pay to keep two years at least.  Elegant, but asleep. ***

Le Mesnil Millésime Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru 2007 Bright start with tight structure but then a soft toffeed oxidative note I often notice in this coop’s wines. Fades away.**

Brice Bouzy Grand Cru 2008 Rather sweet seeming, especially after the spare flesh of the 2007s. Bright and breezy, should we call it a ‘Bricey’ style? From my first visit here 10 years ago, I’ve never ‘got’ these wines, finding them confected often with odd pear-drop and sweet shop notes, and unconvincing.  Not sure if this bottle did not have a basic fault, too. *

Drappier Millésime Exception 2008 Still unyielding and needs to unwind. Ripe but still all locked up in its steely cage.  This will proceed down the runway and the I think open out its wings beautifully in about three years. ***

Louis Roederer Brut 2008 So steely and a baby.  Citrus and penetrating and jangling with energy.  But shows hints of chocolate and bread behind.  Seems quite complex now and I wished there was time to let it open in the glass. This is a great vintage. ****

Philipponnat Blanc de Noirs 2008 Chewy and quite a biscuit style. Very accessible fruit, ripe but not very incisive.  A bit unformed and diffuse, probably too early. Would love to see this in 2-3 years. ***

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