A decade in Champagne
A rundown of each vintage from the 2000s
From vintages that have already been on the market for several years to those not due to emerge for a while yet, the drinks business casts its eye back over the last decade in Champagne with this review of the “noughties”.
Despite fears that this vintage would falter under the weight of its momentous title, if anything assessments have improved over time.
“People are now starting to realise that 2000 was quite a cracking year,” says Gareth Birchley of Bordeaux Index.
Describing it as “more my sort of style than some of the stuff from the late 1990s”, he suggests that in this case, demand is only loosely linked to quality. “Down the line, people are going to want the vintage with three zeros on the end,” he assures.
A cold, wet growing season is summed up as “dire” by Marcel Orford-Williams of The Wine Society.
However, he suggests an exception in the Côtes des Blancs, which is backed up by Thiénot’s decision to make a 2001 version of its La Vigne Aux Gamins.
Even in the Marne, selected sites such as Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses were able to ripen grapes before the rain arrived.
Drawing comparisons, Charles Philipponnat says: “2000 was a lot riper, heavier and has more intensity, but 2001 has more balance.”
Described by Andrew Hawes of Mentzendorff as “the vintage of a generation”, 2002 has been widely released and today its high quality reputation looks assured.
However, Birchley recalls that critical acclaim was initially less certain. “A lot of people said it came up and surprised them,” he notes, suggesting that the turning point came with Dom Pérignon’s launch.
While earlier launches were “moderately successful”, he notes: “Once DP released, suddenly the other guys benefited on the back of it.”
Famous across Europe for its heat, even in northerly Champagne temperatures proved too much for the majority.
“We never considered releasing the 2003 as a vintage,” says James Simpson MW of Pol Roger. “There was simply not enough acidity for it to be a great Pol vintage for the medium, let alone long, term.”
That said, some houses did rise to the challenge, with Bollinger one of the first to put its head above the parapet. “It was subject to quite a bit of internal debate,” admits Hawes. “We wanted to show what Bollinger was capable of doing.” Henriot and Moët & Chandon both joined the charge before Dom Pérignon too revealed its hand.
Cellar master Richard Geoffroy remarked: “For too many Champenois this one character alone, low acidity, was enough to write off the vintage,” as he predicted a long lifespan for his own 2003.
With this year came a return to consensus as many big names have either already released a vintage, such as prestige cuvées Roederer Cristal, Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame and Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque, or are happy to confirm that they have one in the pipeline.
Drawing comparisons with ‘02, Cassidy Dart, sales manager for Pol Roger UK, says 2004 offers “excellent quality in a more tight knit, slightly austere style”.
However, with Hawes suggesting that for Bollinger 2004 is “more accessible” than 2002, preferences and assessments may well divide between these two vintages, although the quality of both remains uncontentious.
The reputation of Bordeaux and Burgundy in this year may well rub off on Champagne, although weather and therefore quality here was far less uniform.
Of the major houses, Louis Roederer is one of the few to have released a vintage so far, with both its brut and prestige cuvée Cristal available on the market.
As so often happens, September sunshine appears to have saved the day after a cloudy, wet August.
Pol Roger has confirmed this will be its next vintage release after 2004, while Birchley offers the tentative assessment that, “What I’ve tasted from 2006 looks good.”
A mild winter saw early flowering, followed by the cloudiest summer on record. Producers faced uneven ripeness and rot, which contributed to a mixed picture of quality.
In general, Chardonnay was less affected, while producers who held their nerve to pick later were rewarded with more mature grapes. Those with the right sites and timing may yet decide to release a vintage.
Long before any of the major houses even release a vintage, expectations are running high. Orford-Williams describes it as “exciting and potentially better than anything since 2002”.
Bookended by bright, dry conditions in spring and September, the middle of the growing season saw cool conditions prevail to produce a high quality crop with plenty of acidity.
Expect hype to reach fever pitch as the big names begin launching in a few years time – but hopefully the best wines will be able to live up to it.
As with the positive reports elsewhere in France, 2009 was yet another year to put a smile on the faces of the Champenois.
Early feedback drew comparisons with years like 1982 or 1989, while Pinot Noir in particular shone.
Philipponnat described the harvest as “the healthiest I’ve seen in my lifetime”, but whether it can emerge from the superstar shadow of 2008, only time will tell.
After two consecutive vintages that were relatively easy to manage, the end of the decade presented Champagne with more testing conditions.
Early concerns about drought were washed away when over two months worth of rain fell in three days during August, causing fruit to swell rapidly and fears of rot, especially for Pinot Noir.
The weather picked up halfway through the harvest, but skilled sorting looks set to make the difference between success and mediocrity this year.