What makes a top Champagne vintage?

What factors come into play that might distinguish a vintage year in Champagne from a good year? Michael Edwards investigates…

Champagne-BottlesIN A recent conversation with the drinks business, Didier Depond, managing director of the bijou house of Salon-Delamotte made the surprising assertion that there has been no really good vintage in Champagne since 2008.

Depond must have been talking about Chardonnay, for most observers would agree that, with few exceptions, 2012 grand cru Le Mesnil grapes, the sole source for Salon, were relatively disappointing: too big, foursquare and lacking the élan, drive and mineral tones of a serious Chardonnay vintage worthy of the name. Pinot Noir is another matter entirely, as it’s widely agreed that 2012 is supremely a Montagne de Reims vintage (albeit from a small harvest) of quite exceptional quality in top crus of the noble Pinot. Distinguished chefs de caves like Benoît Gouez of Moët, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon of Roederer and Dominique Demarville at Veuve Clicquot all declare that the 2012 Pinot Noir could be the best since 1952 or 1947.

Didier Depond, Salon

Didier Depond, Salon. Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Of course when it comes to the niche category of vintage, the cellar masters can relax a little and take a holiday from making the all-important non vintage cuvée by the fixed rules of detailed calibration and blending to ensure a consistency of flavour. With vintage, the chefs can indulge their artistic, emotional side to capture the distinctive flavours of a particular year. Their lodestar is to shun making vintage by a set formula, the unique character of one specific harvest having precedence over a house style – which is still there but in a supporting role. However, in a nation as individual as the French, who produce more than 300 cheeses, singing from the same hymn sheet is fairly rare and Champagne is no different: an iconic house or a courted domaine each has an individual slant on its winemaking process and certainly is not shy in differentiating its approach from the others.


Benoit Gouez of Moët and Chandon

Benoit Gouez of Moët and Chandon

Take Salon, an iconic Champagne produced in tiny quantities, two or three times a decade. Revered by connoisseurs and sommeliers worldwide, many regard it as above criticism. Certainly the way it is made is rigorously loyal to the “classicism-meets-modernity” precepts of the de Nonancourt family of Laurent-Perrier, who have owned it since 1988. The plots of vines within Le Mesnil are the same as those first chosen by Aimé Salon in the first years of the 20th century; the wine hasn’t seen wood since the early 1990s; and malolactic fermentation is avoided in the interests of purity and a very long life. To express a personal view, Salon has become a collector’s item like a fine painting – and as a valuable commodity the winemaking is understandably conservative. Observers of the harvest at Salon note the house’s preference for early picking in order to maintain marked levels of acidity in tune with the mineral character of the Mesnil terroir, as they see it. The 1985, perhaps as a result, was a reductive beast for some years; the 1988 had a fine classic character and the current 2002 is said to be spectacular, after the somewhat soft- centred 1999. Older warm vintages can be wonderful, like the glorious 1983, right now greatly superior to the vaunted 1982.

Dom Perignon’s Richard Geoffroy

Dom Perignon’s Richard Geoffroy. Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

This lengthy preamble has a purpose: to pose the hard question: is there something extra beyond a rigid reading of oenological data, particularly of acidity, that makes for a great vintage, particularly in warm years? Several of the great Champagne masters from Richard Geoffroy of Dom Pérignon through Gouez and Lécaillon onto a new generation of chef de caves believe there is. Geoffroy has always insisted that the great or just plain fascinating years have more often been in moderate, warm, even hot years rather than in cool ones, the exceptions being 2008 and 1988.

He is a great believer in the future life of DP in the heatwave 2003, as are Olivier Krug and Eric Lebel in Krug 2003. So too are the scientists at the CIVC, who have held back some 2003s for research and report that they are holding up as well, maybe better than the 2004s.

As Brad Baker, the Champagne Warrior, says: “I advise getting wise about the quality of 2003s.”

Olivier Krug

Olivier Krug. Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Back to the reality of coming-on-stream and follow-on years in Champagne, there is a splendid choice of potential vintage Champagnes in every style and diverse character, mirroring the advance of climate change in 2009, but also reining it back in the cooler weather of the undeniably great 2008. Best news of all – 2012 for Pinot Noir is epic, benefitting from an Indian summer in September. And 2013, after the run of early harvests in the noughties, was the latest harvested crop for 20 years. First impressions are that the long growing season and clear, warm skies for most of the harvest contributed to latent complexities in grand cru Chardonnays.

We assess the vintage potential of 2008 to 2013 over the following pages:

One Response to “What makes a top Champagne vintage?”

  1. A good article; many thanks.
    However I do question why you regularly seek the comments of the same few chefs de caves at the large houses yet rarely, if ever, solicit the opinions of the excellent wine makers at some of the small producers, many of whom have outstanding reputations and, in some cases, more experience and longer memories that their counterparts at the grandes maisons. You mention a few in passing, it’s true, but rarely interview them as far as I can see. The input of these less well-known names would make a pleasant change and might add an extra dimension to the debate. I am sure you don’t need me to give you my personal suggestions as to who these people are

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