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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…

IN 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. 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

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. 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. 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:


A year that saw every type of weather and a host of potential diseases but which eventually ended in triumph. Frosts in December 2007 and a mild, humid early January, a coolish rainy march, lateish budbreak and glacial weather at flowering were some of the hazards.

Marked heat in July brought strong storms contrasting with a fresh August that saw little sun but which did restore health to the vineyards. Harvesting ran from 15-25 September, in ideal weather with fresh dry winds – very sunny by day, fresh at night, chasing away any forays of botrytis, all extremely favourable for the creation of exceptional grapes with a perfect balance of sugar and acidity: 9.8% abv, 8.6g/l total acidity. Certainly 2008 is one of the two (or three) great vintages of the noughties, complex, structured, dry, with exceptional ageing potential for the patient from 2016-17. A good vintage for Marnais rosés and the best base for the exceptional Jacquesson No 736 and the outstanding vintaged ‘08 Agrapart Venus Grand Cru Avize. Not so good in the Aube under sullen skies.


A topsy-turvy growing season with a rigorously cold winter of heavy frosts and snowfalls in January. A sustained mild period came in April, budbreak arriving normally about the 10 June and then a regular flowering from 11 and 16 June. July was afflicted by violent storms leading to landslips and floods in the grand valley of the Marne.

Luckily, August was very sunny, dry and warm, with reasonably cool nights, that favoured a rapid evolution of grape maturity. Scarcely a drop of rain fell in the earlyish harvest from 8 to 21 September. The health of the grapes was exemplary. The most interesting wines may be from growers like Emmanuel Fourny in Vertus, who waited towards the end of the harvest to foster benign phenolic maturity. Were not 2008 such a great vintage, 2009 would be thought an excellent year and it has its champions, like Jérôme Philipon at Bollinger.

The eminent Régis Camus of C&P Heidsieck is unequivocal: “I’m drawn to its harmonious rich balance, which suits us very well.” It’s a great vintage also for Aubois rosé and for their southern brut nature or extra brut Chardonnays.


A hard, cruel growing season began with frequent snowfalls on 19 December 2009 and a glacial January (-15 to -20°C), more snow and tempestuous winds.

Warm weather from May, a normal June flowering and strong sunshine in the first three weeks of July raised hopes of a vintage year – only to be dashed by torrential downpours around 15 August, with more rain falling in two days than in two months of the growing cycle.

Incipient rot reached down to the roots of the vine and was particularly destructive of Meunier and Pinot Noir; it was better for Chardonnay, which can be strong and structured as part of a NV base wine. But this is no Marnais vintage year because of the frailty of the black grapes.

The Aube, on the doorstep of Burgundy, fared a lot better and vintage cuvées can be expected.


A freezing cold December and January with heavy snow at least raised water levels to a satisfactory level. A warm period in May progressed the early developments of the vines.

From June the weather was mercurial, contrasting sunshine, storms and winds. July was overcast and the weather at the early start of mid August was as changeable as the earlier season.

The picking date in the Marne was crucial for success. Chardonnay was the best grapes and those who harvested in early September like Selosse and JL Vergnon have made fine vintage Blanc de Blancs. Not a vintage generally for the big houses.


Too early to be definitive about the three classic cépages, but if the adage that “August makes the wine” is true, 2012 says it in spades.

An Indian summer ran throughout the month and it was ideally warm and dry through the September Marne harvest.

The Pinot Noirs from the northern Montagne were quite spectacular, with wonderful ripeness, purity and perfect pH. There is very little of it, but reserve some for your cellar. The Clicquot Grande Dame Rosé is one of the best ever made. Destructive hail ruined the vintage for several unlucky growers in Aubois.


Only a brief word is wise at this stage. But it’s clearly a vintage for Chardonnay from grandes terroirs in a small healthy harvest. Pinot Noir from the southern Montagne especially Aÿ is sumptuous.

It’s more variable on the Northern Pinot Noir slopes but Roederer, as usual, got it right. Meuniers are mixed.

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