The reputation of Champagne as the world’s greatest sparkling wine is so well ingrained in the public psyche that consumers are often hoodwinked into thinking that something is right, when clearly it is not. Many otherwise astute wine drinkers have been persuaded to believe that faulty characteristics in some Champagnes are not only acceptable, but actually desirable.
More nonsense is spouted about Champagne than any other wine. The danger begins when a famous producer goes downhill, yet still receives acclaim, or when an intrinsically faulty Champagne develops a cult following. Some merchants and critics erroneously describe flawed characteristics as indications of autolysis or maturity, about which they obviously have little or no understanding. When overtly oxidative, sherry-like aromas are highlighted and eulogized as a point of difference in a hand-crafted Champagne, I know that the wine world is going to hell in a grape basket. That is how some Champagnes become so famous, expensive or have such a vociferous cult following that few dare to criticize, but I shall try to buck that trend:
THE 5 MOST OVERRATED CHAMPAGNE PRODUCERS
If Bollinger was a human being, I would say that it was having a mental breakdown. This is a house that is able to cherry-pick the greatest, most talented chefs de cave in Champagne, if it so desired. Yet Matthieu Kauffman became the first chef de cave in Bollinger’s history to walk out earlier this year, and other staff in important positions have also left. This would have been unthinkable during the reign of the former chairman, Christian Bizot, let alone that of his aunt, Madame Lily Bollinger.
It saddens me to say, but this famous Champagne house has serious oxidation problems. Looking back at my own published notes, I can see that 12 to 15 years ago, Special Cuvée was oxidative in 75-cl bottles (but not in magnums), the vintage was as clean as a whistle, and the Recently Disgorged (RD) had occasional dodgy disgorgements, but the Vieilles Vignes Françaises was regularly one of the greatest Champagnes produced. Now, however, an excessive degree of oxidation pervades every cuvée.
It saddens me because I remember this house with much warmth when Bizot was in charge and I could pull his leg about how aldehydic the Special Cuvée was in 75-cl bottles. We drank it as an aperitif while my wife helped his wife prepare lunch in the kitchen.
The oxidation throughout the Bollinger range is the result of no sulfur (SO2) being added when the Champagnes are disgorged. Even without sulfur, it is possible for some bottles to shine for a limited period, which explains why I was so bowled over by a sumptuous 1998 Vieilles Vignes Françaises a couple of years ago that I scored it 20 out of 20. Unfortunately, the oxidative shock of disgorgement is something that will inevitably lead to excessive acetaldehyde aromas, which are caused by the oxidation of ethanol and impart apple cider or sherry-like notes, unless protected by SO2.
Ironically, Bollinger recently introduced a retro-style of bottle with a narrower neck to reduce the rate of oxidation, but it merely reduces the unprotected, when all that is required is to add SO2 after disgorging. Or, better still, SO2 and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
The solution to all of its problems is under its nose: the Station Oenotechnique de Champagne sells an SO2-Ascorbic mix called Sulfiscorbate. If Bollinger can grasp the reality of what is happening to its Champagnes, all of its troubles would disappear.
Much worse than Bollinger and more expensive, too. In blind tastings for international wine magazines, I have tasted with critics who rate these Champagnes very highly and wine merchants who sell them at fantastic prices, but when they encounter Selosse under these blind conditions they ask for a replacement bottle! I agree, of course, but I also advise that any back-up bottles will likely be exactly the same, which proves to be the case. When there is a back-up, these tasters have agreed that it, too, is oxidized and marked it down as faulty. If there is no back-up, it is still written off as faulty, yet those very same tasters continue to wax lyrical about Selosse!
After I wrote about this a few times, some critics and wine merchants amended their descriptions to include “sherry notes”or “sherrified” as part of the complex aromatics of Selosse, whereas before it was always about the Burgundian style (in which “sherry notes” would be neither acceptable nor excusable). Anselme Selosse’s philosophy (if it can even be called that) includes, but is not restricted to, growing riper grapes, oxidative handling in barrel, and using very little SO2 – almost all of which is added when the grapes are harvested, normally with no SO2 after disgorgement. This is back to front. If you are going to restrict yourself to adding SO2, then save it until the end and let the yeasts hoover up oxygen during the first and second fermentations.
To give the man his due, he claims not to be dogmatic about anything, which leaves him wriggle room without losing face, but his ideas have spread to an expanding group of adoring acolytes.
Nothing faulty with these Champagnes, but the quality has not rocked since the days when the CRVC (Coopérative Régionale des Vins de Champagne) produced Jacquart and would win gold medals by the bucket-load. Since 2006, Jacquart has been produced by COGEVI (aka Collet), as well as Pannier and Vve Devaux. These producers can and have produced good Champagnes in the past, they just need to pull their fingers out with the Jacquart cuvées today and in the future. The first release of the newly launched Cuvée Alpha was a big disappointment.
I cannot understand why these Champagnes are getting so oxidative, as the chef de cave, Jean-Pierre Mareigner, has made some stunning Gosset vintages over the years. Furthermore, the highly skilled Odilon de Varine, a former chef de cave at Deutz and Henriot, was brought in specifically to ensure that quality would be maintained when Gosset increased the production of its higher-end cuvées; that worked so well that he is now the CEO. Gosset has moved from its relatively old premises in Aÿ-Champagne to the stainless-steel emporium of Château Malakoff in Épernay, where all the requisite technology should be available to avoid oxidation.
When I read a glowing review of Giraud’s 2002 Argonne, I had to taste it. I raved about Henri Giraud’s 1993 Grand Cru Fut de Chêne in the U.K., prompting a skeptical Jancis Robinson MW to ask me, "Is it really that good?" To which I replied, “It really is."
Although there have occasionally been a few flashes of something approaching the brilliance of the 1993, my opinion of this producer has become increasingly more jaded as his Champagnes became clumsier and over-oaked, while his prices rocket to obscene levels for such quality.
The favorable review of the 2002 Argonne raised my hopes, but they were sorely dashed: the wine was a disgrace! I can only assume that the level of acetic acid is within E.U. limits, otherwise it would not be legal to sell, but it rates as one of the most volatile Champagnes I have ever come across. Anyone who thinks this is merely a matter of opinion, or who has reviewed this wine favorably, or has it in stock and might be concerned, should have a bottle analyzed.
THE 5 MOST UNDERRATED CHAMPAGNE PRODUCERS
Although Champagne has every advantage when it comes to producing a classic brut style of bottle-fermented sparkling wine, it is not all plain sailing. There are always undercurrents beneath the deceptively smooth surface of Champagne quality, with some producers doing a lot to improve. Surprisingly, it is some of the most traditional names that are making the most radical changes.
You might think this house could not possibly be underrated. Lots of critics heap praise on Charles Heidsieck, right? Of course they do, but I don’t think any acclaim this house has received has ever been sufficient. After more than 30 years' intensive experience and a great deal of mature reflection, I have ripped up my old list of Champagne’s greatest producers and started afresh with Charles Heidsieck firmly at the top. There are other great producers, but none that can match the consistency of Charles Heidsieck cuvée for cuvée, from the basic non-vintage through vintage to prestige cuvée. Every single Champagne in the Charles Heidsieck range is stunning. There are no duds, not even slight disappointments. Prices have risen over the last year or two and yet it still represents amazing value, with the NV Brut Réserve ($55 average price on Wine-Searcher) beating many famous vintages hands down.
The most-improved Champagne range of recent times, with only the luminous-pink non-vintage rosé disappointing. The Non-Vintage Brut ($41) is so good these days and it is often sold in bars and restaurants for less than the retail price in shops, which makes it my current NV of choice. The vintage Rare Millesime Brut is every bit as good any Charles Heidsieck.
Under the new chef de cave, Dominique Demarville, the Yellow Label, which is actually orange, has become the fastest improving non-vintage Champagne of all the major houses. When you consider that Veuve Clicquot is the second-largest house with a production of up to 18 million bottles, most of which is non-vintage, this is some achievement.
The secret is four-fold. Firstly: a reduction in the number of vintages declared to a maximum of three every 10 years, diverting the cream of more crops to the non-vintage.
Secondly, the purchase of 30 oak foudres, which act like condiments and their careful application can make all the difference to a blend.
Thirdly, an increase in the amount of reserve wines: from 25 percent five years ago to the current 35–55 percent.
And fourthly, a full 12 months post-disgorgement aging before release. which softens the mousse and reveals finesse.
The first really big jump in quality came with the current Yellow Label (which is 2009-based); the next cuvée will be the 2010-based and is due to be released in December 2014.
When it comes to magnums, the 2007-based cuvée is currently available, but if you wait until early next spring, the superior 2008-based magnums will be released. The 2009-based magnums will be even better (2008 and 2009 are the two greatest vintages of the first decade of the new millennium), because, under Clicquot’s new vintage policy, 2008 was declared, but 2009 was not, thus all of 2009’s very best wines ended up in the 2009-based Yellow Label or stored as reserves for future use.
Moët & Chandon
Regrettably, success breeds as much cynicism as prestige, so when Moët & Chandon sells 30 million bottles, there are plenty of consumers who think the Champagne it produces is more about numbers than quality. Well, it could be, but it is not and never has been. The vintage here has always been known as a great buy, particularly in the U.K. where the trade would sell the non-vintage and squirrel away the vintage for their own enjoyment. Perfectly cellared bottles and (especially) magnums of Moët vintage age as long and as gracefully as most other vintage Champagnes: the 1921 is one of the greatest Champagnes ever produced, and the 1911 was still on miraculous form at the age of 100, when it was mesmerizingly fresh and even had a hint of effervescence.
The direction of Moët vintage began to change in 2000. Georges Blanck, who was chef de cave from 2000 until 2005, began the process. He started to focus on reflecting the year more than the house style, and increased the time between disgorgement and shipping. However, tasting past, present and future Moët vintages from 2000 to 2010 in their freshly disgorged state, it is easy to see that another, even greater sea change occurred in 2005, when Benoît Gouez, the current chef de cave, took over. His 2008 and 2009 will be amongst the very best in the entire region, but it is Moët’s non-vintage that he has set his sights on.
This single cuvée represents more than seven per cent of the total production of the Champagne region and yet, contrary to popular opinion, it has always been one of the most consistent non-vintage Champagnes on the market. Now it is beginning to get exciting, as Gouez pushes the boundaries in terms of both production and blend. But don’t let the label dictate your view: you have to taste it blind to believe just how good it is.
One of the least-known cooperative producers, Palmer is without doubt the most under-rated of all Champagne’s cooperatives in terms of both quality and value, with its vintage Blanc de Blancs its signature cuvée. The point of difference with this blanc de blancs is that it is composed primarily from full-bodied Chardonnay grown in Trépail on the Montagne de Reims, with a splash of fruity Chardonnay from the Côte de Sézanne. A specialty of Palmer is its magnum stocks of mature vintages: the 1985 Palmer Blanc de Blancs in magnum is to die for!
* Tom Stevenson is an independent columnist for Wine-Searcher. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Wine-Searcher.