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Champagne's Overachievers & Underperformers

Our new columnist praises the efforts of some Champagne houses and laments the disappointing results of others
© iStock | Our new columnist praises the efforts of some Champagne houses and laments the disappointing results of others
In the first of a regular series of columns for Wine-Searcher, Tom Stevenson selects five overrated Champagne houses and five that are underrated.

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 

Bollinger

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.

Jacques Selosse

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.

Jacquart

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.

Gosset

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.

The 1992 Fût de Chêne from Giruad was impressive, but there's not been much to get excited about since, claims Stevenson
© Champagne Henri Giraud | The 1992 Fût de Chêne from Giruad was impressive, but there's not been much to get excited about since, claims Stevenson

Henri Giraud

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.

Charles Heidsieck

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.

Piper Heidsieck

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.

Both Piper and Charles Heidsieck get Stevenson's seal of approval
© AFP/Champagne Charles Heidsieck | Both Piper and Charles Heidsieck get Stevenson's seal of approval

Veuve Clicquot

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.

Palmer

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.

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  • Comments

    Jo Winding Harbitz wrote:
    23-Jul-2014 at 16:18:00 (GMT)

    Every time I rad this article I am surprised to fine that I disagree even more with the conclusions found within than last time. It seems like Mr Stevenson has become a dinosaur in the world of champagne. I truly like both the oxidative style. Moet and Veuve cliquot are fine with cassis but to volatile acidic on their own. Therefore the writings of Mr Stevenson are as relevant to me as the barking of a dinosaur.

  • Roger Bomrich wrote:
    29-Apr-2014 at 23:30:38 (GMT)

    I have immense respect for Tom Stevenson's analysis of the world of sparkling wine, but I found this article challenging, puzzling, confrontational and downright odd. If the focus is on producers of all types, and not just the houses, it would have been helpful for Champagne lovers, that is to focus the spotlight on growers as well. This would have provided more of a service to those who don't follow the world of Champagne closely. In that context, some names deserving far more recognition than they receive include Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Peters, Rene Geoffroy, and Chartogne-Taillet (there are many others). One post suggests Jacquesson deserved to be in the underrated group of houses, and I heartily agree this was a major omission given their brilliant quality. While Tom may well be right in his claims for Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, this Champagne has undeservedly enjoyed adoring (and uncritical) fans, so it is a good thing if the new and improved product may actually live up to its billing. Finally, Charles Heidsieck truly deserves plaudits across their range, and has for some time, but I question if they could be called underrated rather than simply less familiar and deserving more recognition. Perhaps there should be a second article to explain what the author really meant to say about all these points?

  • Chris A wrote:
    23-Apr-2014 at 18:16:55 (GMT)

    Interesting that Stevenson's review of Moet, Veuve, and Heidsiecks focus on the Houses’ histories and the wine making processes FAR more than on the wines themselves. Kind of like Miller focusing FAR more on their packaging than on the beer inside of it (relax, I'm not equating ANY champagne to Miller Lite as a product!) Veuve, Moet, Heidsiecks make very good wines, and I like them quite a bit, but they are definitely NOT underrated considering their incredible popularity. What is it about the wines themselves that is so underrated? I agree that the specific example of Selosse being distractingly oxidative (personal taste), but there seems to be a discrepancy between oxidative (maybe desirable?) vs. oxidized (not desirable?).

  • alex wrote:
    13-Feb-2014 at 15:54:33 (GMT)

    Veuve-Clicquot, Moet & Chandon, Piper Heidsieck UNDERRARTED ???? really ? this article is really oriented. I mean those brand names are over rated. Piper is sharp and acidic. Veuve and Moet trust the market with a not very nice quality champagne. Just marketing position and the people believe that. And by this article you push in that way, this is wrong. This article is totally biased.

  • Jiles Halling wrote:
    04-Feb-2014 at 16:34:04 (GMT)

    It's great to see Palmer included in the list of under-rated brands. Coops often get a bad press but in the case of Palmer this is not justified. In my opinion they have been making superb champagnes for years, the trouble was that they were very poor at marketing and sold much of the production as Buyer's Own Brand champagne. Some 5 years ago they started a major overhaul of marketing and it is beginning to pay off. If you haven't yet tried their vintage 2004 I can thoroughly recommend it and frankly, any of their cuvées are worth taking seriously

  • Ed McCarthy wrote:
    28-Jan-2014 at 22:03:36 (GMT)

    I agree with Tom's over-achievers, especially the Heidsiecks. I have problems with calling both Bollinger and Gosset under-achievers. Perhaps a bit uneven, but both are great houses, capable of producing super Champagnes.

  • Victor wrote:
    26-Dec-2013 at 08:45:27 (GMT)

    For me, the name missing from the stars list is Jacquesson. Over the last 20 years, this is the only producer whose every single bottle I've tasted has utterly delighted and excited me. Maybe they don't have the size and distribution of some of the other producers listed, but this house is a real gem that should be discussed more. Cheers!

  • Anthony Rose wrote:
    18-Dec-2013 at 07:02:37 (GMT)

    Re Gosset, Tom, do you acknowledge that there's a big difference between oxidative and oxidised.

  • Tim Hall http://www.scalawine.com wrote:
    17-Dec-2013 at 10:43:53 (GMT)

    Hi Essi, thanks for the comment. First of all, congratulations on the Christie's 'Champagne sparkling wine' revised edition. Obviously a huge amount of work and I am still assimilating it. I take your point that the specific ratings and opinions in it are yours and not Tom Stevenson's. On the other hand, since his 'brand' is the first name in the biggest print on the cover/title page, it is surely not wrong for readers to expect his views to be in line with yours, at least in general, even if not quite 95% of the time or even the 90% Stevenson states in his own 'Foreword'. The problem with that assurance in relation to this article is that of the five producers he roundly hammers above, four of them are given high ratings in the book: Bolly 93, Jacquart 87 (and called 'underrated' not overrated), Gosset 89 and Henri Giraud 87 ('the quality has remained in top form'). That's an agreement rate of only 20% as far as I can make out in this case, with Selosse coming in for mutual criticism. And three of these five producers are very significant players historically and recently, touchstones to many. So divergences of opinion over them are interesting to say the least.

  • Christian Sogaard wrote:
    13-Dec-2013 at 23:54:14 (GMT)

    It's really excellent to see so many passionate about Champagne. If nothing else Tom never stirs the water, he fishes with dynamite. Reg. Bollinger, those of you following him 10-20 years back might remember his long-time criticism/love relationship with the House. One of the issues I recall was the disgorgement-to-order policy. So I find more genuine sadness in his article than just bashing, but his style has always been a bit excluding in it's provocative style. Giving that this is not a Master of Wine / oenologist-genius website his message is most likely also a bit over the top. Being a non-pro engaging countless non-pro's, many find this lecturing type of wine-expert-talk something of the past. Average wine consumers don't long for "education" in a "we all know correct Champagne is.."-manner. Modern wine experts work much more as facilitators or inspirators (whatever blury that may sound) in order to sharpen peoples appetite to decide for themselves rather than standardizing them using elevated wine-bibles. In my experience consumers are not the manipulative zombies they are often made out to be. They have sharp senses and a precise connection to what they favour when they meet it. Last time I checked wine production was not purely about aesthetics - it's also a business - if the oxidative "style" is booming it could outright be due to demand. To most people it doesn't matter if it's a fault, just as long as it's delicious. Anyway, taking a joyride to retrospective-land is most likely not the definitive answer to a question that afterall is a matter of taste.








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