Last August, I wrote a Wine Review Online column about the 1996 vintage in Champagne; my message was that 1996 is a truly superb vintage in the region, and Champagne lovers should get their hands on as many 1996s as they can before they disappear. But the 1996 vintage warrants a re-visit now for several reasons:
--Many houses released their '96s later than usual, because of the nature of the vintage. Quite a few '96s have just been released within the last year;
--1996 vintage Champagnes are disappearing from wine shops very rapidly;
--A vintage like 1996 comes along in Champagne perhaps once in a generation.
Among the 1996 Champagnes that have been released within the last year or so which I review here are Cuvée William Deutz, Gosset's Célébris, Charles Heidsieck (available only in France), Jacquesson Blanc de Blancs, Pol Roger's Sir Winston Churchill, and Salon. The '96 Dom Pérignon Rosé is now available in Europe and will be released in the U.S. this fall. Three other 1996s which will probably be released in the U.S. this fall include the long-awaited Krug, a new Mumm Prestige Cuvée, and Pommery Cuvée Louise. Some 1996s which are still available-but which I have not tasted yet-include the Henriot, Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, and Philipponnat Clos des Goisses.
What's so special about the 1996 vintage? The CIVC, Champagne's regulatory board, calls it one of the best vintages of the past 50 years. Fellow-Champagne writer Richard Juhlin (author of 4000 Champagnes) thinks 1996 might be the best vintage since 1928! It was a truly schizophrenic year, the likes of which we've seldom encountered. For one thing, 1996 Champagnes possess extraordinary ripeness AND high acidity, a combination which is rare indeed! Christian Pol-Roger (of Champagne Pol Roger) states that he never saw such a combination of concentration, ripeness, and high acidity in a vintage; Pol-Roger says that 1996 is like "a blend of 1/3 1985 for extract, 1/3 1988 for balance, and 1/3 1990 for power."
We have to look at the weather in Champagne in 1996 for an explanation for the vintage's remarkable results. A very warm April, with bud burst taking place in mid-month, was followed by frosts in early May, with some major storms, including hail. Early June was perfect-warm and sunny; flowering started for the three major varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, in mid-June. But then a major drop in temperature beginning on June 19th held back development of the vines. The rest of the summer alternated between periods of extreme heat and heavy rains, with a particularly cool August. Then the first weeks of September were delightful, with sunny, blue skies, along with low night temperatures and drying winds. Picking started in mid-September, although some growers and wineries waited as late as October 1st.
In general, Chardonnay grapes were fantastic (which suggests that 1996 Blanc de Blancs should be superb). Pinot Noir had two potential problems that winemakers had to deal with: according to Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, Chef de Caves of Louis Roederer, very high malic acidity, what he refers to as "green acidity," was handled by 'delaying the harvest (at Louis Roederer) until September 27th, and picking over an 18-day period to allow the malic acid to drop and sugar levels to rise,' and also by putting a portion of the Pinot Noir through malolactic fermentation.
The head winemaker of Dom Pérignon, Richard Geoffroy, thinks that the main problem with some Pinot Noir grapes was that they were dehydrated, and in some cases, over-ripe. "Unless the Pinot Noir grapes were very carefully selected, eliminating the problem grapes," asserted Geoffroy, "some '96s will have problems with longevity." He wouldn't name any, but he thought a few '96s were falling apart already. On the other hand, Geoffroy admitted that there are many great 1996s, marked by high concentration of fruit, extraordinary ripeness, and very high acidity. He thought that Dom Pérignon (of course!) would be one of the great ones.
The size of the 1996 crop of grapes was larger than normal, and yet many houses produced a limited number of vintage Champagnes, one of the main reasons that '96s are so difficult to find. As suggested by Richard Geoffroy and Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, difficulty with the Pinot Noir crop definitely reduced production. For example, Gosset produced a very small amount of its prestige cuvee, Célébris, in 1996, and is releasing it only in the U.S. (its best market). France itself will see no '96 Célébris! But the limited amount of 1996 Célébris probably means that only its major U.S. markets-such as New York, San Francisco, and Miami-will have it.
Champagne Charles Heidsieck produced only about 3,000 cases of its 1996, and decided that such a small amount should remain in France. Bad news for U.S. consumers, because the '96 Charles Heidsieck is other-worldly! It is almost worth a trip to Paris or Reims. The 1996 Bollinger and Louis Roederer Champagnes came and went so fast in the U.S. that many Champagne lovers missed them completely. I was fortunate enough to taste the '96 Cristal twice (one of the greatest Champagnes I can ever remember tasting), but when I tried to buy it, it was gone!
The following, listed alphabetically, is a roundup of the 1996 Champagnes that I have tasted this year:
Deutz, Champagne (France) Brut "Cuvée William Deutz" 1996 ($120, Maisons, Marques & Domaines): Deutz is one of my favorite Champagne houses, but remains relatively unknown in the U.S. Cuvée William Deutz, its prestige cuvée, is magnificent in 1996! It is rich, firm, and powerful, with great acidity and concentrated red fruit flavors. It is comprised of about two-thirds Pinot Noir, with a touch of Pinot Meunier and 30 percent Chardonnay. It should be perfect in ten years. 96
Deutz, Champagne (France) Rosé "Cuvée William Deutz" 1996 ($150, Maisons, Marques & Domaines): When I first tasted Cuvée William Deutz Rosé (in the 1985 vintage), I decided that this was one of the finest rosé Champagnes being produced; the 1996 does nothing to change my mind. It has aromas of coffee, red fruits, and earth, along with intense red fruit flavors. The 1996 is full, rich, fine, complex, and more powerful than usual, a reflection of the vintage. It shows great length on the palate. Only 1400 cases produced. 97
Gosset, Champagne (France) "Célébris" 1996 ($100, Palm Bay Imports): I love Célébris, Gosset's prestige cuvée! Normally, I drink prestige cuvees with dinner because they are typically full-bodied and rich, but the Célébris, with 65 percent Chardonnay (and 35 percent Pinot Noir, all Grand Cru grapes) is so elegant and ethereal that it works really well as an aperitif. Gosset Champagnes do not go through malolactic fermentation, enhancing their lively acidity. When I first tasted the delicious 1996-with its aromas and flavors of mango, apricot, and lemon-over lunch a month ago, our party of three consumed it so quickly that we had to order a second bottle. Flavors really linger on the palate. Try it with seafood or grilled fish. It was just released, but with limited production in 1996, it should be gone by the end of the year. 97
Charles Heidsieck, Champagne (France) 1996 (not available in U.S.; 44 euros, France): Why am I reviewing a Champagne that you can buy only in France? Because it's that good! If your travels take you to France (especially Reims) within the next year, you must buy the 1996 Charles Heidsieck. It is powerful and firm, positively zinging with acidity, with a finish that goes on and on. We enjoyed it in Le Millénaire, a restaurant in Reims, with rouget, covered with wild mushrooms, and I will remember that dinner for a long time. This 1996, a powerful, Pinot Noir-dominated beauty, convinces me that Charles Heidsieck is now one of the great houses. 98
Charles Heidsieck, Champagne (France) Rosé 1996 ($90, Rémy Cointreau USA): Although the 1996 Charles Heidsieck Rosé is made with the same formula as the vintage (except that Pinot Noir wine is added to the rosé), as good as it is-and it is excellent-the 1996 Rosé is not quite in the same league as the smaller-batch 1996 Brut. Perhaps due to a different selection of Pinot Noir? That being said, the powerful, strawberry-scented '96 Charles Heidsieck Rosé is perfect for drinking now, but will age well for another five years. 92
Jacquesson, Champagne (France) Grand Cru Avize Blanc de Blancs 1996 ($70, SDG Selections): Jacquesson is a small, traditional house with strong holdings in the Grand Cru vineyard of Avize on the Côte des Blancs. The style of the house emphasizes dryness and elegance. Jacquesson has always been one of the premium producers of Blanc de Blancs Champagnes. The '96, made entirely from Avize-grown grapes, is crisp and lively, with extraordinary concentration of citrus fruit flavors, and lots of depth. It should live for decades. 94
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Brut Dom Pérignon 1996 ($140, Moët-Hennessy USA): The 1996 DP is atypical for Dom Pérignon in that it is very powerful, intense, and concentrated, and has greater acidity than usual, because of the nature of the vintage. Made with 50 percent Chardonnay and 50 percent Pinot Noir from almost entirely grand Cru grapes, the '96 is so concentrated and with such high acidity that it is not a favorite of winemaker Richard Geoffroy, who prefers the more balanced, harmonious '98 Dom Pérignon. I'll take the '96, but I wouldn't touch it for another ten years; it will need that much time to integrate and show its best. The 1996 DP has 40 years or more of life ahead of it, and requires patience if it is to be consumed at its peak. Meanwhile, the '90 DP is at its best right now. 96
Perrier-Jouët, Champagne (France) Brut "Fleur de Champagne" 1996 ($115, Pernod Ricard): The popular 'flower bottle' is the second largest selling prestige cuvée in the U.S. The 1996 comprised of 50% Chardnnay, 45% Pinot Noir, and 5% Pinot Meunier, is richer than most Fleur de Champagnes, but with excellent acidity. Perrier-Jouët always exhibits a classic, elegant style, thanks to its old-vine Chardonnay grapes. Mushrooms predominate in the flavor. It's a refined Champagne that can be enjoyed now, but will be even better in four or five years. (Perrier-Jouët's newest member of the Fleur de Champagne family, the Blanc de Blancs in a clear bottle, might be PJ's best Champagne yet; the '96 Blanc de Blancs is available, but hard to find). 94
Pol Roger, Champagne (France) Brut "Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill" 1996 ($145, Frederick Wildman and Sons): Pol Roger finally released its 1996 Sir Winston Churchill this summer, and it has been worth the wait. The Sir Winston Churchill, Pol Roger's prestige cuvée, is typically a powerful, Pinot Noir-dominated Champagne known for its longevity, but then longevity is a trademark of all Pol Roger Champagnes. The '96 Sir Winston is Christian Pol-Roger's swan song, as he is retiring from day-to-day involvement in the firm. What a great Champagne to leave as a remembrance! It is powerful, rich, and firm, very harmonious, with lots of flavor intensity, and yet with finesse and control. The amazing thing is that you can enjoy the '96 Sir Winston even now, but perhaps not so amazing as it's already 10 years old. Be assured that the '96 will become even better with maturity, and should be one of the all-time great Pol Rogers. 97
Louis de Sacy, Champagne (France) Brut "Cuvée Grand Soir" 1996 (available only in restaurants): Louis de Sacy, a small, family-owned house located in the village of Verzy in the Montagne de Reims, is run by the charming Alain Sacy and his wife, Isabelle. The winery overlooks their vineyards in Verzy. The Louis de Sacy vintage brut, Cuvée Grand Soir, is composed of 60% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier, and 30% Chardonnay. The 1999 is the current vintage, but you can still find the '96 on restaurant lists. The '96 Grand Soir is wonderful, firm, very young, and powerful, with lots of acidity. Pinot flavors dominate this robust, toasty Champagne. Enjoy it now, or hold on to it; it will live for many years. 95
Salon, Champagne (France) Blanc de Blancs 1996 ($300, Wilson-Daniels): Managing Director Didier Depond is very excited about the '96 Salon. At Salon, they believe that the 1996 has at least 50 years of life ahead of it; they compare it to their 1928. Right now it is very tight and powerful, with a depth of acidity that makes it difficult to penetrate. Its aromas suggest green apples, along with mushrooms and a distinct nuttiness. It has a wonderful texture and a delicacy of flavors despite its apparent core of concentrated power. It will probably need another 15 to 20 years of aging before it reaches its plateau of greatness-but knowing Salon's track record, I'm sure it will get there. 96
Taittinger, Champagne (France) Blanc de Blancs "Comtes de Champagne" 1996 ($125, Kobrand): Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne sets the standard for blanc de blancs Champagne, along with Salon and Krug Clos du Mesnil. The '96 Comtes, a thoroughbred with great structure, finesse, and concentration, is powerful, very fresh, and tastes especially young. It exudes class, which is what you would expect from this prestige cuvée, clearly Taittinger's flagship. It could use another eight to ten years to fully mature, but will drink well up to 30 years. In short supply; you'll have to search for it. 96
Veuve Clicquot, Champagne (France) Brut "La Grande Dame" 1996 ($120, Moët-Hennessy USA): Veuve Clicquot has hit a home run with its '96 La Grande Dame, its best since the magnificent '88 Dame. Always known for its full-bodied, Pinot Noir-dominated Champagnes, Veuve continues this tradition with the '96 Dame. Its prestige cuvée, the Dame, is 65% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier, and 28% Chardonnay, and is rich, broad-shouldered, toasty, and nutty, with excellent concentration of fruit and great length. It could use another six to eight years of aging, and will become one of the great La Grande Dames. 96
Unfortunately, a whole slew of '96s are no longer available. They include Bollinger Grande Année, all Deutz except Cuvée William, Delamotte, Gosset Millesimé, Moét Brut and Rosé (with the'96 Dom Pérignon available mainly in some restaurants), all Nicolas Feuillatte, all Pol Roger except Sir Winston Churchill, all Louis Roederer including Cristal (long gone), Taittinger (except a little bit of Comtes de Champagne), and all Veuve Clicquot (except La Grande Dame). Also, just about all 1996 grower Champagnes, which typically are released earlier than the large houses, have long disappeared from the market.
A vintage like 1996 is a rarity in the Champagne region. Possessing both outstanding concentration of fruit, ripeness, and great acidity, it has all the earmarks of greatness and longevity. Most of the better '96s do need time, but the word is out. Buy them and hold on to them. By next year, they will be gone.