The Champagne region in northeast France sits on the northernmost latitude that grapes can ripen--and even then, grapes don’t fully ripen every year. (Read last week’s WineReviewOnline column by Michael Franz, explaining the necessity of making non-vintage Champagne in this marginal growing climate). During the past 20 or so years, the climate definitely has been warmer throughout France, and consequently more vintage Champagne has been produced than ever before.
But more doesn’t necessarily mean better. For example, 2001 was a terrible vintage (too much rain) and 2003 was far too hot. And yet a few producers made vintage Champagne even in these years. I am a firm believer in buying Vintage Champagne from good vintage years. It is invariably far superior to non-vintage Champagne. It’s more expensive, but not that much more, and for me, worth the extra money.
I place Champagne vintages in three categories, Great, Good to Very Good, and Average or Less. In the past 25 years, I rate only four vintages as great: 1988, 1995, 1996, and 2002. The first three of these vintages will be difficult to find now, but 2002 is generally available; a handful of Champagne houses have not yet even released their 2002s.
The climate in 2002 in La Champagne--as the region is called by its inhabitants--was just about perfect for a potentially outstanding vintage: A mild spring; warm, but not hot summer; with dry, sunny days in the fall. Alcohol levels were high enough, combined with good-enough acidity to balance the wines. The 2002 Champagnes are a bit on the ripe side. Acidity levels were higher in 1996--the best of these four great vintages, in my opinion. Quite a few 1996s are still far from being at their peak!
Champagnes from the 2002 vintage will generally be readier sooner than the 1996s, but will also last a long time (20+ years) and improve with time.
You would think that it shouldn’t have taken me nine years to commit to Vintage 2002 as a great year for Champagne. But I like to make sure. Many writers, including yours truly, declared the 1990 vintage to be one of the greats of the century. Time proved that prediction wrong; 1990 turned out to be a very good, precocious vintage, just a little too warm, with not enough acidity and perfect balance to last long. Most 1990s are fading (Krug and Salon excepted), or are already past their prime. About two years ago, I compared the 1988 and 1990 Roederer Cristal Champagnes side by side, both stored well. Cristal is one of those Champagnes that is known for its phenomenal longevity (sadly, with most of it consumed far before it is ready to drink). The 1988 Cristal was outstanding, and showed promise to last many more years. The 1990 Cristal was still good, but clearly fading, not at its best.
Because longevity is one of the requisites of a great vintage, I do not deem 1990 “great.” And yet other leading wine publications--which rate vintages early and never seem to change their opinions with time--continue to rate 1990 higher than 1988, 1995, 1996, and 2002, which I think is simply wrong. Among other Champagne vintages to look for is the 1998, which I rate as very good--not great because it’s a precocious vintage, ready to drink now. The 1998 Champagnes can still be found at the retail level, and they are drinking beautifully now. The sturdier, long-lasting 1995s are also great now (but only a few are still available) and have lots of life ahead of them.
I have had the opportunity to taste quite a few 2002s over the past two years, and I give a brief description of each below. I do not put a point rating on the 2002s at this time, because many are still too young to drink. Ideally, you should save your 2002s for a few more years (5?) and consume the ready-to-drink 1998s and 1999s. I would avoid the much-ballyhooed 2000 vintage, a very average year for Champagne, as it turned out (too warm). It’s not a bad vintage; it’s just that other vintages available now are better. On the other hand, I have not tasted a 2002 which was less than very good, with a few showing signs of future greatness.
In no particular order, here are some 2002 Champagnes that I’ve tasted:
Champagne Bollinger: Bollinger’s La Grand Année, as the house calls its vintage Champagnes, is invariably very fine and long-lasting, but Bollinger has outdone itself with its 2002, which will be (is already) one of the stars of this very fine vintage. The Grand Année Bollinger 2002 (60 percent Pinot Noir, 40 percent Chardonnay) uses grapes from only Grand Cru and Premier Cru vineyards. It is a huge Champagne, highly concentrated, with good acidity. It is not nearly ready to drink. Bollinger’s 2002 is clearly its best Grand Année since its magnificent 1996, although its 1997 was probably the best Champagne from that very precocious vintage.
Champagne Louis Roederer “Cristal”: Rich and ripe, unusually forward for the superb Cristal. It is intense yet refined, with perfect balance and enough acidity to guarantee a long future. As of now it is too early to tell, but the 2002 might be one of the great Cristals. It resembles the 1990 Cristal, but it will even be better, and longer-lived. If you prefer not to spend $200 for the Cristal, the 2002 Roederer Vintage Brut (about $80 retail) is also excellent, but without the finesse and elegance of the Cristal.
Champagne Ayala, “La Perle d’Ayala” Nature: I have personally become a big fan of Ayala since Bollinger purchased this small house seven years ago. Ayala is leading the way among the houses by introducing a number of Brut Zero (Nature) Champagnes. In fact, all of Ayala Champagnes have low dosage and are quite light-bodied and elegant, the perfect apéritif Champagnes. Its prestige cuvée, La Perle d’Ayala Nature--which also comes in a non-Nature, low-dosage version--is superb, dry without being too dry, with great acidity. I have also tasted the 2002 Ayala Blanc de Blancs; it’s a stunning, lively blanc de blancs.
Champagne Perrier-Jouët Fleur de Champagne: Always an elegantly-styled Champagne with an emphasis on its Chardonnay component, the 2002 is more full-bodied than usual--the nature of the vintage. A lovely Champagne, delicious even now, but with a bright future ahead of it.
Champagne Piper-Heidsieck “Rare”: Piper’s Rare has quietly become one of Champagne’s better prestige cuvées. Its 2002 is smashing, a hit-you-over-the-head bubbly that you can’t ignore. It’s lively and full of great flavors. The Rare also has quite a reputation for longevity. I have been enjoying bottles of the 1988 Rare for the past two years.
Champagne Pol-Roger Brut Rosé: I have noticed a definite improvement in recent vintages of Pol-Roger (it was always good; now it’s even better). Pol-Roger has been making particularly fine rosés lately, lively, brimming with fruit. The 2002 quietly explodes in your mouth, a wine with depth and tremendous length. And I can’t wait to try its 2002 Sir Winston Churchill, its prestige cuvée!
Champagne Deutz Blanc de Blancs: Deutz has always produced excellent blanc de blancs, and it has a winner in its 2002. Lively and brimming with its trademark lemony flavors, this Champagne is absolutely delicious right now, although it will age well. Personally, I would drink the Deutz 2002 Blanc de Blancs now, at its lively best.
Champagne Dom Pérignon: Usually, the DP has a quiet presence when first released, and unfolds its complex structure and flavors with age. But the 2002 Dom is no shrinking violet; it is intense and in-your-face from the first sip. A fellow-writer commented that this is the best Dom Pérignon since winemaker Richard Geoffroy took over in 1990. Time will tell. Personally, my vote goes to the1996 DP, although Geoffroy himself prefers his 1998.
Champagne Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs: The other Dom has produced a wonderful, elegant 2002 blanc de blancs, perfectly balanced, with all signs of greatness. This is definitely one of the better Champagnes of the vintage. It should age beautifully for 30 years or more. A triumph.
I have not tasted many 2002 Grower Champagnes yet, although I was impressed with José Michel’s Special Club ’02 recently. I hear that the Pierre Peters and Larmandier-Bernier 2002s are magnificent. Both are from the Côte des Blancs, the home of Champagne’s finest blanc de blancs Champagnes.
Looking ahead, it seems that the even-numbered vintages have done well in the past decade, starting with the 2002. Some 2004s are in the stores. They are austere right now, what the Champenois call a “classic” vintage, and well-balanced. They should be fine, and quite long-lived. The two 2006s I tasted were fresh and lively; 2006 will probably be a great vintage to drink soon. And I hear nothing but great things about 2008, not released yet.
But the vintage to buy now is the superb 2002...while it’s still available.