The last two weeks have seen us explore the greatest vintage years of Bordeaux and Burgundy. Now, as the fizz-laden festivities of Christmas and the New Year fast approach, it’s only fitting that we turn our attention to Champagne.
Like Bordeaux and Burgundy, Champagne comprises is a relatively widespread area, encompassing a mosaic of micro-vineyards which bring together a unique combination of climate, soil and topography. Unlike Bordeaux or Burgundy, however, it’s arguably more of a challenge to identify a great vintage year across the region because of the many variables at play. Champagne relies on two grape varieties, for example: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A good year for one does not necessarily mean a good year for the other.
Then there are the vast differences between Champagne houses – each has its own individual slant on its winemaking process. Take the revered Salon, for example. The house’s president Didier Depond announced in 2014 that it would not be making a 2012 vintage, claiming that “Since 2008, there has been no genuinely great vintage in Champagne.” Other houses were quick to disagree, however, with many billing 2012 as a legendary year, and critic Robert Parker giving the overall vintage an impressive 96 points.
Add to this the fact that vintage Champagne (or more correctly, millésimé) is a small category – it represented just 1.3% of shipments from the region in 2018, compared to 79.3% for non-vintage cuvées – and defining a ‘great vintage’ becomes even trickier.
Nonetheless, there is some general consensus on the conditions required to produce good Champagne. Richard Geoffroy of Dom Peerignon, for example, has always insisted that the great or just plain fascinating years have more often been in moderate, warm, or even hot years rather than in cool ones. Indeed, the 2012 benefited from an Indian Summer, while the subsequent 2013 – also highly regarded – was the latest harvested Champagne crop for 20 years. As such it seems that a long growing season and clear, warm skies for most of the harvest help to contribute to the latent complexities in both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
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The best Champagne vintages of the 21st century
Because of the long ageing that vintage Champagne typically undergoes, it’s still too early to properly assess the vintages of more recent times, but as far as Robert Parker’s conclusions go, the 2014, 2013 and, notably, the 2012 have all proved excellent. The 2008 is arguably the standout so far since the turn of the century however, with Parker awarding it 99 points. Its success was something of a surprise to all, since the year opened with widespread mildew meaning expectations were low. The 2000 and 2002 have also been very well received.
On the other end of the spectrum, the 2001 is generally best avoided – the year’s enormous and already diluted harvest was finished off by last minute rains. The 2003, 2005 and 2007, plus the 2010 and 2011 are also regarded as being comparatively lacklustre. The 2004 and 2009, meanwhile, produced decent offerings.
The best Champagne vintages of the 1990s
The latter half of the decade saw some very good results in Champagne, with the 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999 are scoring solidly in the 90s with Robert Parker – the 1996 is perhaps the most legendary of this period, with a dry summer with long bursts of sunshine producing a vintage of outstanding quality. The 1990 was highly regarded.
The intervening years proved something of a disappointment, however – Parker didn’t even taste the 1991, 1992 or 1994, and gave the 1993 a relatively average 88 points. These harvests were hit by late rains, meaning any usable grapes were generally kept for non-vintage wines.
The best Champagne vintages of the 1980s
Like the 1990s, the ‘80s was also a chequered decade. However, followers of Robert Parker can’t really go wrong with his assessments of this period’s Champagnes, as the only vintages he tasted ended up scoring highly with the critic. These include the 1982, 1985, 1988 and 1989, all of which were awarded 95 points, save the 1982 which scored 94.
Elsewhere, the 1984 and 1981 were particularly wet, and the 1987 was ravaged by grey rot, so these three are generally ones to avoid. The 1983 and 1986 produced solid results, however, although the variables will often largely, as discussed, come down to individual houses.