Prestige 1996 tasting
This is a fairly long and in depth post with lots of information, so buckle up.
Recently I had the privilege of joining a group of wine lovers to taste a magnificent collection of prestige champagnes from 1996. Obviously many of these wines were delicious, but the comparisons between them was what was truly compelling about the event. There were a few main areas of comparison that I found to be particularly striking. First, the difference between crafted champagnes versus single vineyard/village and small producers. Next, how disgorgement and winery cellaring impacted the wines along with dosage levels. Finally, and unfortunately, storage issues. After my thoughts on these subjects, I’ll also give some of my notes on all 21 we tasted. I also have to say a big thank you to everyone who opened their cellars to help make this tasting happen!
Crafted vs. Specific Area
For years the debate about large vs. small producers has been circling the wine community. Bashing big guys for making generic wine, bashing the little guys for getting to much credit for good but not great wines, and so on. I don’t really care about this debate because I’ve had fantastic wines from large and small producers. What I do care about is the difference between the champagnes that are crafted from parcels throughout Champagne, next to those that come from a specific area. This tasting illustrated this discussion at the highest levels. On the crafted side we enjoyed Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Dom Pérginon Oenothèque, Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill, Bollinger Grande Année, Bollinger RD, and Henriot Enchanteleurs. On specific area we enjoyed Krug Clos du Mesnil, Philipponant Clos de Goisses, Salon, Chartogne-Taillet Fiacré, Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée, Vilmart Création, and Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs.
We didn’t set out to compare the wines in this fashion, it was simply something I kept coming back to throughout the tasting. I continued to return to it because there were a number of wines from well known producers that were from a specific place, which is rare to be able to enjoy more than one of this at any given time, let alone compare them to their blended peers. I won’t say that one style was better than the other, its simply the conversation that surrounds a given wine and why it deserves praise. For me the Salon was quite possibly the wine of the tasting, and I loved it because of its complexity and singular focus on showing off what Mesnil-sur-Oger is capable of producing. In the same vein, the Krug Clos du Mesnil was superb because it showed off Krug’s style applied to a very small area. Conversely, the Cristal, Pol Roger, and Henriot were exceptional because they were the sum of their parts. With these wines, each time I came back to the glass, I was rewarded with new aromas and flavors that were the result of different grapes or areas within Champagne. These wines showed the talent of the individuals that created them. The talent and knowledge to know what resources they have to work with and how to coax out the most compelling wine they possibly could.
Many of us that love wine, are on the quest for terroir, and we forget that blended champagnes can be amazing. That being said, I don’t think the Champenoise don’t do themselves any favors by not sharing their thoughts on the various terroirs they work with to create these wines. This also leads to a nod to the small producers, I was extremely pleased that two of the four grower champagnes stood shoulder to shoulder with the best of the grande marques. Of the two that didn’t make the grade, one was a slightly flawed bottle, and the other was truly out of its league. Like the mono parcel/cru champagnes from the maisons, I think the growers should be enjoyed because of what they achieve from a specific area of Champagne.
Without a doubt the most compelling flight of the evening was the Dom Pérignon flight. We enjoyed the regular release of Dom next to two versions of the Oenothèque, one disgorged in 2008 and the other in 2013. Echoing this flight, but with less dramatic results was the flight that included the Bollinger Grande Année next to the Bollinger RD. These side by sides were compelling because the base wines were the same, the differences came from when the wines were released along with the amount of dosage in the wines.
The regular release of Dom was certainly one of the best Dom’s I’ve ever had, with almost 20 years of age it was coming out of its shell and exhibiting a delight mix of flavors, yet it still held on to the reductive notes for which the wine is known. I also felt the dosage was much higher in this wine, I’m guessing around 10 g/l. The first of the Oeno’s was the 2008 disgorgement, which showed much more in the way of high tone flavors of citrus, floral, and minerals, the acidity was also much more prominent. I’m guessing the dosage was closer to 6 g/l. Finally the third wine was the 2013 disgorgement which showed a greater range of flavors including more dark fruits and earthy tones, I even noticed a bit of lobster shell. Again, the dosage felt noticeably lower than the regular release. The 2013 was the favorite of the group, but I was still fascinated by the 2008, and after rolling it around in my head, I realized what was going on with these two wines. I thought back to pinot, which the 2013 was showing many more of the flavors I associate with this grape, and I realized the 2008 was in a dumb phase for pinot, just like so many Burgundies go through a dumb phase. The 2008 was being carried by the Chardonnay, while the pinot slept. The 2013 showed the harmony between the two grapes. It was an incredible realization, yet rather obvious in hindsight, that Pinot acts the same in Champagne as in other areas of the world. It also explains why many wines I’ve expected great things from have disappointed me in the same way that Burgundy breaks my heart sometimes. At least the champagnes are still enjoyable enough to drink, whereas I can’t always say that about the Burgs.
The Bollingers were fascinating as well, but unlike the Doms, Bollinger specifically states the dosage differences. The Grande Année is Brut, while the RD is extra brut. Flavor-wise, I felt the Grande Année showed the bottle age, but overall it was a prettier wine with citrus, chalk, and floral tones accompanying they yeasty, bold style of Bollinger. The RD on the other hand was fresher and brighter but the flavors tended toward yeast, earth, and dark fruit notes and the wine felt rounder in the mouth, despite the lower dosage. As I reread what I wrote, I’m seeing that the original release of Bolli and Dom both show more high tones while the late disgorged wines show a more complete flavor spectrum. I suppose the extra lees time allows the dark fruit to shine rather than being overwhelmed by bottle age. However, if I sat with a bottle of either of the original releases throughout a night I might feel different as more flavors are allowed to emerge.
I feel I have to mention this, because of the 21 wines tasted 4 were off or didn’t show everything they could. The Taittinger Comte de Champagne was corked, mildly so, but still corked. Two of the others were obviously beat up from storage – Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame and Vilmart Cuvée Création. Champagne, while hardy, likes to be stored well. Unfortunately I think too often champagne is forgiven flaws because we simply don’t taste enough of it to recognize them, or we don’t care because its still pretty tasty even when flawed. The final wine, and this is completely my opinion, was the Krug Clos du Mesnil. This wine was showing very well and was a delight to drink, but I think somewhere along the way the bottle may have been beat up a bit. The wine simply didn’t show all that I expected it to given its pedigree. The other bottles of 98 and 00 I’ve had in the past were exception and mind blowing, deserving of the prices they command. The 96 in this tasting was great, but not exceptional. Maybe storage, or maybe it just needed more time to come out of its shell. Hard to say. Either way, care for your champagne, and it will reward you!
Salon 1996 – Profound and exceptional, possibly the best of the tasting. It showed very well right out of the gate, bucking the usual trend of needing to wait for Salon to really sing. A few of my favorite words from my notes – meyer lemon, apricot, insane, gorgeous, and long. ***
Taittinger Comte de Champagne 1996 – slight corked, oddly this wine showed a lot of yeast, brioche and a bit of barrel, which is totally different from all of the pretty high tones I had in this wine a couple months ago when I enjoyed it.
Krug Clos du Mesnil 1996 – One of my fellow taster hit the nail on the head when he said this wine is like drinking sparkling Batard Montrachet. It was more vinous and white wine-like than I expected. Some great words from my notes – honeycomb, chocolate, menthol, marshmallow, fantastic acid and minutes of length. **
Cristal 1996 – I’ve been waiting for a long time to have a bottle of Cristal that showed me why people I respect love this wine. This was that bottle. Cristal lived up to its praise with this wine. I loved moving from blanc de blancs into this wine because the Pinot showed so well. This wine also furthered my thought that Cristal is striving to create a perfect wine, free of a specific house style or other characters that give a personality. I think this is why Cristal is often overlooked, without edges it can get lost. ***
Vilmart Cuvée Création 1996 – This wine was off. That being said it still showed vibrant acidity and great structure. I’d love to taste a sound bottle.
Vilmart Coeur de Cuvée 1996 – This wine deserved its place in this tasting, it was a remarkable wine. The nose was a bit closed, but the palate was “fucking incredible” with great acid, and impressive length. *
Dom Pérignon 1996 – Bright, pretty, smoky, bottle age, and some reductive notes. Surprisingly high dosage, but understandable considering when/how this wine is often drunk. Certainly one of the best Dom’s I’ve ever had.
Dom Pérginon Oenothèque 1996 Dis 2008 – Delightful, but chardonnay focused with lots of citrus, floral, mineral tones. Pinot seemed closed. Delightful, but the 2013 disgorgement was better. *
Dom Pérginon Oenothèque 1996 dis 2013 – Incredible, showing why Dom isn’t just some luxury product, but truly one of the top wines in the world. Chard and Pinot were in harmony with this wine. Lots of dark fruit – plums and cherries, floral notes, some yeast, lobster shell, minerality. Excellent. **
Krug Millésime 1996 – Dense and complex, but took time to open, and would better enjoyed on its own. Some of my favorite descriptors here – custard, orange peel, hedonistic, regal, and masculine. I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying this wine a number of times, and its always amazing. Splurge sometime and enjoy it for yourself. **
Philipponant Clos de Goisses 1996- The other single vineyard wine in the line up. I thought this wine was a bit overshadowed, maybe by its flight mates or maybe just the tasting as a whole. It showed its pedigree, but I wanted more. I also didn’t get as much of the feral/gamey tone that I’ve come to associate with Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and Clos de Goisses as I expected. That being said, it was pretty delicious with fantastic acid, length, and intensity. It also should a grassy, floral note that was unexpected. *
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 1996 – I’ll show biased here, this is always one of my favorite prestige wines regardless of vintage, so it was a treat to revisit the 96. The wine showed the balance of richness and finesse and a surprising amount of citrus and cherry fruit while the brioche and almond tones were a bit more muted. Not the best in the line up, but an exceptional wine. **
Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1996 – off due to poor storage
Chartogne-Taillet Cuvée Fiacre 1996 – Without a doubt the most overlooked wine of the 21 we tasted. It certainly deserved to be in this line up and showed why Alexandre Chartogne is becoming one of the most sought after young winemakers in Champagne. The wine was a balance of light and dark flavors showing complexity, yet a fantastic drinkability. I didn’t notice this drinkability trait in the other wines, they all had an air of aristocracy about them, while as this wine felt like it worked its way into the group rather than being born into it. *
Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1996 –One of the surprises of the night. This wine was almost an after thought, but turned out to be one of the hits of the night for most tasters. It showed the range of fruit sources, being a model of a crafted champagne. Spice, cherries, blackberries, floral notes, green apples, a delightful wine that would make anyone happy. *
Bollinger Grande Année Brut 1996 – A compelling comparison with the RD. This wine showed more high tones, floral and chalk along with very enjoyable bottle aged toasty notes. It might have been a bit out classed given the company of many of the other wines, but certainly deserved a seat at the table.
Bollinger RD Extra Brut 1996 – Much fresher than the Grande Année, yet it expressed more dark flavors - cherries, earth, lees. The wine was round and elegant with a distinct masculine edge. *
Jean Laurent Blanc de Noirs 1996 – This wine was outshined both by the Bollingers and the whole tasting. It was the only wine from the Aube, and was compelling to enjoy a wine with limestone soils relative to all the chalk in the others. I would happily drink this wine on its own or with its peers, but it was clearly the odd man out.
Dom Pérignon Rosé 1996 – Exceptional, further confirming that this may be their best wine. Light, elegant, complex with lots of cherry blossom tones joined by delightful yeasty notes. Don’t hesitate if you see this wine, it’s a winner. **
Dom Ruinart Rosé 1996 – Much broader and denser than the Dom Pérignon. Earth and mushroom accompanied the apple and cherry notes. The wine was tasty, just not amazing. Maybe it was a bit off, but frankly I’ve yet to have an example of this wine that’s truly wowed me.
Deutz Cuvée William Rosé 1996 – Another surprise of the evening, and a great way to finish. The Chardonnay from Villers-Marmery distinguished itself providing great structure and acid for a wine filled with bright beautiful flavors. A gorgeous wine with a great palate. *