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!