Champagne lovers tend to gravitate toward either end of the spectrum, choosing nonvintage brut or rosé for everyday consumption and the occasional luxury cuvée (Dom Pérignon, Cristal or La Grande Dame) for life’s special moments. Vintage Champagne, somewhere in the middle, frequently gets overlooked.
It is true the luxury cuvées are vintage-dated, but beyond those, it’s rare to see enthusiasts popping a bottle of bubbly that contains grapes from a single year.
Far fewer vintage bottles are available, of course, because most of a producer’s grapes will go into making the nonvintage bottling. In addition, most nonvintage offerings are pretty good these days, as they are carefully sourced and blended and acquire depth and balance from the inclusion of reserve wine from older years. Simply put, a vintage year needs to be almost spectacular to be listed on the label.
One year that falls into that category is 1990, but vintage bottles from that year are hard to find. Among other recent vintages, the standouts are 1998 (excellent in both quantity and quality), 2002 and 2003 (notable for their ripeness), 2004 (good balance of fruit and acidity) and 2006 (aromatic, with a great deal of finesse). Given many vintage Champagnes start in the $60 range—compared with $40 to $50 for the nonvintage version—why not treat yourself when you find one that has been carefully stored?
Following are some of the notable buys on the market worth seeking out.
France’s best-selling Champagne, Nicolas Feuillatte, is also popular in this country thanks to its remarkable price-to-quality ratio, whether you choose the entry-level bottle or the declared vintage. The current standout is the 2004 Blanc de Blancs ($60), a wine made exclusively from Chardonnay, filled with bright flavors of lemon, apple and pear. As it ages, this Champagne becomes rich, unctuous and honeyed, infused with flavors of vanilla and bread dough.
Founded in 1785 by Florens-Louis Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck is one of the oldest Champagne houses. It is also the best known of the three Heidsieck Champagnes. (The other two are Charles Heidsieck and Heidsieck Monopole.) The 2004 Brut ($65) is crisp yet delicate, with refreshing citrus flavors and pinpoint acidity. Even better is the exceptional 2002 Piper-Heidsieck Rare ($180), blended from 17 select vineyard sites and matured for more than seven years in the house’s cellars. Beautifully concentrated, it combines exotic flavors of kiwi and passion fruit with intense minerality and purity.
Moët & Chandon
The world’s leading Champagne brand, Moët & Chandon has a lot to offer in the vintage category. The recently released Grand Vintage 2006 ($70) is fresh and full-bodied, with mouth-watering acidity and flavors of citrus and vanilla paired with a hint of red fruits. The Grand Vintage Rosé 2004 ($85) offers an explosion of fresh raspberry and wild strawberry in the mouth, framed by strong suggestions of tannin.
Still craving that luxury cuvée? Consider the Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque (formerly known as Fleur de Champagne, or Flower Bottle – below). The 2002, 2004 and 2006 vintages sell for $150. This is rich, profound Champagne that can accompany a meal, displaying great depth of flavor in its layers of brioche, vanilla and toast.
Chardonnay fans will appreciate the ripe, succulent Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millenaires 1995 ($170), released after 10 years of cellar aging. And if you are lucky enough to experience the 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé ($375), filled with haunting flavors of strawberry and red raspberry, you’ll likely remember it to the end of your days.’