The rise of vintage champagne

A more cerebral approach to vintage champagne is seeing a proliferation of vertical tastings by restaurants, fine-wine merchants and professional and private wine clubs. Alice Lascelles reports

Image: Chris Burke

Dom Pérignon 1998, 1996, 1982, 1971, 1969 – any champagne lover with their head screwed on would regard a glass of any of these as a fine thing. But imagine tasting all five, along with two vintages of DP rosé, in a single flight, so that one might compare, contrast and really get under the skin of what makes each vintage different.

Just a few months ago, I joined eight wine lovers in Belgravia to do exactly that at a vertical tasting of Dom Pérignons arranged by Farr Vintners. This event was a one-off (there were, at the time, only six bottles of the 1969 in the UK), but the format is one that’s increasingly being replicated by wine clubs, restaurants and fine-wine merchants across London in response to a growing interest in the rarefied world of vintage champagne.

Wine expert Philip Tuck at The Finest Bubble’s 67 Pall Mall bottle vs magnum tasting last year
Wine expert Philip Tuck at The Finest Bubble’s 67 Pall Mall bottle vs magnum tasting last year | Image: TheFinestBubble.com

The vintage vertical (where a series of vintages from the same house are tasted in reverse chronological order) has long been a tool of the wine trade, but in the wider world this more cerebral approach to champagne tasting in particular is a new thing, says Sotheby’s international wine specialist Serena Sutcliffe. “Some of the top champagne houses have been arranging interesting verticals for the past decade for select people,” she says, “but in the past few years wine lovers, people who are really interested in the subject, have thought: this is what we’ve done for ages with bordeaux – it would be rather fascinating to do it with champagne too. With non-vintage, what you’re trying to bring out is a very consistent house style, whereas with vintage you have the fascination of the intrinsic style of the cuvée, on top of which is embroidered the effect of climate.”

Add the passage of time to the mix, and you have wines with the potential to be strikingly different “even when they are only a couple of years apart”, says Farr Vintners’ Alastair Woolmer. To make his point, he compares the Dom Pérignon 1996 P2 – “intensely structured with hints of flint, smoke and minerality” – and the 1998 P2, “which is open and accessible, full of ripe fruit”.

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At the Lecture Room & Library at Sketch in Mayfair, both these champagnes are currently being served as part of a trilogie of vintages curated by wine director Frédéric Brugues. Presented as an accompaniment to a lavish tasting menu by Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire, this is the latest in a series that has previously showcased champagnes from houses including Henriot and Krug.

This year also sees the launch of a dazzling series of vintage champagne tastings organised by The Finest Bubble. Established in 2014 by wine industry veteran Nick Baker as a retailer of prestige cuvées (delivered the same day, if you are in London), The Finest Bubble was the company behind one of the most talked-about tastings of last year, which saw members of Mayfair’s new wine club 67 Pall Mall taste six vintage prestige cuvées by bottle and magnum under the tutelage of FT wine expert Jancis Robinson. The aim was to test the widely held belief that magnums, which age wine at a more stately pace, produce a more finessed, more complex champagne in the long run. The results may have been inconclusive, but the sheer wonder of the experiment was beyond doubt. And The Finest Bubble’s 2016 programme is no less ambitious, with extensive vertical tastings of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill (June 29, tickets £350) and Dom Pérignon (towards the end of the year), as well as at least one “horizontal” of 13 prestige cuvées from 2002 (October 6, £475), including the long-awaited and ravishing Krug 2002, launched in February – all hosted by wine industry luminaries.

Louis Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon inspects a bottle of Cristal
Louis Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon inspects a bottle of Cristal

If you’d prefer to organise your own vertical tasting at home, then The Finest Bubble also does a case of six Dom Pérignon vintages for £899 – which is a snip compared to the “vault” of 11 Dom Pérignon vintages going back to 1959 that went on sale at Hedonism Wines last autumn. Priced at £16,495, it took just two weeks to sell.

Those interested in vintage champagne will also be buoyed to hear that this June, Champagne Bollinger is launching a new oenothèque project in the cellars of the original Bollinger maison in Aÿ, bringing together a comprehensive library of rare champagnes dating as far back as 1830, as well as every Bollinger RD vintage since 1952 and a selection of Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises vintages dating from 1969 on. While these wines are not, alas, available to taste (not officially anyway), it’s yet another sign of an industry keen to put more weight behind the vintage story.

The assemblage (blending) of Krug 2002
The assemblage (blending) of Krug 2002 | Image: Champagne Krug

Having said that, some of the most exciting activity surrounding vintage champagne is coming not from the champagne houses or the merchants, but from champagne lovers themselves. Former investment manager and self-confessed champagne “fanatic” Atul Patel is founder of one of a growing number of bring-a‑bottle “tasting clubs” organised by collectors keen to enjoy their cellars in the company of like-minded oenophiles. In Patel’s case, the London-based group meets four or five times a year – sometimes at a wine merchant’s, but most often in one of their homes – for a tasting, accompanied or followed by food. “The format of the group is to agree a theme and then we all bring a champagne bottle that fits it,” says Patel, who has spent 20 years amassing a collection of over 2,000 champagnes. “The champagnes are tasted blind, so no one knows who has brought what. This way we try to eliminate the preconceived ideas that we all develop once we know the identity and vintage of the champagne we are drinking.”

By pooling their resources, the members of Patel’s club have been able to orchestrate flights that one wouldn’t see anywhere else – recent highlights have included a vertical of Charles Heidsiecks going back to 1966 (an event so singular that the company’s own UK agent attended) and, more unusually, a tasting of vintage rosés that included a Dom Ruinart 1990, Dom Pérignon 2002 and Veuve Clicquot 1985.

A trilogie of rare Dom Pérignons at Sketch
A trilogie of rare Dom Pérignons at Sketch

“The idea here is that rosés are generally seen as trendy and drunk very young. We wanted to explore how vintages develop with age, as you do not see much written about drinking aged vintage rosé champagne,” explains Patel. “Everyone was bowled over by the selection of champagnes and the quality. As always, our tastings show how well champagnes can age; the Veuve Clicquot 1985 was still lively and relatively young-tasting. Some had matured with almost burgundian characteristics.”

According to Berry Bros & Rudd’s fine-wine buyer Gareth Birchley, the rise of the vintage flight has a lot to do with connoisseurs starting to take champagne more seriously. “Over the past five years we have seen people treating champagne more like a wine, dispelling the myth that it is just for celebrations or for drinking as an aperitif. People no longer accept that champagne is simply magic in a bottle. They want to learn where it comes from, why it differs from one place to the next, how it’s made and how it ages. Doing that with a vertical tasting of something like Dom Pérignon is the ultimate intellectual and hedonistic experience.”

Magnums in the Champagne Bollinger cellars. Sommelier Xavier Rousset, founder of the new Blandford Comptoir
Magnums in the Champagne Bollinger cellars. Sommelier Xavier Rousset, founder of the new Blandford Comptoir | Image: Champagne Bollinger

The stylistic variety offered by a vertical of vintage champagnes also creates opportunities for food matching way beyond canapés. “If I’d proposed an all-champagne dinner 10 years ago, I’d have been laughed out of the room,” says Birchley. “Now I do it quite regularly, not just at work, but at home too.”

When it comes to planning a champagne dinner, there is one sommelier that all the Champenois want to work with, and that’s Xavier Rousset, the man who turned Mayfair restaurant Texture into a leading destination for fizz lovers. In Rousset’s opinion, the best vintage champagnes can square up to the finest gastronomic wines. “There is champagne as an aperitif, that’s lively, light, crisp, high acidity, and then you have this style that is very different, with much more by way of fruits, more suppleness, more complexity,” he explains. “As the acidity drops and you lose a little of the fizz, champagne becomes much closer to an old burgundy, either like a Chardonnay or, in the case of rosé, a Pinot Noir. You can get notes of undergrowth, wet forest and mushroom that are really sensational.”

Sommelier Xavier Rousset, founder of the new Blandford Comptoir
Sommelier Xavier Rousset, founder of the new Blandford Comptoir

Prestige cuvées that Rousset singles out for particular praise in this respect are Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill (“stunning, everything we love in the trade”), Charles Heidsieck, Gosset Celebris and Dom Ruinart. Whether any of these will make the 250-strong wine list at his new venture, Blandford Comptoir, which opens in Marylebone next month, remains to be seen, but the fact that guests will have “40 or 50” champagnes to choose from suggests it’s more than likely.

Pound for pound, vintage champagne can also offer surprisingly good value, adds Rousset. “Vintage champagne may be expensive, but it’s not stupidly expensive – for £200 to £300 you could get a very good mature champagne, with much more complexity than a wine from Burgundy, Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, at the same price. To get an equivalent red from any of these, you’d need to spend twice as much.”

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004
Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004

It’s no coincidence that vintage champagne’s star began rising at the same time as bordeaux prices fell. Fine-wine trading platform Liv-ex – where more than 90 per cent of the champagne traded, by value, is vintage – saw champagne’s market share grow steadily since 2010 from 1.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent, at the same time as bordeaux spent several years in decline. “While the Liv-ex 100 – 85 per cent weighted to bordeaux, 4 per cent to champagne – has fallen 30.4 per cent, the Champagne 50 index has risen 13.9 per cent, proving itself to have been a sound wine portfolio diversification play,” says Liv-ex sales and marketing director and co-founder Justin Gibbs.

In the 12 months to the end of February, however, bordeaux rallied, slightly outperforming champagne. “I suspect champagne will continue to do what it has always done – gradually rise as supply diminishes,” says Gibbs, calling it a “steady rather than spectacular investment”.

Dom Ruinart rosé 1990
Dom Ruinart rosé 1990 | Image: Ruinart

The diminishing supply is not helped by the fact that vintage champagne is frequently drunk too young. A prestige cuvée that often suffers this fate is Louis Roederer’s Cristal, a brand that, for better or worse, is loved as much in nightclubs as it is among connoisseurs. As a consequence, Louis Roederer has taken the decision to start releasing a small amount of old, late-disgorgement vintages from its own cellars, beginning with the 1995 at the end of this year. “We’ve found with Cristal that there’s always an interesting window of maturity 20 years after the harvest, when it still has a lot of freshness but it starts to be a mature wine,” explains Louis Roederer’s cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon. “So we will begin with Cristal ’95 and Cristal rosé ’95, and then after that, when we think it’s ready, ’96. It depends on the vintage and what we want to show.”

So which vintages from the past two decades are worth keeping an eye on? “To date, the two most talked-about champagne vintages of the past 20 years are undoubtedly 1996 and 2002,” says Farr Vintners’ Woolmer. “2006 [which was released by many of the big names last autumn] is certainly a better vintage than 2003 and 2005, which are more accessible – ie, drinkable – in their youth, but arguably less serious – ie, age-worthy – in style.” The next vintage that Woolmer, along with many of his colleagues, is really excited about is 2008. “That’s the vintage to keep a lookout for,” he says.

Champagne Salon 2002
Champagne Salon 2002 | Image: Leif Carlsson

If there’s a bone of contention in all of this, it’s the sheer number of vintages that are now making it to market. A hundred years ago, it was not unusual for a house to declare three or four vintages a decade (in the 1930s, Dom Pérignon produced precisely one). The 2000s, by contrast, saw certain producers barely skip a beat, prompting some in the industry to question whether such largesse could really be justified. Sotheby’s Sutcliffe, however, is quick to defend the Champenois: “There are two good reasons why we’re seeing more [vintages]: global warming certainly makes a very tangible difference; and also better technical knowledge about when to pick, judging balance and advanced equipment. So to me it’s entirely logical that you could do more vintages in a decade than you used to. I also don’t think a really good champagne house would endanger its reputation by releasing a vintage that isn’t up to scratch.”

The thirst for the kind of singularity that vintage embodies has also contributed to a recent surge of interest among connoisseurs in small-scale, grower and single-vineyard champagnes from houses such as Salon, Bouchard, Selosse, Jacquesson and Philipponnat. “Philipponnat Clos des Goisses in particular is extraordinary,” says Bordeaux Index’s head of marketing Giles Cooper, “because it’s technically a single vineyard – one big, steep hill sloping down to the river that, regardless of weather, manages to make a fairly spectacular vintage every year.”

Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2001
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 2001

The fact that Clos des Goisses champagne takes aeons to reach maturity just adds to its allure, he says. “When you taste it at 10 years old next to richer, more opulent styles – Dom Pérignon, Bollinger Grande Année, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque – it doesn’t stack up; it’s barely breaking into a trot. But once it begins to mature – well, the Clos des Goisses 1976 is one of the most perfect things I’ve ever encountered.” That vintage was the star of the show at a particularly thought-provoking vertical dinner hosted by Bordeaux Index at Texture just over a year ago. “Charles Philipponnat said he’d pick vintages that show the development of the wine from hot years to cool years, high-acid years to high-fruit years – it was fascinating.”

This year, Bordeaux Index will be hosting some equally erudite invitation-only tastings, including a “10 years on” tasting of champagnes from 2006 and a “20 years on” tasting of champagnes from the celebrated 1996 vintage. Whether you’re interested in the science of ageing – or simply want to taste some fabulous fizz – these are sure to be a highlight of 2016.

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