2008: the champagne vintage set to make history

A first taste of leading winemakers’ 2008 champagnes reveals a miraculous vintage, bubbling with potential, which – whisper it – might just prove the greatest in living memory. Alice Lascelles reports. Illustration by Chris Burke

Image: Chris Burke

2008 was not, by any standards, a vintage year for the financial world. And for the greater part of it, 2008 was a pretty poor year for Champagne too: spring was freezing, summer gloomy and overcast. But then, around the time that Lehman Brothers was heading for total collapse, a little miracle occurred in the vineyards of Ambonnay, Bouzy and Ay: the weather turned, the fruit started to ripen and the Champenois suddenly found themselves on course for a vintage that is now, on its release, being hailed as one of the best in a generation. 

“2008 is one of the greatest champagne vintages of my lifetime,” says Tom Stevenson, co-author of the Christie’s World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine and founder of the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships. “So fine and focused, unbelievably long, with great precision, purity and intensity, yet barely perceptible weight.”

High-profile 2008s launched this year include Cristal, Dom Pérignon and Pol Roger Winston Churchill. Several more biggies are still to come, including Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. But already, 2008 is drawing comparisons with some of champagne’s most legendary vintages. “From what I have seen so far, 2008 is the best young champagne vintage I have ever tasted,” says Alastair Woolmer of Farr Vintners. “The 2008s have a very similar energy and intensity to the great 1996s, but with arguably better balance and more consistency. It could well prove to be the best champagne vintage since 1988.”

“I think the 2008 is my best Cristal to date,” says Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer (which produces the prestige cuvée Cristal). “It was a very dry, cool summer, so we have this freshness, this bright line of acidity running through the wine that is typical of great vintages and particularly great Cristal. But it has a velvety texture, too, that will no doubt give it great longevity.”

“Weatherwise, it was a vintage very much in line with 1996, but this time we tried not to make the same mistakes,” he says. “In 1996 we picked too early, so we picked later in 2008. We used virtually no oak fermentation in ’96, we used more in 2008. We used a little more malolactic fermentation to soften the acidity in 2008. And last, but not least, we kept it 10 years on lees, compared to ’96, which we launched after just six years on the lees – that’s a big difference. So I think the wines have a texture the ’96 didn’t have in the end. It’s a wine with super potential.”

The vintage (£279 from Berry Bros & Rudd) may still be young by Cristal standards, but it’s already very engaging – salty, citrusy, like pineapple dipped in seawater, with a glorious, creamy mousse. It has that characteristic Louis Roederer flawlessness, but it’s also incredibly exuberant. “It’s a very, very strong vintage,” Lecaillon agrees. “It could be the most ‘Cristal’ yet of the Cristals!”

Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave Richard Geoffroy is similarly effusive about 2008. “It was a miracle year,” he says. “The whole summer ripening period was so-so – gloomy, overcast, grey. We had accepted it was going to be average, but then, just a couple of days before picking, it became outstanding. So the strategy became to hold the picking back, for it to be as slow as could be. It ended up being one of the longest harvests ever, close to four weeks. So much of 2008’s grandeur comes from working with those constraints and turning them into opportunities.”

From far left: Louis Roederer Cristal, £279 from Berry Bros & Rudd. AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly, £63 from The Whisky Exchange. Eric Rodez Ambonnay Grand Cru Pinot Noir Les Beurys & Les Secs, £92 from Wine Source. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, about £150 from Clos19. Dom Pérignon Champagne, £147 from Clos19
From far left: Louis Roederer Cristal, £279 from Berry Bros & Rudd. AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly, £63 from The Whisky Exchange. Eric Rodez Ambonnay Grand Cru Pinot Noir Les Beurys & Les Secs, £92 from Wine Source. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame, about £150 from Clos19. Dom Pérignon Champagne, £147 from Clos19

Dom Pérignon 2008 (£147 from Clos19) is a blend, more or less like all Dom Pérignons, of equal parts Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The result is a wine with serious sex appeal: bright and sherbetty up top, more rich and honeyed beneath. On the nose, there’s a whiff of gunpowder – a smouldering, savoury scent that’s a trademark of the house. “A lot of people draw comparisons with 1996,” says Geoffroy, “but the 2008 has more substance. It’s a bit more ‘pumped up’ – athletic, even.”

The launch of Dom Pérignon 2008 – which was previewed to a small number of journalists in June but launches properly in early 2019 – is particularly piquant for Geoffroy because it marks his retirement after 28 years as one of champagne’s most glamorous chefs de cave. Geoffroy’s shoes will be filled by his deputy, 42-year-old Vincent Chaperon – a succession that Dom Pérignon is marking with a special Legend Edition coffret for a small number of the 2008 bottles. “It’s good that the transition is happening through the 2008,” says Geoffroy philosophically, “because it’s a vintage that’s really pushing the envelope.”

2008 was also a seismic year for Veuve Clicquot: cellar master Dominique Demarville was so impressed by the quality of the Pinot Noir that he made a major adjustment to the house’s prestige cuvée La Grande Dame (about £150 from Clos19), bumping up the percentage of Pinot Noir from 60 per cent to 92 per cent (with the remaining eight per cent being Chardonnay) – a change that he’s maintained ever since. “I had wanted to increase the amount of Pinot Noir in La Grande Dame to give it a stronger signature, to get that full body and length, for some time. And 2008 was a great year for Pinot Noir,” he says. “The gentle ripening season resulted in base wines with wonderful balance – depth and richness and body and acidity.” Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2008 is majestic: succulent, firm and full of apple and bramble fruit, borne on a great whoosh of fine, silky fizz. Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 2008 will be released in early 2019.

Two other prestige cuvées that showcase 2008 Pinot Noir at its most imposing are Pol Roger Winston Churchill 2008 (£200 from The Finest Bubble) – big, almost abrupt now, but glittering with long-term potential – and Philipponnat’s single-vineyard Clos des Goisses 2008 (£147 from BI), which launched to great acclaim last year. 

Different houses interpret a vintage in different ways, but the hallmark of 2008 is that brilliant, mouth‑watering acidity. In a blind tasting I did of 2008s and ’09s with Nick Baker of champagne merchants The Finest Bubble, the ’09s were consistently more fruity, more evolved and often deeper in colour, while the ’08s were brighter, tighter and more high-definition. You could spot them a mile off.

Partly as a consequence of that acidity, the 2008 vintage has, as a rule, matured more slowly than 2009, a fact that led a number of houses, including Dom Pérignon, to break with tradition and release the two vintages in reverse chronological order: 2009 first, 2008 second.

Having said that, I think many of the 2008s are already tasting absolutely delicious. And a couple have already won top awards. At the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships 2017, the Chairman’s Trophy went to AR Lenoble’s 2008 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly (£63 from The Whisky Exchange) – a luxuriant champagne that proved 2008 wasn’t just a year for Pinot Noir but Chardonnay too. “The vintage 2008 in Champagne was the best vintage following 2002,” says Antoine Malassagne, winemaker and co-owner of AR Lenoble with his sister Anne. “The rich, natural creaminess found in our Chardonnay grapes from the grand cru village of Chouilly was able to express itself beautifully.”

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Piper-Heidsieck’s crystalline 2008 (£70 from The Finest Bubble) won World Champion Vintage Brut Blend in the same competition. “If 2008 has any flaw, it is that its wines are so perfect,” says CSWWC chairman Tom Stevenson. “Truly talented chefs de cave are skilled at blending together interlocking components of imperfection. Even in great years, it is the blender’s skill at the assemblage that creates a polished champagne, but in 2008, each base wine was so beautifully balanced in its own right that combining them threatened to do more harm than good. Some got it wrong and produced champagnes that were too angular and mean, but plenty of others made great 2008s. Many of the very best 2008s have yet to be released, but I have no hesitation in claiming that 2008 is the greatest Dom Pérignon vintage ever produced.”

2008 may have come good in the end, but for many, at the time, it was incredibly stressful. The sheer exhaustion of nurturing vines during a tricky growing season – which often called for night forays into the vineyards – caused Eric Rodez, a former cellar master at Krug who now makes a range of cult cuvées under his own name, to press two separate plots of Pinot Noir as one, a mistake he only realised after bottling. “As a result, what is normally Les Beurys in any other vintage is Les Beurys & Les Secs Pinot Noir 2008 that year,” he admits, cheerfully. “This wine should not be made again, it is unique to 2008.” 

Rodez’s mistake will no doubt only add to the cachet of his 2008 Ambonnay Grand Cru Pinot Noir Les Beurys & Les Secs (£92 from Wine Source) – a champagne marked by aromatic, cherry fruitiness and fresh minerality. But he still has some more surprises up his sleeve. “We have in the cellars two secret cuvées to be released when the time comes,” he reveals, cryptically. “Patience, patience.”

I’ve tasted fantastic 2008s from the cooperatives too. In the 08/09 blind tasting with The Finest Bubble, Palmer & Co Brut Millésimé 2008 squared up magnificently to the prestige cuvées – it combined a shimmering, almost Roederer-like citrussiness with the snap of pale, buttery shortbread. A great buy at £46.95 a bottle for a case of 12.

If you move fast, there may also still be a few bottles left of Berry Bros & Rudd’s own-label 2008 (£36 each), produced by the Mailly cooperative in the Montagne de Reims – a champagne that’s all pale stone fruit and lean, chalky purity.

There is a lot about the 2008s that’s already pretty irresistible – but hold off drinking them for now, if you can, says Alastair Woolmer. “At this early stage, they are fascinating to taste, but due to their laser-like acidity, they will only reveal their true potential and pleasure with about 20 years of age. Truly great champagne vintages like this need bottle age to be at their best. This is a vintage to go long on and reap the rewards in years to come.”

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