Terry Theise’s Overview of Recent Champagne Vintages

Terry Theise's Overview of Recent Champagne Vintages

This won’t be a definitive vintage report because this does not purport to be a Standard Reference for Champagne, but rather my own opinions in a general way. Detailed vintage information is easily available elsewhere. What I’ll do here is to sketch the characteristics of various vintages in terms of how the wines taste – and maybe share a few thoughts along the way since, basically, I’m an opinionated guy.

• • • • •

Terry Theise's Overview of Recent Champagne Vintages 1
Geoffroy loading the press.

2004 was a large crop, and being a large crop, most of the wines were innocuous and diluted, good material to add freshness and lift to NV blends. Yet there was a small tip-of-the-pyramid community of really marvelous Champagnes, mostly but not exclusively in the Côte des Blancs. (It’s no accident that Charles Heidsieck’s current vintage of Blanc de Millénaires is 2004.) The wines have what I call “ripe green” flavors, things like verbena, vetiver, aloe vera, green orange, much beloved among Champagne insiders. I’ve seen no evidence one needs to drink them now, though they offer wonderful pleasure if you do. It’s a vintage I really like.

2005 has a common flaw, under the heading of rot. There’s no consensus as regards which rot it may be, or if there’s more than one. The most plausible theories I heard were, one, a rot attacking the actual flowers that could not be seen at the time and of course could not be seen later on the grapes, and two, geosmin, which seems to give the “nasty potato” aroma with which many of the wines were afflicted. There is a minority of wines that either escaped this altogether, or seemed to wiggle free of it after time in bottle. But even then, 2005 is a heavy-footed vintage, muscular and a little ungainly – the opposite of elegance. The entire vintage (at least the clean examples) tastes like slightly overripe Pinot Blanc. I have found the occasional bottle to be rather enjoyable, but I don’t seek them out.

2006 seemed to be a bland and somewhat stewy vintage, like Champagne in the form of commercial Pinot Grigio. And yet! When the millésime wines were released they showed surprising focus and chalkiness, tending to favor Chardonnay, and tasty right out of the gate. This agreeably fleshy vintage doesn’t seem destined for aging and most of the wines seem to be at their best now. Generous and open-armed, they make beautiful drinking while we wait for the ’08 and ’10 (among others) to be “ready.” The question of what is ready will be addressed shortly!

2007 is one of those in-between years forgotten before it was ever met. Like every recent “off” vintage in Champagne, there are isolated wines that are both exceptional (Vilmart’s Coeur de Cuvée is a great Champagne in any context) and that succeed because of the vintage, not in spite of it. 2007 has the energy of not-quite-ripeness; it expresses as stinginess in weak wines and as electricity in strong ones. There aren’t many strong ones, but if you see a vintage-07 it’s likely to be very good, as only the most resolute growers bottled serious wine from this crop.

2008 is the vintage everyone loves. I love it also, but I seem to understand it differently. Basically ’08 checks all the boxes; it’s brilliant, it’s mineral, it has fruit and florality, and it’s wonderfully nakedly chalky. It’s slimmer in body than 2002, to which it is sometimes likened, and it doesn’t show botrytis as a few of the ‘02s did. It’s also animated and articulate and full of joyful energy. It is simply an excellent vintage.

Terry Theise's Overview of Recent Champagne Vintages 3
Hebrart 2008.

The question is, what sort of an excellent vintage? And my intuitive answer is, one that will be complicated. Lately I’m exploring a hypothesis whereby vintages in which acidity is salient often zig-zag their ways to maturity, and when they’re “zigging” they show a strange bifurcation of acid and fruit, which can seem to be moving on parallel tracks and not always communicating with each other. This isn’t intrinsically worrisome, but if acid decouples from fruit and does not return, then fruit loses much of its protection, and the wines lose coherence. The blatant example is 1996, in which fruit grew decadent and mushroomy while the acids remained spiky. My sense is, this was an especially dramatic enactment of what may be a general phenomenon in acid-driven vintages. This is only a theory, mind you, but I do wonder, sincerely, whether the best time to drink the 2008s is right now.  Obviously I’d prefer to be wrong, yet we really can’t turn away from the revisionism mandated by our many wrong guesses of late. 1990, thought to be great, now decaying and premoxed. 1996 – as discussed. Even 2002 seems to be in a snit from which one hopes it will emerge – but who knows? All of which leads us to….

2009, the corollary to 2008, and as likely to have been misunderstood. Like 1999, this yellow-fruit in-your-face vintage seemed to be rather obvious and clumsy on first release, especially in contrast to the scintillation offered by ’08. And yet, I look at how 1999 developed, slimmed down, accessed some incipient elegance and grace, and became a classic, and I think that 2009 will do the same. We wine-people are wont to be seduced by acidity, and we also tend to greet a hearty chummy young wine with a collective meh. I think the wines will laugh last, and so I propose – simply propose, for us all to think about – that we’re overrating 2008 and underrating 2009, especially as regards aging, both how long and how well-behaved they’ll be along the way.

2010 was another lean vintage, with many wines showing the “green” flavors of underripeness. And again, there are a few masterpieces from this rather ascetic year – Vilmart, Lallement, Gimonnet among others, that don’t cruise along on waves of ripeness but that seem to cram every bit of available energy into those few bracing, stunning wines. Don’t shun the 2010s – chances are if they were made at all, the grower knew what he was doing.

2011 has been talked to death, at least in these pages. I truly can’t summon any positive feeling for this ladybug-infested vintage, because even when the wines aren’t fouled by the worst kind of pyrazine, they have a raspy texture I find coarse and unpleasant. Yes, of course, a few – very­ few – wines escaped the issues, and another few subsumed the vintage’s nature into wines we politely call “unusual, atypical” or words to that effect. Let me simply say that, as a lover of Champagne, 2011 is a vintage I prefer to avoid.

Terry Theise's Overview of Recent Champagne Vintages 2
Gimonnet 2012.

2012 is a strong, ripe year. The wines were needed after 2010 and 2011, but I don’t think we’re overrating them in our relief to have something clean and ripe at last. Don’t go to ’12 in search of subtlety, but do go in search of rock-your-world fun, especially with Pinot Noir oriented wines. Finally, though 2012 is adamant it is also coherent, organized and doesn’t sprawl.

Among the MORE RECENT VINTAGES, where it’s too early to have true perspective, I can only offer these early notions. I’m utterly in love with 2013, and I wonder only whether my limerence will survive as the wines enter their second lives. ’13, when it is good, gives every feeling of being Champagne perfection (Peters, Hebrart embody this) though it seemed like a spotty sort of year. Gimonnet found nothing he wanted to bottle as “vintage” yet a few miles away, Peters correctly saw it as great. But it is great in a particular way – ethereal, inferential, silky, shimmering and translucent. It’s a little like 2008 but most tasters, comparing the two directly, will find ’13 is less definitive. I think it’s every bit as good as 2008 and even more fine, but I don’t yet surmise how it may age.  2014 is a year that eludes me, as I wrote elsewhere herein. It’s clearly very good, somewhat a hybrid between the forthrightness of 2012 and the aerial nature of 2013 – but, early days. 2015 has the perplexing grassy notes, and we wait to see if these will persist into the millésime wines. 2016 is warmly welcomed into the NV blends, where it has seemed to be as it was in Germany, good-humored, lithe and lucid.