Prestige Champagne tasting with blanc de blancs and 1995s

A couple of weeks ago I led a tasting with some prestige Champagnes. My idea was to show some Champagnes with different varietal composition and winemaking style, such as the use of oak barrels or not. Rather than just showing current vintage of the respective wines, I scouted around for wines that would allow a theme involving slightly older vintages. It looked like I would be able to put together some 1995 within a reasonable budget and aimed at having half the lineup consisting of that vintage.

1995 is quite a good vintage that almost all critics rate as four star on a scale of one to five, or the equivalent thereof for those who use other scales. Chardonnay was particularly successful in 1995. I wouldn’t say that the vintage stylistically stands out in any other way than that; it is simply a good vintage.

There was eight wines arranged in two flights of four, one flight of blanc de blancs of different styles, and one flight of 1995s, of which one blanc de blanc and three blended wines that also had Pinot in the blend. Out of these wines, three were different vintages of Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, a prestige blanc de blancs that tends to be rather powerful, “vinous”, and easy to like. “A big, yellow and happy balloon” was one characterisation of the style of Comtes de Champagne that I once heard from someone who like it quite a lot. Vintages of Comtes with some years of cellaring have often shown well when I have encountered them in blind tastings of mixed Champagnes. In the first flight I included the vintage in current distribution, 2004, and then 1999 as a comparison to the Salon vintage in current distribution, and in the second flight a 1995 was naturally included. The wines were served semi-blind with voting for best wine within each flight. For me, the tasting was open since I had decided the order of the wines.

First flight

This image and the rest are all borrowed from the blog of Finare Vinare, the blogger of which helped arrange the tasting and serve the wines.

Comtes de Champagne 2004
Blanc de blancs with a hint of oak (5% vinified in new oak)

Nose with mineral, ripe citrus including zest, green apple, some flowers, and a hint of oak. The palate is very dry, mineral and stony, with green apple, high acidity, and some spice. Young and strict, 92+ p.

7 best votes from the participants, so collectively voted second best of the flight. Come across as younger and more firm than newly released Comtes de Champagne usually is, something that could also be said of the 2002 Comtes last year, although that top vintage had even more substance and a powerful style. Based only on my impressions of what was in the glass (this was the second time I’ve tried this vintage) and the high acidity, it should need a long time to develop, and I would almost be inclined to say “forget for 3-5 years and 10+ years in the cellar shouldn’t be a problem”. However, from experience, Comtes de Champagne often shows slightly toasted notes reasonably quickly if they are not there from the start, so if this behaves like previous vintages, 1-2 could be enough for it to show a bit differently. I guess the future will have to show if that is the case. Actually, some other 2004s that were released earlier have developed quicker than I initially thought, since many of them came across as very acid-dominated when they were newly released.

Salon 1999
Blanc de blancs without oak

Nose with mineral, rather stony character, some smoke, some apple and citrus, discrete flowery notes. Very dry on the palate, mineral, citrus and in particular grapefruit, high acidity. Long and firm grapefruit-dominated aftertaste. Definitely young, very firm and elegant, 92++ p.

4 best votes from the participants. For being the most recent Salon vintage in distribution it is almost nice and easy to drink (a Salon for those who don’t insist in having a built-in dentist’s drill in their Champagne? 🙂 ), which doesn’t make it nice and easy-drinking compared to most other Champagnes. Despite this I believe it has enough acidity and mineral notes to develop to a quite high level, so I add two plus signs to the score. Interesting enough, there was initially a lot of similarity between this and the 2004 Comtes, but with some time in the glass they became somewhat more different. The aftertaste was definitely longer here.

Comtes de Champagne 1999
Blanc de blancs with a hint of oak (5% vinified in new oak)

Nose with ripe yellow apples, some winter apples, rather strong toasted notes with toasted hazelnuts, some other nutty notes and honey. Dry on the palate, yellow apples, high acidity, some spice. The aftertaste shows some nuts, spice plus green apples and grapefruit. 92 p.

13 best votes from the participants. A powerful blanc de blancs with some mature notes unsurpisingly turned out to be popular… 🙂 This one is probably more or less fully developed, which isn’t too surprising for a 1999 that should have been on the market for around five years, but it’s likely to keep at this level for many years to come. Typical Comtes from a year that isn’t too high in acidity, but I think that the 1998 that I recently tasted actually was a little more powerful on the palate, although I consider them at about the same overall level of general yumminess.

Jacques Selosse Substance
Disgorged July 2012. Blanc de blancs with oxidative barrel treatment in a solera.

Nose with sherry notes – almost fino sherry-type notes – and hazelnuts, dried fruit, ripe apricots, flowery and aromatic with some sort of “scented oil” impression. Quite concentrated on the palate, spice, high acidity, green apple and nuts, long green appel-y aftertaste. Could probably develop some more, 93(+) p.

4 best votes from the participants. Already from the nose, this one stood out from the other three, and it was definitely the most concentrated on the palate. I did expect sherry notes, but I was surprised that they seemed a lot like fino sherry (the version that is kept under a yeast cover – flor – in the barrels) rather than amontillado or some other more clearly oxidized sherry type. This was my favourite in the first flight, but what makes me moderate my score somewhat are the very strong notes of green apple on the palate. Next to the spice, nuts and dried fruit this gives an almost disjointed impression, since the quite developed nose is combined with this very young note on the palate. I can imagine that that a little more bottle age could give this very impressive wine some more harmony.

Second flight

Dom Pérignon 1995
Approx. 52% Chardonnay and 48% Pinot Noir, no oak.

Clearly toasted nose, slightly perfumed, some peach, yellow apple, rather ripe fruit, winter apples, mushroom, definitely mature notes and some elegance. Palate with mineral, almost a fizzy tablet-like impression, high acidity, yellow apple, strong citrus notes. Aftertaste with grapefruit and mineral. Developed and definitely elegant. 93 p.

4 best votes from the participants. This wine divided the tasters most. It wasn’t really too powerful next to the other wines (not too unusual for Dom P.), but it showed the fine minerality and balance that is usually found in Dom Pérignon from better vintages. On the palate I actually found some similarities to the 2002, while the nose showed quite developed and mature notes, and I liked that combination. Out of the wines in this tasting, this one should have been the longest on the cork, and slightly longer than 1995 Comtes. (Perhaps since 2002, since the 1996 vintage apparently was disgorged in 2003.) Someone at the tasting said that he found some cork defect in the wine. I definitely wouldn’t rule out someone else being more sensitive to TCA in a wine than I am, but I think that this impression was due to the developed aromas with fungus notes and perhaps some dried and murky wood, that are notes rather commonly found in Dom Pérignon with age. This probably gave an impression of an old cellar, perhaps even a moldy cellar. So, my guess is that it was just the most developed nose that played tricks in a few noses, due to differing preferences regarding mushroomy notes in mature Champagne, rather than developed notes that are simply nutty. I don’t think that I would have described the wine as having so much mineral notes and elegance if there had been a cork defect hovering just below my detection threshold, and in that case it probably wouldn’t have gotten any best votes, given the stiff competition in this delicious flight. The two bottles, both recently bought at an auction, were also very similar. The fill level was excellent, corks in OK condition and the mousse was still there, so I don’t think they had been improperly stored. But given some of its notes, I’m not surprised it wasn’t to everyone’s liking.

Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1995
Majority of Chardonnay and a minority of Pinot Noir, no oak.

Nose with smoky and toasted notes, hazelnuts, yellow apple, a hint of honey, some flowers. Rather obvious developed notes. Palate with mineral, citrus and in particular grapefruit, green apples, quite high acidity, firm aftertaste. Young palate and developed nose. 92 p.

8 best votes from the participants. Rather blanc de blancs-styled, but that’s usually my impression of various Henriot Champagnes; they come across as more Chardonnay-dominated than they actually are. Cuvée des Enchanteleurs is always released with significant age, and the newest release I’ve seen is 1998. The nose had quite clear maturity, but was not as developed as the 1995 Dom Pérignon. The more toasted and nutty notes (without anything reallu mushroomy), shown on the nose by both Cuvée des Enchanteleurs and Comtes de Champagne, seemed to come across as only positive, at least among those participants who dared to voice an opinion. So a large part of the participants preferred the Cuvée des Enchanteleurs to the Dom Pérignon, despite my score.

Comtes de Champagne 1995
Blanc de blancs with a hint of oak (5% vinified in new oak)

Nose with toasted notes, slightly nutty and spicy, yellow apple, and some hints of oak. Rather full-bodied, yellow apple, some winter apples, quite high acidity, mineral. Firm aftertaste with mineral. Rather developed but can take more cellaring. 93 p.

6 best votes from the participants. Approximately the same level of development in the nose as the 1995 Cuvée des Enchanteleurs, but less toasted than the 1999 Comtes de Champagne. This made the 1995 come across as younger than its four year younger sibling. For me this was slightly better than the 1999, but many participants really seemed to appreciate the developed notes of the 1999. This difference is clearly a vintage effect and is not due to the cellaring of the bottles. The 1999 was recently purchased from a dealer and was still impeccably wrapped in its original paper, while the 1995 had been purchased at an auction.

Krug 1995
Approx. 48% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 17% Pinot Meunier, vinified in old oak.

Nose with ripe fruit, peach, some flowery and perfumed notes, biscuit, some oak, mineral – elegant. Full-bodied palate, clear mineral notes, green and red apple, citrus. Long aftertaste dominated by  citrus and accompanied by mineral. Developed, but can take more cellaring, 94+ p.

10 best votes from the participants. Yes! That’s a Krug the way it should be with just the amount of development that takes it from being young to truly enjoyable. In my view the wine of the tasting. Rather many of the participants seemed to share my view. The most powerful wine of the second flight, which wasn’t too surprising.

The way the wines showed and the preferences of the participants was mostly what I had expected, in particular in the first flight. Comtes de Champagne often performs well in (blind) tastings, since it both shows good concentration and develops toasted and mature notes on a reasonable timescale. Salon on the other hand represents the “no compromise” and time-demanding style of blanc de blancs, and is therefore sought out by many Champagne-only fanatics. I do believe that those who are not quite that type of Champagne drinker, but who are aware of Salon’s reputation as an exceptional Champagne, can be surprised at how “difficult to drink” it can be compared to other prestige Champagnes, if we’re talking about recently released vintages. 1999 is still reasonably accessoble since it is a vintage with rather high maturity of the grapes and not too high acidity. The vintage has also been on the market for two years, which means additional bottle age, so it is after all a rather user-friendly Salon. The more oxidative treatment that Selosse represent is a bit of non-standard style, that can come across as a bit peculiar. In summary, I’m not surprised that Comtes de Champagne got the most “best” votes, and got more votes than two more iconic Champagnes, when they were tasted bling in this way: the latest release of the three plus one matching vintage. In defence of Selosse, I have to add that his less oxidised and less expensive Initial and V.O. both have wider appeal, and would therefore be a better buy for most people who are not particularly keen on the Substance style. However, this was a tasting where I wanted to show the significant stylistic difference between Salon and Selosse Substance. Something that also showed, completely according to plan, was also that the vintage doesn’t say everything about how young/old a Champagne appears to be. The time it has spent on its cork and its style also play a big role. The 2004 Comtes de Champagne and the 1999 Salon were actually more similar than the 2004 Comtes de Champagne and the 1999 Comtes de Champagne. The 1995 Dom Pérignon was more developed than the 1995 Cuvée, despite large similarities in varietal composition and vinification, but it has probably been on its cork some five years longer. The fact that different Champagnes are disgorged and given their cork at different times, means that Champagnes from one and the same vintage tend to vary more in their level of maturity than “usual wines” from one and the same region and one and the same vintage.

Swedish version of the post here.

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