How to buy and collect vintage champagne

Our specialists share a selection of top vintages from the past century, highlighting the importance of understanding not only which champagne vintages are great, but also why they stand out — illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s

A private masked ball at the home of the Comte de Thézillat, circa 1928-32 (detail), photograph by Eli Lotar

A private masked ball at the home of the Comte de Thézillat, circa 1928-32 (detail). Photograph © Eli Lotar. Photo: © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Image Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI

Perhaps no other wine region on Earth is as vintage-driven as Champagne. Because of its location in northeastern France, on the edge of where the cultivation of grapes is possible, many harvests in any given decade are not suitable for the production of top-quality, single-vintage champagne.

Most of the champagne produced is non-vintage, meaning that the wine is a blend of grapes grown during many different years. Single-vintage champagne is usually only produced three or four times per decade and makes up less than five per cent of total champagne production. The scarcity of these top vintages means that the great years are even more special, with exceptional and rare examples commanding impressive prices at auction.

With climate change, however, the industry is swiftly changing. Sparkling wine production is now possible as far north as southern England, and Champagne itself has seen a string of roller-coaster vintages during the past decade.

Nevertheless, the year of production remains one of the most important factors for collectors and lovers of aged champagne. Here, our specialists share a selection of outstanding vintages from the past century, as well as explaining why each will appeal uniquely to different buyers.

The 2012 vintage

This was an exceptional vintage in Champagne, the best since the stellar 2008. Yet the year began with challenging conditions. Temperatures in February were down to between minus-10 and minus-20 degrees Celsius. March was warm, which encouraged early bud-break. However, April was damp; and in May, some areas suffered frost damage, which, along with mildew, reduced yields.

Fortunes improved in mid-July with the arrival of dry and sunny weather that continued up until harvest. August was hot, but cool nights helped to retain acidity. In September, healthy grapes were harvested. These grapes contained the rare combination of high acid and sugar levels, which produces balanced wines offering both depth and concentration of flavour and refreshing vivacity and tension.

Cristal Rosé 2012. 6 bottles per lot. Sold for £1,625 on 7 June 2023 at Christie’s in London

In particular, Pinot Noir performed superbly in 2012. As with other great vintages, the 2012 cuvées will age exceptionally well and can be laid down for enjoyment over the next few decades.

The 2008 vintage

The 2008 is widely considered one of the top two vintages of the 21st century so far. The growing season got off to a rocky start with an unusually cool and damp spring. The cool weather persisted throughout much of the summer, but September brought idyllic weather that sped up ripening.

Cristal 2008. 12 bottles per lot. Sold for £2,250 on 7 June 2023 at Christie’s in London

By harvest, the grapes were in near-perfect condition. They had high levels of both sugar and acid, and growers were extremely happy with the results. Subsequent tastings have proven the wines to be of exceptional quality. The vintage is defined by its crisp, linear structure and racy, energetic taste profile. Given its exceptional structure and balance, 2008 is estimated to be one of the longest-ageing vintages.

The 2004 vintage

2004 produced excellent wines, which illustrated that high-yielding harvests can also produce grapes with a superb balance of ripeness and acidity, and wines that can age exceptionally well. Spring was sunny and dry, which enabled a successful flowering and set yields to be higher than average. August was relatively cool with some rain, which caused a certain amount of rot and mildew, but harvest proceeded in good weather from mid-September.

The result: elegant wines with a harmonious balance of fruit concentration and intensity of aromatics and flavours, plus the structure to age and evolve in bottle.

The 2002 vintage

The first notable vintage after the millennium is 2002. In terms of quality, it rivals 2008 and 2012, but it stands out for very different reasons. It was an unusually warm year, which pushed the grape’s ripeness to the extreme, leading to rich, plush and deeply intense wines. The warm and mostly dry summer, with fresh nights, led into a warm and dry harvest, producing grapes of exceptional concentration. The resulting wines are plush and rich owing to high sugar and alcohol levels, but well balanced by high acid. Outstanding wines were made by many top producers.

Dom Pérignon, 2002. 12 bottles per lot. Estimate: $1,800-3,500. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Two Superlative Collections on 20-31 October at Christie’s Online

The 1996 vintage

This was at one time considered the greatest vintage of the last century, but time has proven 1996 wines to be a bit more variable. However, it is still considered one of the greats.

It was a summer of fluctuating weather, but generally dry and warm, with a relatively cool September owing to a north wind, giving the vintage its signature high acidity. Surprisingly, the vintage was also very ripe — a rare combination for which the term ‘10:10’ was coined, since many producers harvested grapes with 10 per cent potential alcohol combined with 10 g/l of acidity.

The remarkably high sugar and acid in the grapes led to the production of wines that are deeply concentrated, with intense flavour and structure. While a few wines have shown signs of premature oxidation, perhaps the result of winds concentrating the oxidative compounds, wines from top producers such as Cristal, Krug and Salon remain in excellent condition. The international director of Wine and Spirits at Christie’s, Tim Triptree MW, rates the 1996 Cristal as one of the finest champagnes he has ever tasted.

The 1990 vintage

Three excellent vintages in Champagne were 1988, 1989 and 1990. Initially, many considered 1990 the finest of the trio, but that mantle has since passed to 1988. Some of the 1990 champagnes have evolved more quickly than anticipated, and there can be variation among bottles and producers.

Winter and early spring saw warm weather that resulted in an early bud-break, making vines susceptible to the spring frost which duly arrived in April. This led to some uneven ripening and differing levels of maturity owing to the second generation of grapes that appeared after the frost damage and thus ripened later. The summer was generally dry and warm, which produced big, powerful, concentrated and full-flavoured wines.

The 1988 vintage

1988 produced classically styled wines with impeccable balance and structure, which has allowed them to age beautifully. Weather conditions were mild, with instances of hail and mildew keeping vignerons on their toes, leading to a relatively straightforward vintage of excellent quality.

By harvest time, the balance between the sugar and acid in the grapes was near perfect, with lower potential alcohol and higher acidities than the riper and warmer 1989 and 1990 vintages. Today the wines are drinking wonderfully, especially from magnum, with freshness, vibrancy and plenty of mileage left in the finest cuvées.

Louis Roederer, Cristal, 1988. 6 bottles per lot. Estimate: $2,400-3,500. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Two Superlative Collections on 20-31 October at Christie’s Online

Triptree was fortunate to taste 1988 Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Brut from magnum in June 2021, which confirmed the exceptional quality and longevity of this vintage. He notes: ‘Intense and complex aromatics ranging from honey and dried apricots to grilled hazelnuts and butterscotch; on the palate, mouthwatering acidity perfectly balancing the rich, intense flavours of raspberry, strawberry and citrus; ripe and intense, yet perfectly balanced by freshness and vivacity. In magnum, this champagne can age for another decade at least.’

The 1982 vintage

Throughout the 1982 growing season, weather conditions were ideal. It was warm and mostly dry, with rain at just the right moments. The resulting crop was both abundant and of very high quality — in fact, it is one of the highest-yielding vintages on record, exceeding even the plentiful 1970. The wines are very well balanced and have stood the test of time. The majority are fully mature and drinking superbly, yet the best remain elegant and full of finesse, richness and concentration of flavours, and will provide drinking pleasure for years to come.

Dom Pérignon Rosé, 1982. 3 bottles per lot. Estimate: $1,500-2,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Two Superlative Collections on 20-31 October at Christie’s Online

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The 1979 vintage

A cool start to the year resulted in a delayed bud-burst, followed by a successful flowering and lovely weather throughout the summer to enable ideal ripening. The growing season was extended due to the late spring, and grapes reached perfect ripeness levels. By the time harvest took place in October, the grapes were in excellent condition.

The resulting wines are character-driven and harmonious. While the wines from this vintage should be consumed relatively soon, they remain some of best examples of top-quality, long-aged champagne. This was the first vintage ever produced of Krug’s single-vineyard Blanc de Blancs, Clos du Mesnil, an exceptional champagne from an exceptional harvest, which is one of the most highly sought-after and collectible champagnes.

Krug, Clos du Mesnil, 1979. 1 bottle per lot. Estimate: $4,000-6,000. Offered in Fine and Rare Wines Online: Featuring Two Superlative Collections on 20-31 October at Christie’s Online

The 1921 vintage

This was the first ever vintage of one of Champagne’s most iconic prestige cuvées: Dom Pérignon. There was a very low-yielding harvest due to severe spring frosts in mid-April, followed by warm, dry weather during the summer that concentrated the grapes.

The quality of the vintage is unquestioned, producing some legendary wines, none more so than the 1921 Dom Pérignon, which Christie’s in New York sold for a remarkable price in 2004 during the sale of the private cellar of Doris Duke. Three bottles realised $24,675 against an estimate of $1,500-2,000, demonstrating the rarity and exceptional quality of this vintage champagne.

Other notable vintages that produced high-quality, age-worthy wines include: 2009, 2006, 2000, 1998, 1995, 1989, 1985, 1981 and 1976.

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