Champagne vintages: a collector’s buying guide
When collecting Champagnes, it is important to understand not only which vintages are great, but also why. Our specialists share a selection of top vintages over the past century
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 grape growing is possible, many of the 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 vintages. Single-vintage Champagne is usually only produced three or four times per decade and makes up less than 5% of total Champagne production. The rarity of these top vintages make the great years even more special, with exceptional and rare vintages seeing commanding 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, a Champagne’s vintage 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 why each will uniquely appeal to different buyers.
2012 was an exceptional vintage in Champagne and the best since the stellar 2008. The year began with challenging conditions. During February weather was down to between minus 10 and 20 degrees. March was warm which encouraged early bud-break. However, April was damp, and in May, some regions suffered from frost damage, which along with the mildew pressure, 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 flavours and refreshing vivacity and tension.
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 to come.
The 2008 vintage is widely considered one of the top two vintages of this 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.
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 aging vintages.
The 2004 vintage 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 some rot and mildew, however 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 first stand-out 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 that 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 with exceptional concentration. The resulting wines are plush and rich due to high sugar and alcohol levels, but well balanced by high acid. Outstanding wines were made by many top producers.
At one time considered the greatest vintage of the last century, time has proven these 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 due to a north wind, which gave the vintage its signature high acidity. Surprisingly, the vintage was also very ripe: a rare combination which was coined ‘10:10,’ due to the fact that many producers harvested grapes with 10% potential alcohol combined with 10 g/l of acidity.
The remarkably high sugar and acid in this year’s grapes led to wines that are deeply concentrated with intense flavour and structure. While a few wines have shown signs of premature oxidation potentially due to winds concentrating the oxidative compounds, wines from top producers, such as Cristal, Krug, and Salon, remain in excellent condition. International director of Christie’s Wine and Spirits department, Tim Triptree MW rates the 1996 Cristal as one of the finest champagnes he has ever tasted.
1988, 1989, and 1990 were a trilogy of excellent vintages in Champagne. Initially many considered 1990 as the finest of the trio, however, that mantle has since passed to 1988. Some of the 1990s have evolved faster than anticipated, and there can be variation amongst bottles and producers. Winter and early spring was warm and resulted in an early bud-break, which made vines susceptible to spring frost which duly arrived in April. This led to some uneven ripening and differing levels of maturity due 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 rich full-flavored wines.
The 1988 vintage 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 straight-forward 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 and vibrancy and plenty of mileage left in the finest cuvées.
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, dried apricots to grilled hazelnuts and butterscotch; on the palate mouth-watering 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.’
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 the plentiful 1970. The wines are extremely 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, with richness and concentration of flavours to be able to provide drinking pleasure for years to come.
A cool start to the year resulted in a delayed bud-burst which was 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. 1979 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.
1921 was the first-ever vintage of one of champagne’s most iconic prestige cuvées; Dom Pérignon. 1921 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 and produced some legendary wines, none more so than the 1921 Dom Pérignon, which Christie’s New York sold for a remarkable price in 2004 during the sale of the Private Cellar of Doris Duke. Three bottles of 1921 Dom Pérignon sold for over US$24,000 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.