Their names may be whispered with awe, but even the top Champagne producers constantly strive for improvement.
TOM STEVENSON names his top 10 fastest improving producers – big and small.
Talking about fast improvement in a wine region as conservative as Champagne may seem implausible, especially when describing such traditional houses as Bollinger. But Champagne is not faultless, and even the greatest Champagne producers are capable of progress – thus a top 10 list of fastest improvers is as possible for Champagne as it is for any wine region in the world.
When compiling this list of top Champagne producers, I looked for potential long-term improvement, not one-off releases that happen to be better than before.
Take Mumm, for example. There was a period when I refused to visit this house, and made it clear that there would have to be a substantial shift in quality before I would reconsider. I did not refuse to taste the wines, of course. In fact, I requested three bottles of every shipment into the UK. I tasted the first bottle on release, the second six months later (to check I had not underestimated potential development), and all the third bottles together when I was sure that several shipments in a row demonstrated a distinct increase in quality. I then visited Mumm to discover why and how this sea-change had occurred, and to taste preview samples of wines due to be released over the next few years. Mumm is an extreme example, but the process is, to a greater or lesser extent, how I select my fastest-improving Champagne producers, and why I am confident that they are not a flash in the pan.
When it comes to improving (or declining) quality, the reputations of wine producers tend to stick well beyond their shelf-life. Which is why the ‘fastest improving Champagne producers’ probably vies with ‘new, up-and-coming producers’ as the most useful Top 10 in the annual Wine Report. Keeping abreast of such items allows consumers to buy top-performing wines long before others cotton on, when prices inevitably increase.
Vilmart is number one in my top 10 of Champagne producers because no matter how high the quality climbs, the aspiration to achieve even greater heights never falters. This passion has its roots in the soil, beginning in 1968, when René Champs converted Vilmart’s vineyards to organic method. Nearly 40 years ago, in one of the wettest and hardest wine regions for organic production, Laurent Champs took over from his father in 1995, after working with him for five years, and it is the improvements made by Laurent as he has reined back the new oak influence in his top cuvées (Coeur de Cuvée and, to a lesser extent, Cuvée Création) that puts Vilmart in its number one slot today.
Vilmart, Coeur de Cuvée 1997
Great intensity of fruit, beautifully expressive and, like the 1996, not too much oak. Delicious now, but has years of life ahead. The 1998 is even better. £50.31; Evy
Bollinger is second on my list of fastest-improving Champagne producers because it has successfully eradicated a serious disgorgement problem that blighted the superb core-quality of some of its greatest wines – including but not restricted to, the 1985 and 1988 RD disgorged on 14 October 1999; and the 1982 and 1985 RD disgorged on 24 March 1999. I have encountered no bad disgorgements since the beginning of 2001. Coincidentally, or not, Matthieu Kauffmann arrived at Bollinger in February 2001, although he did not take over from Gérard Liot as chef de cave until April 2004. Kauffmann’s sparkling wine experience was gained at Wolfberger in Alsace, where he was responsible for the entire Crémant d’Alsace production in the enormous modern fizz factory called ‘L’Espace’, which the French newspapers immediately dubbed the palais descience fiction.
Bollinger, RD Extra Brut 1995
Hugely yeast-complexed fruit, classically structured, and as clean as a whistle.
£75; widely available at independents
GH Mumm’s reputation as a true grande marque took more than 160 years to build, and barely more than a decade to destroy (1982–1994), and yet it has taken the company’s new winemaker, Dominique Demarville, less than that to rebuild the quality. Thanks to Jean-Marie Barillère, who had the courage to appoint the youngest chef de cave of a grande marque house in 1998, Demarville is steering the quality back to the fresh, fluffy style of great finesse, for which Mumm was justly famous.
Mumm de Cramant NV
This is cleaner, crisper and better than it has been for 20 years, but a recent dosage tasting highlighted how a softer, silkier mousse and more finesse and fragrance could be achieved by using a greater volume of less-sweet vin d’expédition to create the same level of residual sugar in the finished product. Watch out for future releases! £35; VtH
Bruno Paillard impresses me above all because its elegant non-vintage Brut Premier Cuvée is so consistent in style, and yet it improves with every release. In the long term it is the non-vintage brut that establishes the reputation of a Champagne producer, not its vintage or its prestige cuvée.
Owning vineyards is the key to greater success, and in November 2004, Bruno Paillard took over Maison René Jardin, which included 24ha (hectares) of vineyards, 11ha of which are all grand cru.
Bruno Paillard, Brut Premier Cuvée NV
Lovely acidity, with fruit that leans more to elegance than complexity, but does not lack the latter. Always good bottle age, yet as fresh as a daisy thanks to its beautiful acidity. The balance of complexity to elegance is achieved by the minimal use of wood. £21; Boo
Philipponnat was always known for the distinctive style and reputation of its Royal Reserve Brut, and this continued after the house was purchased by Gosset in 1980, but began to waver under Marie Brizard in 1987. There has never been any problem with its Clos des Goisses, one of the jewels of Champagne, but for the first couple of years under BCC (Boizel Chanoine Champagne), which has owned it since 1997, the Royal Réserve Brut became anonymously amylic (peardrop aromas). Since BCC poached the high-flying Charles Philipponnat, direct descendent, from Moët & Chandon, however, there has been a move to establish a Pinot-dominated house style. Progress has been significant enough to secure the fifth-fastest-improving producer.
Philipponnat, Royal Reserve Brut NV
The latest release, disgorged in December 2004, illustrates the emphasis on Pinot Noir, structure and complexity that Charles Philipponnat is determined to build on. £27, But
Mailly Grand Cru produced Champagnes of exceptional value and character throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but there was often a lack of finesse, and this was particularly noticeable in the cuvées released during the early-to-mid 1990s. Yet this was the very period that changes were afoot, when Hervé Dantan took over as chef de cave, bringing with
him experience from Bordeaux, Burgundy and California. The mid-to-late 1990s saw distinct progress, but this was only a shadow of what was to come with its 1996 vintage, and that level of quality has been maintained up to at least the 1999, despite its relatively modest reputation as a vintage overall.
Mailly Grand Cru, Les Echansons Brut 1996
Extremely rich fruit, showing great Pinot Noir intensity, balanced by fine acids. The Chardonnay (25% of the blend) is nowhere to be seen at the moment, but it will eventually kick in, contributing youth and freshness. £35, Ell
Duval-Leroy has never been in the premier league, but the consistency of quality and style since the early 1990s has exceeded that of most so-called grande marque houses. This is thanks to Hervé Jestin, Duval-Leroy’s quietly spoken, highly talented winemaker with a fastidious, inquisitive mind. Jestin is experimenting with everything from oak to mono-cru Champagnes, biodynamic viticulture, and reviving ancient grape varieties. Couple this with Carol Duval’s focus on the primary brand to the detriment of the firm’s BOB (Buyer’s Own Brand) business (once its staple) and it is easy to appreciate Duval-Leroy as one of the fastest-improving producers in Champagne.
Duval-Leroy, Brut Fleur de Champagne 1er Cru NV
One step up from the basic non-vintage which should be given an additional nine months extra ageing, as this adds a certain creaminess to the floral-fruitiness that is typical of Duval-Leroy’s style. £21; Wbc
Moet & Chandon can be criticised for certain strategic disasters, such as its South American Champaña, and some of its new products have missed the spot (the Brut Premier Cru was too general, and the single-vineyard grands crus should have been vintaged), but the company has shown so much innovation over the last 15 years, even though it has such a commanding lead in sales over competitors, that this demonstrates a desire to improve that is not just talk.
Moët & Chandon, Vintage Collection 1964
The most successful innovation since Georges Blanck took over as chef de cave is his release of library vintages in magnum. The 1961 (£240) is fine and will be a memorable experience for anyone celebrating a 50th anniversary or birthday in 2011, but the 1964 is in a different class. It is – quite simply – the greatest quality mature Champagne commercially available today. £220; P&S
Pannier is based at Château Thierry in the extreme west of the region, and consequently the modest quality of the vineyards of this cooperative’s members has not helped the core-quality of its brand. However, the proportion of grapes coming from the classic areas of the Marne department has gradually increased since 1990, as has the quality and finesse of the Champagnes that they have produced. This has not been as easy as it sounds. It is the result of much hard work by Philippe Dupuis, who worked at Station Oenotechnique in Epernay before joining Pannier as its chef de cave, and he continues to improve it with each year.
Pannier, Egérie de Pannier 1998
This cooperative has two prestige cuvées, Louis Eugène being the ultimate expression of Pannier’s house-style, while Egérie is an extreme example of the vintage in question, and in the 1998 it is the year’s modest complexity that has been magnified. £29.99, HBJ
For UK stockists see p136.
Tom Stevenson is the editor of Wine Report 2005 (£9.99, Dorling Kindersley), and author of its section on Champagne, in which this list will appear in the 2006 edition.