The white wines of France offer unrivaled perfection. With few exceptions, every vineyard growing white grapes is so planted not because reds won’t grow well there, but because whites will flourish. France’s white wines are not an afterthought or a consolation prize. These are vinous treasures worth exploring.
Autumn in Champagne is a spectacular time to explore the region. The countryside and vineyards are abounding in rich palettes of color and the intoxicating fall fragrance instills a unique sensorial experience. Champagne is like laughter as it fills my senses with joy, especially when the cork pops and the bubbles burst with song!
The educational experience created by the Wine Scholar Guild is a first class escapade! The inception of our tour and taste of Champagne, guided by Master of Wine, Essi Avellan, brought us full circle through the entire region with a sprinkling of the styles between Houses, Growers and Coopératives. Our adventure began with an introduction to the infamous Champagne Houses of Ruinart and Roederer.
It's been said that Champagne has been the site of more bloody battles and large-scale wars than any other place on earth.
From the time of Attila the Hun to the Germans in World War II, countless invaders have tried to conquer this strife-torn land. Yet, somehow it managed to become the birthplace of the world's most beloved wine.
Don and Petie Kladstrup will show how this sparkling wine, born of bloodshed, became the symbol of glamour, good times and celebration.
It is a story filled with larger-than-life characters: Dom Perignon, the father of champagne, who, contrary to popular belief, worked his entire life to keep bubbles out of champagne; the Sun King, Louis XIV, who rarely drank anything else; and Napoleon, who, in trying to conquer the world, introduced it to champagne.
Don and Petie Kladstrup are former journalists who have written extensively about wine and France for numerous publications.
Don, a winner of three Emmys and numerous other awards, was a foreign correspondent for ABC and CBS television news.
Petie, an Overseas Press Club winner, was a newspaper journalist and more recently protocol officer for the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO.
The Kladstrups divide their time between Paris and Normandy.
A BIT OF WINE CHEMISTRY: Lessons from Champagne
Day one of the Champagne study trip initiated a discussion which continued throughout the week of factors impacting aromas and flavors in champagne. Broadly, aromas can be categorized into the impacts of grape variety, terroir, vinification, and post-production events (influencing individual bottles versus entire “batches”).
This article will focus upon the biochemistry of sulfur, nitrogen, oxygen, and sugars in an acidic environment (esters arising from acidification of alcohol); the intent is not intended to be comprehensive. For purposes of this essay, the use of the word aroma will include the complex notes of aging characterized as “bouquet.”
“Although many efforts have been made to characterize the quality and flavor of the compounds in wine… tasting remains the single universal test used… This is because the taste of a molecule, or blend of molecules, is constructed within the brain of a taster.” F. Brochet and D. Dubourdieu, 2001
Although American by nationality, Peter Liem lives in the Champagne region, in the small and charmingly named village of Dizy, just behind the Gaston Chiquet estate and down the road from Jacquesson. He is one of only a few professional wine writers to actually live in Champagne, and among these, the only one to write in the English language. This proximity gives him an unusual perspective on the region, its people and its wines, especially as a foreigner. Given his unique vantage point, he is the perfect person to provide us with a current look at Grower Champagne and just in time for the holiday season!
Peter Liems relationship with champagne began in the mid-1990s, while was working as a wine retailer at one of San Francisco's most prominent wine stores. He was a specialist in Burgundy, and a large portion of his days would be spent amidst the store's assortment of hundreds of Burgundian wines. Conveniently, the champagnes were stocked directly adjacent to the Burgundy section. He began making annual trips to Champagne in 1998, and developed relationships with people across the region, at both large ngociant houses and small grower estates alike. By the end of 2006, Peter decided that his long-distance relationship with champagne wasn't working out, and since then has made his home in the Champagne region, quite literally next to the vines.
Aside from wine writing, Peters wine background is firmly based in the trade, from retail to restaurants to importing and distribution. In 2004, he joined Wine & Spirits and was previously a senior editor for the magazine, as well as its tasting director. Now based in France, he continues to write for Wine & Spirits as a senior correspondent and wine critic, largely focused on European wines from the north of the 45th parallel.
When not in Champagne, Peter can usually be found eating and drinking in New York City, tasting sake in Japan, watching Arsenal matches anywhere there's satellite TV, and making a general nuisance of myself in the cellars of Burgundy, the Loire Valley, the Jura, Austria, Germany, Alsace and Jerez.
After giving you a brief overview of the Champagne region, Mary will share her experiences on how to best tour this mythical wine region. To fully appreciate this unique bubbly wine, it is helpful to come here and experience a walk through vineyards, feel pieces of the chalky soil and observe the hillsides around filled with vines.
Meandering through the chalk aging cellars as well as meeting the different actors, from independent grower-producers to the well-known Champagne houses, are also experiences that help broaden ones understanding of this famous wine region. What you can expect, sites you shouldn't miss and guidelines on how to best benefit from your time travelling in Champagne will be discussed during this session.
Mary Kirk is a fully-bilingual French-American who lives and works in France. After finishing her university She studied and trained to earn the French degree of sommelier-Conseil from l'Universit du Vin in the Rhone Valley of France. She has also studied at the Wine and Spirits Education Trust in London. She had been working in the wine sector and providing wine-based tours in the Champagne region for over 10 years. She also leads wine-tasting events and teaches wine classes in a convivial yet professional manner to Anglophone and French wine lovers.
Embark on our Champagne Study Trip with professional-level instruction on-site coupled with a certificate program!
Charles Curtis MW is the founder of CurtisMW, a fine wine advisory serving private, trade and institutional clients with an interest in the market for fine and rare wine. Former Head of Wine for Christie's in both Asia and the Americas and a Certified Member of the Appraiser's Association of America, Mr Curtis has a wealth of experience with the world's most luxurious wine, and deep contacts with the collectors who love them and the people who sell them. Curtis joined Christie's in 2008 from LVMH, where he held the post of Director of Wine and Spirit Education for Moet Hennessy USA. He has held a variety of posts in the wine trade over the years, and his professional career began as a chef who trained at the Cordon Bleu Paris, working in restaurants around the world.
Curtis earned his Diploma from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust of London, and in October 2004 became the 22nd Master of Wine in the United States. Through the years, he has garnered a number of honors, including the prestigious Bourse Andr Crispin in 2002, presented by the Commanderie de Bordeaux aux Etats-Unis, of which he is now a member, along with the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne. He is a member of the board of the Institute of Masters of Wine (North America) and continues to work on their behalf, speaking at their annual Education Seminar and helping to organize events such as the Institutes Annual Champagne Tasting which he founded. Curtis has been a guest lecturer at a number of universities, and is presently a guest professor at the University of Jinan Quancheng College in Penglai, China.
The vintage chart and harvest reports provided by the Wine Scholar Guild gives you the ranking for every French wine region and vintage from 2000 to today.
Andrew Jefford, award-winning wine journalist for Decanter Magazine and author of twelve books on wine including The New France has compiled information and written the vintage charts starting with the 2013 vintage. He is also updating information for the vintages prior to 2013.
Last updated: Jan. 16, 2023
|2021||Drink/Cellar||After a wet and largely cold winter, February was warm and dry. March was, in the main, cold -- but turned almost summery, as elsewhere in France, at the end of the month. Buds burst; then five nights of frost followed in early April (5-9); there was further frost in Champagne between May 3rd and 7th, with the Champagne houses’ organisation estimating that 30% of the harvest was lost due to frost (though losses were higher in the Côte des Bars and the Massif de St Thierry). Summer was then cold, wet and stormy, with episodes of hail; only the two first weeks of June (during which flowering took place) were sunny and warm. Further losses due to mildew and associated problems gave many growers only a half-crop. The warmth finally returned in mid-August but the quality of the harvest was rain-, disease- and pest-affected by then; harvest was underway by mid-September. Overall, yields were the lowest for 35 years. Quality can be excellent, with vivacious and classical base wines being made from the very best and most carefully manicured sites (especially in the Côte des Blancs), but the overall quality picture is mixed.|
|2020||Drink/Cellar||Winter in Champagne was generally mild and wet, with February 2020 being the wettest month ever recorded in the region. The spring was then very warm, with budburst being 16 days ahead of the long-term average and this advance continuing until harvest (in August). Summer was hot and dry, with July also a record-breaker, this time for the hottest month ever recorded in the region. The heat and consequent drought reduced the size of the potential crop and led to uneven ripening in some areas; yields in any case had been reduced to 8,000 kg/ha due to the drop in demand for Champagne associated with the COVID pandemic. Growers are very enthusiastic about the quality of the best base wines, though, with Pinot Noir (as in Alsace) looking exceptionally promising this year.|
|2019||Drink/Cellar||Each new year seems to bring novel weather challenges to Champagne, and 2019 was no exception. February temperatures as warm as 20°C were disquieting in this northerly region, and set in train powdery mildew challenges for the season. April frosts (down to -7°C in places) affected 5,000 ha (15 per cent of the growing area); May was then very rainy, which meant that downy mildew was also a big threat by early June. During June, though, the first of two heatwaves hit Champagne. This one was helpful, clearing the mildew; the second (at the end of July) was more damaging, with temperatures as high as 43°C causing sunburn and raisining; this meant that the crop required careful sorting. August and September weather conditions were less challenging, though, and most growers were happy or very happy with the final quality of the (sorted) crop, reporting satisfactory levels of both sugar and acidity, and a general sense of freshness and brightness to the fruit. Harvest quantities were around 17 per cent down on the general 2018 harvest, and around five per cent below the five-year average.|
|2018||Drink/Cellar||After the traumas of 2017, 2018 brought smiles back to Champagne, though the season was nonetheless a complicated one. After a wet winter and early spring, April turned very warm and budburst was early. Hail in May and early June followed by mildew was responsible for a minority of growers losing up to 40 per cent of their crop, but in general flowering passed off well, and summer was then the second warmest ever recorded (after 2003), setting up both an early and a generous harvest, one well able to replenish the shortfalls of 2017. Sugar levels were unusually high. The region as a whole recorded an average natural alcohol of over 10%, though some houses asked growers to pick at no more than 9.5%. Anxiety about correspondingly low acidity levels (7-7.5 g/l expressed as tartaric) dissipated when it emerged that it was chiefly malic acid, not tartaric acid, that was lower this year, leaving total acidities unaffected for those houses putting their base wines through malo. The crop has been acclaimed ‘vintage of the century’ (though less than a fifth of the century has elapsed) -- but even cautious insiders found it hard to contain their optimism about a vintage which (for example) suggested to Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon of Louis Roederer a theoretical combination of 1959 and 1947.|
|2017||Drink/Cellar||Champagne’s 2017 season was a chaotic series of extreme events: the perfect illustration of climate scientists’ global warming predictions. A cold winter was followed by a very warm early spring, leading to dangerously early budburst. Severe frosts in the third week of April then eliminated between 20% and 70% of the potential crop, depending on sub-region (the Côte des Bars was worst affected). After that, the weather was exceptionally hot and sunny up to the end of July, breaking many of the region’s heat records. Storms and hail then caused further losses at the beginning of August, and harvest eventually got underway in late August, though the official date was September 4th (which many, with hindsight, considered too late). It was interrupted by heavy rain, and botrytis outbreaks meant that the grapes had to be carefully sorted. The quality of some Chardonnays was fair to good, but 2017 produced poor quality Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the paucity of grapes means that Champagne houses risk running down their reserves at a time of record sales.|
|2016||Drink/Cellar||A difficult year for Champagne got underway with a mild winter followed by a cool early spring. Snow, then frost struck the region on April 27th-28th, followed by two very wet months which caused unprecendented mildew-related losses. Late July and August, by contrast, were hot enough to cause some problems of sun-burn, with very uneven Chardonnay results in particular. Overall quantities are down by around 33 per cent, and quality is variable, too, with some softness evident in the balance of Chardonnay-dominated wines.|
|2015||Drink/Cellar||After a cold, wet winter and very mixed weather in April, it became sunny, warm and dry in May and stayed that way through a largely hot July and mid-August. The end of August was cooler and wetter, but skies cleared in September and most of the harvest was picked in perfect conditions in the first part of the month. A little rain fell during the picking of the last parcels. Despite relatively low acid levels (2015 is the lowest acid year since 2003), most felt that the wines of this preponderantly warm, dry year were finely balanced, structured, fresh, concentrated and meant for long ageing. However the 2015 vintage wines are ageing more variably than expected.|
|2014||Drink||Spring was mild and warm, leading to a generous fruit set (after two short vintages in 2012 and 2013). July, by contrast, was cool and wet and this indifferent weather lingered into August finally clearing by the end of the month for a fine, harvest-saving September. There was an ample crop of irregular wines with very good results for Chardonnay and Montagne de Reims Pinot, but sometimes dilute results in the Marne Valley (which had twice its normal growing-season rainfall).|
|2013||Drink/Cellar||A long winter and cool spring meant that the Chardonnay didn’t flower until mid-June and the two Pinots in mid-July: a very late date, and potentially disastrous. There was hail damage in the Marne at the end of July. Overall, though, July and August were record-breakingly hot and sunny, saving the vintage and meaning that the early September rain was welcome. Good conditions then resumed for an October harvest of tense and acidic but good quality fruit, ideal for ageing. A vintage year for most.|
|2012||Drink/Cellar||Widespread frosts in April touched 131 villages (of 319). Very cold, sunless weather for flowering. Long rainless period from mid-July to September. Total yield: 9,208 kg/ha, lowest volume since 2003, ~40% below 10-year average. Highest average sugars across all varieties. Overall maturity equals 2009. A vintage year is anticipated.|
|2011||Drink/Past Peak||Hot, dry spring. Exceptionally large harvest, 13,261 kg/ha. Average sugar ripeness & acidities.|
|2010||Drink||Rains mid-August provoked widespread rot reducing crop substantially. High sugars for Chardonnay/Pinot Noir, highest acidities for Pinots in decade of 2000s. Limited vintage declarations.|
|2009||Drink||Warmest conditions since 2003, optimal maturity, healthy fruit. Balanced wines with average sugars, lower acidities. High overall maturity. Vintage year for some, principally récoltants-manipulants (individual growers). In ’09, new EU rules reduced dosage for Brut to 12 g/l.|
|2008||Drink/Cellar||Difficult, damp, mildew-affected season was saved by a dry August and a fine, dry, sunny but cool September. The harvest was large, but its classical balance meant an outstanding range of vintage wines.|
|2007||Drink/Past peak||Chardonnay performed best. Summer hail. Lowest fruit maturity of the 2000s. Non-vintage year for many négociants-manipulants (houses), typically declared by récoltants-manipulants (individual growers).|
|2006||Drink/Past peak||Cold winter, hot & dry summer. Abundant year, heterogeneous ripening. Above average pH & sugars, average acidity. High overall maturity, in line with ’09 & ’12. Numerous vintage declarations by many producers.|
|2005||Drink||More difficult season than many French regions in ’05. Successful Chardonnay, weak Pinot Meunier. Good sugar levels, below average acidities. Vintage declaration by many négociants-manipulants (houses) & récoltants-manipulants (growers).|
|2004||Drink||Harvest delivered record volume & sound quality. Chardonnay, Meunier were best. Balanced, well-structured Champagnes some compare to ’98.|
|2003||Drink/Past peak||Atypically hot summer. Earliest harvest since 1822, abnormally low yields of 8,254 kg/ha. Richness & elevated alcohol levels. Numerous vintage declarations. Some examples are missing sufficient backbone.|
|2002||Drink||Both Chardonnay & Pinot Noir ripened well. Balanced Champagnes, a declared vintage by producers of all types. Superb prestige Champagnes, many will benefit from further cellaring.|
|2001||Past peak||Cold, wet September. Lacked maturity: low sugars & elevated acidity. Not a vintage year except for some récoltants-manipulants (individual growers).|
|2000||Drink/Past peak||Difficult summer marked by rain, widespread hail. Favorable September weather for harvest. Widely declared “millennium” vintage… some fine examples, 0thers are soft, lack intensity & should be drunk (now).|
|Poor to Fair|
|Fair to Good|
|Good to Excellent|
|Excellent to Exceptional|
These vintage notes have been prepared by Andrew Jefford, Academic Advisor to the Wine Scholar Guild. New vintage information, and any revisions of previous vintage drinking suggestions, are made each autumn. Use the chart as a guide only; in every vintage there will be outperforming and underperforming wines.