Tear-Jerking Champagne From the Fantastic 2002 Vintage

Today’s Story: Dom Pérignon

I wrote about the 2003 Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne yesterday, so I will save you the duplicate history lesson and jump right into today’s tasting notes for the 2002 vintage. If you missed yesterday’s post though, feel free to give it a quick read. At the very least you can compare consecutive vintage tasting notes!

Today’s Wine: 2002 Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne

Typically about 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay (exact blend unknown); 12.5% ABV

The 2002 Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne is transparent deep gold in color. I drank this over the course of a couple hours, and it only got bigger and bigger with air. The nose is stupidly complex, showcasing aromas of lemon curd, green apple, pear, honeysuckle, jasmine, incense, chalk, saline mineral, brioche, vanilla cream, butter, and almond. Meanwhile the palate is equally as mind-boggling, displaying notes of crisp green apple skins, peach, apricot, stone fruit, white florals, white truffle, chalk, limestone, white smoke, dill, caramel, butterscotch, and hazelnut. This is medium- to full-bodied with a creamy mouthfeel and razor sharp high acidity into an endlessly long finish.

Price: $270 (paid $180 a few years ago). This is in a very, very special place right now and provided one of those unique drinking experiences where a wine makes me tear up. Though there are no doubt better “value” brands out there, this 2002 is worth its price.

A Titan Showing the Scars of Age and a Tough Vintage

Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!

Dom Pierre Pérignon (supposedly)

Today’s Story: Dom Pérignon

Dom Pérignon is a very famous Champagne produced as the prestige cuvée of Champagne house Moët & Chandon. Though the first vintage was 1921 and it first released to the market in 1936, Dom Pérignon takes its name from Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715) who became cellar master in the Abbey of Hautvillers. Though Dom Pierre did not “invent” sparkling Champagne (as many myths state), he was instrumental in quality control at a time when weak Champagne bottles were prone to explosion due to refermentation in the bottle as the wines aged. Some of his contributions included the use of blending to improve quality of the wine, perfecting the process of pressing white wine from black grapes, introducing corks instead of wood, and strengthening the glass of bottles to minimize time bombs in the cellar.

Originally, Dom Pérignon was bottled using vintage Moët & Chandon Champagne transferred to their new, specially designed Dom bottles so it was essentially an oenothèque. This ended with the 1943 vintage, however, and Dom was produced entirely separately for the next released vintage of 1947 and beyond. Why the gap you might ask? Well, Dom Pérignon is only produced as a vintage Champagne when the quality is high enough, so this Champagne has only been produced in 44 vintages from 1921 to 2010. Wildly enough, Dom Pérignon only released more than two vintages in a row three times until 2004 when vintages of 2005 and 2006 mark the first time ever five vintages were made consecutively (2002-2006).

Dom Pérignon is always a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, forgetting the third permitted grape of Pinot Meunier included in many other Champagnes. Across vintages, the Chef de Cave at Dom Pérignon sticks to roughly 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, however they maintain the flexibility of blending up to a maximum 60% for one variety depending on vintage conditions. I would be remiss, though, if I forget to mention that in one vintage (1970) they went over and the blend was 65% Chardonnay and 35% Pinot Noir. This is the only time one variety accounted for more than 60% of the blend. All grapes are sourced from Grand Cru Champagne vineyards, save for one historical 1er Cru vineyard at Hautvillers which keeps the wine from being labeled as a Grand Cru Champagne.

Today’s Wine: 2003 Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne

60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay; 12.5% ABV

The 2003 Dom Pérignon Brut Champagne is transparent deep gold in color with delicate effervescence. The nose is still gorgeous, offering up aromas of golden delicious apple, pear, honeysuckle, white lily, white truffle, brioche, white pepper, and vanilla cream. However, unfortunately the palate seems fairly advanced and displays notes of green apple skins, canned golden pear, white florals, almond, caramel, toffee, and hazelnut. This wine falls apart on the palate, proving rather disappointing compared to the last several bottles of 2003 I’ve enjoyed that showed the prowess of the producer in a tough vintage. This is light-bodied with medium (+) acidity and a moderately dry but medium (-) length finish.

Price: $250 (paid $170 several years ago). I had high hopes for this bottle, largely since we held it for a number of years and also since the prior 3 bottles of 2003 I enjoyed were fantastic. I’d say skip this if you come across it (though it could be an off bottle), and put the money toward 2002 or a more recent vintage like 2008.

Champagne Charlie

Today’s Story: Champagne Charles Heidsieck

Charles Heidsieck is a well-known Champagne house established by Charles-Camille Heidsieck in 1851 in Reims when he was 29 years old. The grand-nephew of Florens-Louis Heidsieck who established the Champagne Heidsieck et Cie House, Charles grew up amongst the vines and became well-educated alongside a passion for fine Champagne. Quickly recognizing the untapped potential of the Champagne trade in America, Charles traveled to the country in 1852 and won the adoration of New York, titans of business, and the South for his Champagne. He even picked up the nickname Champagne Charlie (of which there is a song and movie titled) along the way thanks to his charm and astute business acumen.

With the success of his Champagne in America, Belgium, and England (amongst France of course), Charles made the audacious purchase of the breathtaking 3rd century chalk cellars known as the Crayères in 1867. Robbed of any light and noise 30 meters below ground, the Crayères can house millions of bottles of Champagne in perfect storage conditions where they age for the minimum four years but at times surpass 40 years. At minimum I suggest you take a look at pictures of these majestic cellars here, which are classified as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

One of the “smaller” top-tier and well-known Champagne houses, Charles Heidsieck consists of about 60 hectares of vines divided between the Marne and Aube departments. These vineyards are all farmed adhering to sustainable viticulture, and they are certified High Environmental Value. The house also holds long-term contracts with winegrowers and cooperatives from whom they purchase extra fruit. In the cellars, a large number of reserve wines have been set aside to provide blending capability into the non-vintage bottlings where, for example, the Brut Réserve consists of about 40% reserve wines with an average age of 10 years.

Today’s Wine: 2008 Brut Millésimé

60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay; 12% ABV

The 2008 Brut Millésimé is transparent but very vibrant medium gold in color, showcasing beautifully delicate effervescence as well. While this no doubt needs time in the cellar (maybe revisit in 5 years?), the nose displays enticing aromas of ripe pear, golden apple, lemon zest, honeysuckle, crushed rock, brioche, vanilla cream, and almond. The palate is much more tight at this stage, characterized by notes of green apple skins, lemon, lime zest, pineapple, chalk, hazelnut, and lees. This is medium- to full-bodied with racy high acidity and a very tight, precise, and linear attack into a long, long finish.

Price: $100 (though I’ve seen this priced closer to $85-90). I think this is an exquisite Champagne and certainly one I would buy multiple bottles of to cellar. This is a fantastic showing in a fantastic vintage, and I could easily see this bottling appreciating as it falls on more peoples’ radars.

Ole Reliable for Vintage Champagne

Today’s Story: Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin

Veuve Clicquot is a large, well-known Champagne house established in Champagne, France in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot. In 1805, the house was taken over by perhaps one of (in hindsight) the most famous personalities of Champagne: Madame Clicquot, who was the widow of Philippe’s son François. Thanks to a great education and noble birth, Madame Clicquot quickly demonstrated her business prowess by creating the first-ever recorded vintage Champagne in 1810 and in 1814 triumphed over a European trade embargo by shipping her wine to Russia. In 1816, the Madame invented the riddling table which produces clear Champagnes and she became known as “La Grande Dame” of the region (which happens to be the name of the house’s highest end bottling today). She did not stop here, however, introducing the first rosé d’assemblage in 1818 by blending red wines instead of elderberry solutions. Though Madame Clicquot passed away in 1866, the house continued to rise in stature and, in 1877, trademarked their signature yellow label that stands out in any grocery store or wine shop today.

Veuve Clicquot continued to grow and adapt over the following decades, constantly improving their winemaking methods and modernizing their tools. By the house’s 200th anniversary in 1972, they were one of the most recognizable Champagne brands and introduced the top bottling of La Grande Dame. The house was later acquired by Louis Vuitton in 1986 (became LVMH, or Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, in 1987) and continued to grow, with the next breakthrough in 2004 with the release of their NV Rosé. While a very large house, Veuve Clicquot is still instantly recognizable and can be depended on for its consistent quality from vintage to vintage and non-vintage from year to year.

Today, the Clicquot vineyards consist of 390 hectares of which 86% are situated across 12 of the 17 Grand Crus and 20 of the 44 1er Crus of the Champagne region. In terms of the vines themselves, 47% are planted to Chardonnay, 36% to Pinot Noir, and 17% to Pinot Meunier with all farmed adhering to sustainable practices and zero use of herbicides.

For more, check out the incredibly extensive Veuve Clicquot website here. At the very least, I highly recommend reading through the details of harvest and winemaking here, which are too great for me to do them any justice.

Today’s Wine: 2012 Brut Champagne

51% Pinot Noir, 34% Chardonnay, 15% Meunier; 12% ABV

The 2012 Brut Champagne is transparent to medium gold in color with deep gold variation along the edges of the glass. Beautifully effervescent in the glass, the wine emits aromas of ripe green apple, pear, white peach, stone fruit, white florals, brioche, and dried vanilla. Moving onto the palate, this displays notes of lemon and lime zest, green apple skins, peach, chalk, light green herbs, slight earth, toasted almond, and lees. This is a very linear and precise bottle of Champagne while being medium-bodied and offering vibrant high acidity into a crisp medium (+) length finish.

Price: $85. I think this is pretty fairly priced for a vintage Champagne compared to some of the other large Champagne houses, however I must say it gets beaten by a number of grower Champagne producers I’ve tried over the years. Even the standard NV yellow label isn’t too terribly far behind this vintage bottling, missing out largely on focus and depth. Regardless, Clicquot always gives you exactly what you expect with great consistency, so take that how you will.

Delicate and Pure Entry Level Champagne

Today’s Story: Billecart-Salmon

Billecart-Salmon is a family-run Champagne house established in 1818 in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ through the marriage of Nicolas François Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon. Nicolas François, who handled the commercial aspects of the new Champagne house, brought his brother-in-law Louis Salmon on board to make the wines. 200 years later, the 7th generation of the Billecart family manages the house with the 6th generation still very much involved. Together they cultivate 100 hectares of vineyards across 40 crus of Champagne and an area of 300 hectares, the majority of which sits around Epernay. Billecart’s signature style comes largely from their fermentation process, which is accomplished in stainless steel tanks at lower temperatures to prolong fermentation an coax out delicate aromas and purity of fruit. All vinification occurs cru by cru and variety by variety, allowing each to maintain the unique expressions of the varying terroir. The house’s wines rest in chalk cellars dating to the 17th and 19th centuries, with the NV bottlings enjoying 3-4 years in the cellar and the vintage bottlings enjoying 10 years.

Today’s Wine: Champagne Brut Réserve

40% Pinot Meunier, 30% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay; 12% ABV

The Champagne Brut Réserve is transparent gold in color with tiny bubbles. On the nose, I get aromas of yellow pear, golden apple, honeysuckle, toast, yeast, and chalk. There’s a delightful herbal earthiness there too. Once in the mouth, the wine showcases notes of crisp green apple, lemon citrus, stone fruit, honey, brioche, rose petal, and cream. This is medium-bodied with great effervescence and vibrant, mouthwatering acidity into a medium (+) length finish.

Price: $45. I think this is a great “entry level” Champagne from one of the larger, more recognizable houses. You can without a doubt find better values from growers, however you can’t go wrong with Billecart-Salmon in this price-point over some of the bigger names.

Fun and Delicious Grower Champagne

Today’s Story: Domaine Francis Orban

Domaine Francis Orban was established in 1929 by Léopold Orban in the small village of Leuvrigny, not too far from Epernay. Though Léopold initially sold his fruit to the larger houses of Epernay, he decided to branch out and make his own wines as one of the first Grower Champagne houses in Leuvrigny. The domaine today spans 18 acres of vineyards between Leuvrigny and Sainte-Gemme, with 90% planted to Pinot Meunier and vines averaging 30-40 years old. The vineyards are farmed utilizing sustainable viticulture, harvesting is done completely by hand, and fermentation is accomplished using only indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks. In the NV bottlings, about 50% of the blend is comprised of reserve wines. Francis Orban is today’s 4th generation steward of the domaine, following the footsteps of his great-grandfather Léopold, grandfather Gaëtan, and father Pol.

Today’s Wine: NV Champagne Extra Brut

100% Pinot Meunier; 12% ABV

The Champagne Extra Brut is transparent deep gold in color. On the nose, I get aromas of yellow apple skins, golden pear, brioche, white pepper, almond, clay, and mineral. Once in the mouth, the wine showcases notes of lemon citrus, green apple, toasted nuts, toast, crushed rock, and cream. This is very dry and medium-bodied with high acidity and a crisp, refreshing finish.

Price: $45. Great QPR with this one, which tends to be the case with almost every grower Champagne I’ve had over the years. This wine is also incredibly fun to try, not simply for the fact it is 100% Pinot Meunier (typically a blending variety in Champagne) but also because it is Extra Brut with dosage of 3 g/l. Drink this on its own or pair with caviar or shrimp.

The World’s Most Famous Champagne

Today’s Story: Louis Roederer

Louis Roederer is based in Reims, France and was founded in 1776, though the estate did not achieve its namesake until 1833 when Louis Roederer inherited the Champagne house from his uncle. During the mid-1800s, Louis took a visionary approach by overseeing and mastering every stage of his wine’s creation while simultaneously acquiring some of Champagne’s grand cru vineyards while many other houses simply purchased their fruit. Thanks to this ownership of some of the best land in Champagne, Louis furthered his oversight on the entire winemaking process and this fit well with his guiding principle that all great wine depends on soil quality and passion for tradition. When Louis Roederer II took over from his father, he followed similar ideologies and helped further the history of what today is one of the world’s greatest Champagne houses and coincidentally one of the last few remaining houses that are fully independent and family-owned.

As audacious as his father, Louis II began exporting his wines to further reaches including the United States and Russia. A big fan of the house’s Champagne, Tsar Alexander II of Russia requested that Roederer bottle an exclusive offering for him from the greatest fruit and resulting wine of each vintage. In 1876, Cristal was born as the first-ever Cuvée de Prestige and received its name from the bottle being made of crystal so the Tsar could witness the beauty and effervescence of the wine before popping the cork. In addition to being made of crystal, the bottle commands its unique flat bottom supposedly thanks to the Tsar’s worry that would-be assassins could plant explosives in the punt of standard Champagne bottles. Though the Russian monarchy fell during the early 1900s, Roederer started marketing Cristal commercially and still sells it in their patented bottles today.

As this great Champagne house passed through the family, Léon Olry-Roederer took over the estate during the 1920s and worked to create a consistent wine through the blending of several vintages. Léon’s efforts culminated into what would later become the Brut Premier, a wine that immeasurably contributed to the renaissance of the family’s estate. When Léon passed away in 1933, the estate came under control of his widow Camille who demonstrated adept marketing skills to propel the estate forward. For instance, Camille embraced the more social aspects of Champagne by hosting numerous gatherings at the family’s Hôtel Particulier in Reims which helped introduce the estate’s wines to an ever-growing populace of Champagne lovers.

Following Camille’s management of Louis Roederer, her grandson Jean-Claude Rouzaud took over and began consolidating their vineyard holdings. An oenologist and agronomist by study, Jean-Claude demonstrated his passionate love of winegrowing before passing the estate to his son Frédéric Rouzaud who manages the estate today. Frédéric represents the seventh generation running the Louis Roederer Champagne house, a truly magnificent feat given all of the other great Champagne houses no longer in family control.

Today, Louis Roederer consists of 240 hectares and includes over 400 parcels of vineyard land. These vast holdings that originated from Louis Roederer’s visionary approach during the 1800s allow the estate to produce every vintage from their own vines rather than purchasing fruit. With great respect for their terroir, Louis Roederer increasingly utilizes biodynamic farming methods in caring for their fruit. When it comes time to harvest their fruit, Roederer meticulously picks by hand into buckets and the fruit is pressed delicately on the harvest site. By precisely picking their fruit plot-by-plot, Roederer vinifies each plot separately to create a perfect record of harvest before blending the wines into a final product. Each wine in the fermentation tanks is tasted every day by the winemaking team so they can organize them into families of aromas, flavors, and overall characteristics.

Today’s Wine: 2000 Cristal Champagne

60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay; 12% ABV

The 2000 Cristal is vibrant gold in color and quite transparent. On the nose, this exquisite Champagne offers aromas of ripe green apple, lemon citrus, honey, brioche toast, toasted almond, marmalade, white florals, white pepper, lees, and saline minerality. In the mouth, the wine showcases notes of apricot, white peach, golden apple, citrus zest, honey, white lily, toast, caramel, chalk, and white spice. Though 19 years old, this Champagne is still big and full-bodied with vibrantly high acidity into a long, rounded finish.

Price: $260. Cristal is always an incredible tasting experience and its price-point is justified. This is an excellent choice for special occasions and a bottle we chose for celebrating New Years. Pair this with shrimp, caviar, oysters, creamy cheeses, or fruit-based desserts.