By Rytis Jurkenas
Over the last few years I have had the privilege of tasting over 100 different champagne cuvees from 1996 — the historic and unusual vintage with very high acidity and very high ripeness levels. As these wines have turned 20 years old, by kind invitation of Alper Alpaslan, we met in Dusseldorf in early February for an extensive tasting of the creme de la creme from the vintage.
My general impression is that most of the 1996s are very fresh and youthful, with profound acidity. There was also some typical smokiness, which for me is vintage-specific and sometimes gets very hard when it co-mingles with the scents of the great terroirs of the Cote des Blancs (Mesnil-sur-Oger or Oger).
Here are a few of my highlights from the tasting. All my scores are given at the end, as well as some other champagnes from 1996 that are worthy of seeking out.
Outstanding – Above 95pts
It was Bollinger’s VVF (Vieilles Vignes Francaises), which took the top spot, and stood out as a wine in its own league. This was my winner of the tasting, with 98pts. It is already quite evolved, but still possesses great ageing potential.
All of the wines from Krug — particularly the the Clos du Mesnil (97pts) and the Clos d’Ambonnay (97pts) — were simply superb. They will probably be even better and longer-lived than the 1990 vintage, which shows beautifully today.
The Cristal and Cristal Rose also hit 97pts, and they shared second place with the Clos du Mesnil and the Clos d’Ambonnay. As a reminder, Cristal and Cristal Rose are produced only from Grand Cru communes in Ay and the Cote des Blancs.
With a strong showing in sixth place was Jacques Selosse’s Millesime – a pure expression of Grand Cru Avize terroir – with 96+pts. The Selosse was freshly disgorged in November 2015 exclusively for this tasting, but I have had the privilege of tasting the ones disgorged in 2005 and 2011, and all of them showed the same greatness with excellent ageing potential. I would cellar them for at least another decade.
Excellent – 93-95pts
The second group was led by the very pure Belle Epoque, with 94+pts. Following closely were the Clos des Goisses, the Comtes de Champagne and Comtes de Champagne Rose. All these champagnes were showing elegance and youth. It struck me that it is far too early to drink them — I would cellar them for another decade. (How fabulous to be able to say that about 20-year-old champagnes!)
Jacquesson’s Vauzelle Terme from magnum is the rarest bottle of champagne I have ever tasted. Only 100 were produced in magnum and they were never commercially released. The Chiquet brothers were experimenting with the lieux dits concept back in 1996 (before fully adopting it in their winemaking in 2002). The Vauzelle Terme was young and shy during blind tasting, and I gave it 93pts. But half of the magnum was left to accompany dinner, and it improved enough in the interim for me to raise my mark to 95pts, although it was still far too young.
Very Good – 90-93pts
The third group was led by a shy and undeveloped Grande Dame from Veuve Clicquot and the Saint Gall cooperative’s Cuvee Orpale, which we tasted during dinner. Both were 92+pts, but whereas the Orpale is at its peak and is absolutely ready to be enjoyed, the Grande Dame needs more time to develop fully. In the past few years, I have come across some already fully mature bottles of Grande Dame, so it could be that examples with different disgorgement dates behave differently.
Only a few really tired bottles were below the 90-pt mark, which illustrated not only the greatness of the vintage, but also the true mastery of winemaking in evidence at these houses.
All of my scores are listed below.
‘Creme de la Creme’ Champagnes of the 1996 Vintage
Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises (VVF) – 98 pts
Krug Clos d’Ambonnay – 97 pts
Krug Clos du Mesnil
Louis Roederer Cristal
Louis Roederer Cristal Rose
Jacques Selosse Millesime – 96+ pts
Dom Perignon Rose – 95+ pts
Krug Millesime – 95 pts
Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque – 94+ pts
Philipponnat Clos des Goisses – 94 pts
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rose
Bollinger Grande Annee Magnum
Henriot Millesime Magnum
Legras R&L St. Vincent – 93+ pts
Billecart-Salmon Nicolas Francois
Jacquesson Vauzelle Terme Magnum – 93 pts
Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Millesime
Diebolt-Vallois Fleur de Passion
Vilmart Coeur de Cuvee
Veuve Clicquot Grande Dame – 92 pts
Co-op Saint Gall Cuvee Orpale
Pol Roger Millesime – 91 pts
Billecart-Salmon St Hilaire
Pol Roger Winston Churchill
Egly-Ouriet Millesime (oxidation) – 85 pts
Dom Perignon (oxidation)
Pommery Cuvee Louise – all were corked
Henriot Enchanteleurs Magnum
* A footnote on disgorgement – Only three of the champagnes were recently disgorged and brought for the tasting – namely, the Jacques Selosse vintage, Vilmart’s Coeur de Cuvee (both were disgorged at the end of 2015) and the St Vincent from Legras R&L (disgorged a few years ago).
Other Stars from the 1996 Vintage
The champagnes below are also excellent examples from the 1996 vintage, and worthy of seeking out (listed in alphabetic order):
Billecart-Salmon Grande Cuvee
Francoise Bedel Cuvee Robert Winer
Henri Giraud Fut de Chene
Jacques Beaufort Grand Cru Ambonnay
Lanson Millesime Collection
Pol Roger Blanc de Chardonnay
Dom Ruinart Rose
Tarlant Cuvee Louise
Jean Vesselle Troisieme Millenaire Cuvee Prestige Millesime Bouzy Grand Cru