Top Champagne Tasting of 2014

The 10th annual Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) North America Champagne event roared through San Francisco at the end of September. Held in the gorgeous Ferry Building at Market One, with the largest concentration of venerable masters of wine (MW's) in one room that I'd ever seen, this continues to be my favorite champagne tasting of the year in the Bay Area, and an incredible bargain at $65. Once again, this time it did not disappoint. The quantity and quality of the champagnes seemed as high as ever, and generous selection of cheeses didn't hurt either. Hardly any surprises among the tasted wines, vintage champagnes were the most impressive group, as they should be. I wholeheartedly recommend this event to everyone who is interested in champagne. For more info on IMW events, check here.

Here are my quick notes.

Vintage champagnes were impressive.

All four of the big boys showed well - Bollinger "La Grand Annee" 2004, Dom Perignon 2004, Henriot Enchenteleurs 1999 (out of magnum), and Gosset 2000 Grand Millesime. Perhaps Bollinger and Gosset had slightly more exotic flavors, and Henriot with powerful crystalline minty expression. DP was good and dependable, as always.

Despite the gaudy packaging, Piper-Heidsieck "Rare" (2002) always impresses with what's inside. As did the very reliable Pol Roger with their Pinot Noir dominated powerful "Extra Cuvee de Reserve" (2004, 60% Pinot Noir / 40% Chardonnay), even if this is not their top-of-the-line cuvee Sir Winston Churchill. I have come to expect very high quality at every level of Pol Roger's champagnes, including their non-vintage and the various vintage cuvees. If in doubt, you cannot go wrong with this producer. But the other two - Nicolas Feuillatte "Palmes d'Or" 2002 and Mousse Fils Millesime Brut 2008 were pleasant surprises. Generally, Feuillatte is not mentioned in the same league with other top champagnes, but this top wine stood out with intriguing brown sugar notes. But an even bigger discovery was Mousse Fils. I had never even heard of Champagne Mousse Fils, but I was thoroughly impressed by the complexity and richness of flavor, along with super fine and creamy mousse. This is a relatively unknown grower champagne house with prices below other top wines in Champagnes. This was also my first 2008 vintage champagne, a vintage that is much heralded in Champagne as the best after 2002. Impressed, I proceeded to order several bottles immediately from my favorite wine merchant, for a more "thorough" evaluation later on. This definitely deserves a closer look.

Among the four vintage Blanc de Blanc's, I was particularly impressed with Christian Coquillette Champagne Saint-Chamant BdB 2005 - powerful, flavorful champagne. Dom Ruinart BdB 2004 and Pol Roger BdB 2002 were more steely and classical, seemingly coming from more structured vintages and in need of more time.

Oh, this Perrier-Jouet "Belle Epoque" 2004 Rose is always a beauty - I've tasted it several times with consistent notes - gentle strawberries seduce every time. I know this is a very widely available champagne - you can see it at Costco, etc...  - so maybe it doesn't possess a coolness factor, but it is very very good Rose, and one of my favorites every year.

Another note on Krug - though vintage Krug was not present at this tasting, I just recently tasted the 2000 Krug, and as good as the NV grand cuvee is, the vintage (2000) is a step up in intensity, with powerful, grippy texture and concentrated, lingering flavors. Both are just beginning to hint at their potential, and will benefit from a lot more time. I would not hesitate to stock up, if you can afford.

All in all, Champagne continues to dazzle my palate, and I find that with a few additional years of cellaring post-release, these wines hardly ever disappoint, and with prices of other top regions continuing to climb sharply (Burgundy, Barolo), Champagne prices have remained relatively stable. While there are a myriad of options to choose from, from trendy small grower producers to established big brand houses, I find quality in all camps high, and I think big houses are doing a great job, despite large production. Your good old Dom P, Cristal, Krug, Bolliger, Taittinger, Heidsieck, Dom Ruinart, Perrier-Jouet, Henriot, Gosset and so on, are as good as ever, as are cool growers such as Egly-Ouriet, Henri Goutorbe, and Mousse Fils.


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