2011 Institute of Masters of Wine Champagne Tasting: 78 Current Releases Tasted

Ferry Plaza Building, San Francisco, California
Tasted Monday, September 26, 2011 by Richard Jennings with 1,347 views


Robert, Sandy, Christianne, Richard and Larry (picture by Sandi Stein)

This is always a fun event, well-timed before the holiday season so as to give us a chance to assess what Champagnes we need to have on hand to see the old year out. Disappointingly, though, a major takeaway for me this year is that most of the non-vintage Champagnes I taste year in and year out were weaker--less complex and captivating--this year, presumably due to wines from lesser recent vintages making up their base. I identify below particular well-known non-vintage Champagnes that didn't show as well as they have in the last couple of years. As a result of the poor showing of many of the non-vintage Champagnes, I have a lot fewer recommendations than usual this year for your holiday buying list. There were still a handful of great Champagnes in this tasting, but too many that go for $50 to $100 that lacked their usual complexity and vivacity. Maybe nature is trying to tell us that this year we should check out some of the great non-Champenois bubblies for a change--cavas, spumantes, sparkling Loire and Jura wines that we might not normally reach for at holiday time.

If you decide to go that route, some of my favorite alternatives to Champagne are the sophisticated bubbles of cava-maker Raventos I Blanc, the great Franciacorta spumantes from Monte Rossa (especially the Cabochon), and terrific Chenin Blanc-based Loire sparkling wines from Domaine Huët and François Chidaine, among others.

The event was particularly well organized this year by the Institute of Masters of Wine. The distributors and importers of the Champagne producers represented donate the bottles for the tasting. The number of producers represented (33) was down from 37 last year, and the number of bottlings was also down--78 this year compared to 80 last year and 91 the previous year. Of the 78 wines I tasted, I rated only 16, or 20.5%, 92 points or higher, as compared to nearly 38% last year. My wines of the tasting were the 2002 Dom Pérignon and the 1995 Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires, both of which deserved 94 points or more. The producers whose wines were most impressive at this tasting, resulting in one or more scores of 93 points and above, were
Charles Heidsieck
Moët & Chandon and

Among the more reasonably priced (i.e., $50 and under) non-vintage Champagnes, the winners for me were Charles Heidsieck Champagne Brut Réserve (year after year, a reliably great and well priced sparkler), Moët & Chandon Rosé Imperial and Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs Brut Cuvée de Réserve. At the real bargain level for Champagne, i.e., $40 and under, my only recommendations from this tasting for this year would be Piper-Heidsieck Brut and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne Brut Rosé Sauvage. The tasting notes below contain additional detail about particular producers and the wines that stood out in this tasting.

Flight 1 - Aubry (2 Notes)

Flight 2 - Ayala (2 Notes)

The house of Ayala dates back to 1860. Since 2005, it has been owned by the Bollinger family. The vintage Blanc de Blancs is a blend of three Grand Crus from the Côte des Blancs in which Le Mesnil-sur-Oger has the largest proportion, completed with wines from Cramant and Chouilly.

Flight 3 - Billecart-Salmon (1 Note)


Flight 4 - Bollinger (2 Notes)

This great house was founded in 1829 by a German, Joseph Bollinger. The vintage wines are fermented in small, aged oak barrels, and malolactic is not encouraged. These are typically very heavy, full bodied wines. The cuvée of the vintage La Grande Année varies from year to year, but is always dominated by Pinot Noir.

Flight 5 - Charles Heidsieck (4 Notes)

One of my favorite houses, at all levels. Their lower end bottlings are always good and reliable values. Since 1985, it's been owned by the Rémy-Cointreau Group. The house now owns 30 hectares in Ambonnay, Bouzy and Oger. I've had this 1995 Blanc des Millénaires several times, and it continues to impress. It was made by the great chef de caves, Daniel Thibault, before his death in 2002, and remains the current release.

Flight 6 - Chartogne-Taillet (2 Notes)

Flight 7 - Chiquet (1 Note)

Flight 8 - Feuillatte (3 Notes)

Flight 9 - Geoffroy (2 Notes)

Flight 10 - Gimonnet (3 Notes)

The Gimonnets have been growers in the village of Cuis since 1750, and started to produce and sell their own Champagne in 1935. They own 26 hectares in Cuis and the Grand Crus of Chouilly and Cramant, all planted to Chardonnay.

Flight 11 - Gosset (2 Notes)

Flight 12 - Goutorbe (2 Notes)

Henri Goutorbe owns 15 hectares, and the Cuvée Prestige, which showed well at this tasting, is typically Pinot Noir dominated (65 to 70%), with Chardonnay and sometimes a small amount of Pinot Meunier. The 2002 Special Club is 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay.

Flight 13 - Gratien (4 Notes)

Flight 14 - Hébrart (1 Note)

Flight 15 - Henriot (4 Notes)

The Henriot family have been growers in Champagne since the mid 1600s, and started this house in 1808. They have strong ties with Charles Heidsieck, and share offices and wineries with that house. The 1998 is 52% Chardonnay and 48% Pinot Noir.

Flight 16 - Krug (1 Note)

The House of Krug was founded in 1843. The wines are all fermented in well-aged 205-liter barrels, undergo just two rackings, and they do not induce malolactic fermentation. The wines are aged at least six years before disgorgement. The Grande Cuvée is made from 50 or so wines from 10 different vintages. The blend is usually about 50% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Meunier. I am usually a big fan, but this was the weakest version of the Grande Cuvée I have ever tasted--lighter in body and showing much less comlexity than usual--which is a pretty good barometer for this year's non-vintage cuvées.

Flight 17 - Jean Lallement (1 Note)

Flight 18 - Laurent-Perrier (2 Notes)

Laurent-Perrier was founded in 1812 by a cooper named Alphonse Pierlot, who eventually passed on the company to his cellar master, Eugene Laurent. Laurent married Mathilde Perrier, who is credited with really establishing the house. In 1925, the firm was sold to Marie-Louise de Nonancourt, part of the Lanson family. It was her son Bernard who really brought the house into the top ranks of Champagne houses, and its holding company also controls Salon, Delamotte, and three other producers, making it the fifth largest group in the industry. Alain Terrier has been the winemaker since 1975, and he is widely respected for elegant, pure, largely Chardonnay-driven cuvées.

Flight 19 - Margaine (1 Note)

Flight 20 - Moët & Chandon (4 Notes)

The 2002 Dom Pérignon showed very well at this tasting. It is based on a roughly equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The fruit is primarily from the vineyards owned by the Abbey of Hautvillers in the time of Dom Pérignon, and purchased by Moët & Chandon in the 1820s, but they are also now using fruit from the former Lanson vineyards. This mammoth producer owns over 553 hectares in 44 villages, but the produce of those vineyards only supplies about a quarter of the fruit they need.

Flight 21 - Mumm (1 Note)

I typically list the Mumm Cramant Blanc de Blancs as a good value but this year, as is true of other non-vintage Champagne bottlings I tasted at this event, this edition is less complex and rich than usual.

Flight 22 - Paillard (3 Notes)

Bruno Paillard was a broker in Champagne for many years before starting his house in 1981. He has permanent contracts with many growers, keeps a good store of old reserve wines, and uses 15% oak on everything except the rosés.

Flight 23 - Pehu Simonet (2 Notes)


Flight 24 - Perrier-Jouët (4 Notes)

This house dates back to 1811. It was acquired by Mumm in 1950, and is now owned, along with Mumm, by Allied Domecq. The house has excellent vineyards in Cramant, whose fine Chardonnay grapes play a major role in the house's delicate, elegant style. The 2002 Cuvée Fleur de Champagne Rosé showed particularly well.

Flight 25 - Philipponnat (3 Notes)

Clos des Goisses is a special and unusual Champagne, and I tend to think of it more as wine than Champagne, as it has a complexity and power that is more vinous than typical of Champagne. It also requires many years, typically, before it is ready to drink. The wonderful Clos des Goisses vineyard is 5.5 hectares, planted to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the Champagne is typically a 70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay blend. The vineyard was purchased by Philipponnat in 1935. It is vinified in a combination of steel tanks and a small number of oak barrels. The 1998 was good, but not as great as other vintages I've tasted of this very special Champagne.

Flight 26 - Pierre Péters (1 Note)

This small grower producer controls 17.5 hectares, including 12 in the best parts of Le Mesnil.

Flight 27 - Piper-Heidsieck (4 Notes)

The Piper-Heidsieck branch of the Heidsieck houses was formed in 1834, and became part of Rémy-Cointreau in 1989. The house doesn't own any vineyards, but buys grapes from 70 villages. All the wines now go through complete malo.

Flight 28 - Pol Roger (4 Notes)

This house, one of my favorites at all levels, was founded in 1849. It owns 85 hectares of vineyards, which supply 45% of the needed fruit, and they purchase the rest from Pinot villages. This was one of the best groups of wines in the tasting. The 1999 Blanc de Blancs and 2002 Brut Rosé were both quite good.

Flight 29 - Roederer (2 Notes)


Flight 30 - Ruinart (3 Notes)

Ruinart was the first Champagne house, founded in 1729. The rosé is actually Chardonnay based, with a small amount of red wine added. The 1998 Dom Ruinart is entirely Chardonnay from grand crus, 66% from grand crus on the Côte des Blancs and
34% from the northern slopes of the Montagne de Reims.

Flight 31 - Varnier-Fanniere (1 Note)

Flight 32 - Veuve Clicquot (3 Notes)

I've had the '98 Grande Dame many times since its release in '07. Grande Dame tends to be 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, based exclusively on grapes from eight grand cru vineyards originally owned by the great widow herself, Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin.

Flight 33 - Vilmart (2 Notes)

Vilmart is a terrific grower Champagne, and this was an excellent example. They practice organic viticulture, ferment in large oak foudres, and avoid malolactic. The Grand Cellier is generally about 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir. The terrific 2002 Coeur de Cuvée is 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir from the oldest vines in Vilmart's two best vineyards. It is fermented and raised in new barriques.