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Champagne 1996 - an overview

by Tom Stevenson

1996 is an extraordinary Champagne vintage. It has been compared to 1928, but no Champagne vintage on record produced grapes that averaged 10.3% potential alcohol with 10g/litre total acidity. There are many vintages when the grapes have ripened to a higher degree (a potential of 8.5% can be physiologically ripe in Champagne, and 10% is super-vintage ripeness, whereas 10.5% is unripe for Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in the most famous New World wine areas). But to get both potential alcohol and acidity in double-digits is unheard of, even for Champagne's unique terroir.

Getting technical about acidity for a moment: the tartaric component was an excellent 8.3g/l, and to find 9.3g/l of malic acid and a pH of 2.97 in such ripe grapes is unique. At my Christie's 1995 Champagne Masterclass in December 2001, I attempted to summarise the previous decade in a simplistic chart:

1990 one of the two most unusual vintages in the century
1991 non-vintage year
1992 not classic, but strict selection yielded classic vintage Champagne
1993 not classic, but strict selection yielded classic vintage Champagne
1994 non-vintage year
1995 generally perceived as a classic vintage
1996 one of the two most unusual vintages in the century
1997 should be similar to 1992
1998 should be similar to 1993
1999 non-vintage year *
2000 non-vintage year *
2001 the worst year since 1984
2002 thankfully, this will be a very good vintage

* a small number of excellent vintage Champagnes have been produced through very strict selection.

In the masterclass I said my only reservation about 1996 is that it might be too good. Generally, once over 9.5% potential alcohol, the higher the acidity the better vintage, but so many of the base wines in 1996 were so marked I was a little concerned six years ago. To make a great Champagne you need relatively neutral base wines, with all the potential complexity/finesse being created during the second fermentation, autolysis and post-disgorgement processes such as the Maillard reaction (a reaction which involves sugars and amino acids to alter flavour and colour).

There are some great, truly extraordinary 1996s (thankfully, as that is the subject of December 2003's masterclass!), but I do worry that we will find some disappointments. In the meantime, as I'm late with both the revised Christie's Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine and my annual fizz guide, I will provide a list of the best 1996s I have tasted over the last 12 months, with the scores they will get in the forthcoming edition:

99 Bollinger 1996 Vieilles Vignes Francaises - Blanc de Noirs Brut
98 Vilmart & Cie 1996 Coeur de Cuvée - Brut Premier Cru
95 Pol Roger 1996 Brut Rosé
94 Drappier 1996 Grande Sendrée
94 Lanson 1996 Gold Label Brut
92 Gosset 1996 Grand Millésime Brut
92 Pol Roger 1996 Brut Chardonnay
91 Drappier 1996 Grande Sendrée Rosé Brut
91 Perrier-Jouët 1996 Grand Brut Millésime
90 Boizel 1996 Grand Vintage - Brut Millésime
90 Bollinger 1996 Grande Année - Brut
90 Bonnaire 1996 Cuvée Prestige - Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
90 Jacquart 1996 Brut Mosa‹que Millésime
90 R.C. Lemaire 1996 Chardonnay - Millésime Premier Cru Brut
90 Henri Mandois 1996 Cuvée Victor Mandois - Brut
90 Pommery 1996 Cuvée Louise Rosé - Brut
90 Taittinger 1996 Brut Millésime
90 Louis Roederer 1996 Brut Vintage
90 Ch. de l'Auche 1996 Nectar de St Rémi - Brut
90 Guy Cadel 1996 Brut
90 Veuve A. Devaux 1996 Cuvée Millésimée - Brut
90 Fleury 1996 Brut
90 Pannier 1996 Brut
90 Pannier 1996 Blanc de Blancs
89 Jacquart 1996 Blanc de Blancs - Brut Mosaïque
89 G.H. Mumm & Cie 1996 Cordon Rouge - Brut Millésime
89 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1996 Rosé Brut
89 Serge Mathieu 1996 Brut
89 Egérie de Pannier 1996 Brut
88 Louis Brison 1996 Cuvée Tendresse - Brut
88 Deutz 1996 Brut Rosé
88 Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1996 Premier Cru Chardonnay - Brut
88 H. Blin & Co 1996 Brut
88 Guy Charbaut 1996 Brut
88 Veuve A. Devaux 1996 D de Devaux
88 Nicolas Feuillatte 1996 Palmes d'Or Rosé Brut
87 H. Blin & Co 1996 Brut
87 Louis Brison 1996 Cuvée Germain Brulez - Millésime Brut
87 Deutz 1996 Blanc de Blancs - Brut
87 Duval-Leroy 1996 Blanc de Chardonnay Brut
87 Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1996 Fleuron - Blanc de Blancs - Brut 1er Cru
87 Moët & Chandon 1996 Millésime Blanc - Brut
87 Pierre Moncuit 1996 Brut Grand Cru - Blanc de Blancs
87 G. Fluteau 1996 Cuvée Prestige - Blanc de Blancs Brut
87 Tribaut 1996 Brut
86 Delouvin Nowack 1996 Brut Extra Selection
86 Cuvée Charles Gardet 1996 Brut
86 Louis Roederer 1996 Blanc de Blancs Brut
86 Besserat de Bellefon 1996 Brut
86 Ferdinand Bonnet 1996 Brut
86 Guy Charbaut 1996 Brut
86 René Geoffroy 1996 Cuvée Sélectionnée
85 Cuvée Jean de la Fontaine 1996 Brut Millésime
85 Comte A. de Dampierre 1996 Brut Grand Cru
85 Duval-Leroy 1996 Brut Vintage
85 Michel Gonet 1996 Prestige 2000 - Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
85 Moët & Chandon 1996 Millésime Rosé - Brut
85 Royer 1996 Brut