Over the last few years, Diebolt-Vallois has put several old vintage wines onto the market: 1976, 1979 and 1985, which wear the gold vintage label, as well as a pure 1982 in a green label that is labeled Mise en Cave en 1983. They can be terrific wines, even if the package is a little misleading: these wines weren’t made by Jacques Diebolt, but rather by his father-in-law Guy Vallois, in the village of Cuis.
I’ve tasted all of the above wines on multiple occasions, but one that I’ve never seen is the 1973, which Richard Juhlin mentions in his book 4000 Champagnes. I’m particularly keen on champagnes from this year not only because it was a relatively decent vintage in the region, but also because it’s the year of my birth. On a visit to Diebolt this week, we were enjoying a bottle of 1997 Fleur de Passion and talking about all sorts of topics, from increased sulfur in non-malolactic wines to 17th-century tapestries (antiques are Jacques Diebolt’s grand passion), when the conversation turned to old champagne. Since I’ve been wanting to ask him for a while, I cheekily ventured the question of whether or not there were any more bottles of 1973 available. He admitted that there were a few left in the cellar, but warned that they are extremely variable, which is why he doesn’t sell them. “Perhaps one in six or eight is any good,” said Diebolt. “The problem is that they were stored sur pointe in a dirt cellar, not on cement, so many of the corks were attacked by mold.”
Nevertheless, after drinking the better part of that fabulous bottle of 1997 (which, by the way, is just beginning to come out of its shell and develop some real complexity), Diebolt asked, “Do you want to taste the ’73?” We returned to the cellar and fetched one of the 21 bottles remaining, bottled with a cork rather than with capsule for the secondary fermentation. He proceeded to disgorge it, and upon pouring a glass for himself to taste, he smiled and said, “You are very lucky. This is one of the best bottles of this wine that I have ever tasted.” We spent the next hour drinking the rest of the bottle, which continued to expand and develop with air, revealing crisp, energetic notes of citrus and almond under more mature aromas of praline, honeycomb, roasted coffee and black truffle. While it was clearly a mature wine, it was still astonishingly fresh and vibrant, much more so than any of the other Guy Vallois bottles that I had ever tasted.
It’s an experience that I am likely never to repeat, even if I am fortunate enough to partake of one of the 20 bottles that are left. However, other vintages are commercially available, and they are worth seeking out. As I write this I am drinking a bottle of the 1979, which is deliciously opulent, feeling creamy and rich even while demonstrating the forceful acidity of both the vintage and the village (like all of these old Vallois wines, this is 100 percent Cuis). I’ve had other bottles of this that have shown even more complexity, and overall this is my favorite (non-’73!) of these. The 1976 is even more luscious, although I’ve experienced greater bottle variation in that wine than in the ’79. When the ’76 is good, though, it’s very, very good, with an expansive complexity and surprising acidity for the vintage, thanks to being grown in Cuis. The 1985, like its siblings, is unusually rich for a Cuis wine, although it shows a more forceful structure, with the minerality very prominent, and doesn’t possess quite as much complexity. However, like all of these it also shows a higher than average amount of bottle variation, so it largely depends on your luck. As the famous quote goes, “There are no good wines, only good bottles.” Still, you’ll never know unless you give it a try. There are far worse things to gamble on than old Vallois wines.