Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Tasting of 1998 Champagnes

Last night a friend of mine hosted a tasting of 1998s, an appropriate theme being that we’re now ten years on. The 1998 vintage is also one that I particularly like. Pundits have never been very keen on this vintage, coming after the utterly unique 1996 and the warm, accessible 1997, and forgotten in the shadow of 1999 and 2000, vintages that I think people have wanted very badly to like because of their numeric significance. Yet the vintage does have its supporters. Charles Philipponnat thinks that it could be the best Clos des Goisses of the decade, easily better than 1996; Terry Theise once wrote, “the sheer beauty of fruit of the [1998] chardonnays is nearly beyond belief.”

The 1998 vintage was a year of extreme weather, shocking at the time but sadly all too commonplace today. March temperatures fluctuated between -8 C and 23 C (18 to 73 F); in May, records show that it was 32 C on the 13th (90 F), yet there was frost on the 23rd! It’s almost a miracle that the fruit was able to set properly, without widespread incidence of either coulure or millerandage. The July sunshine, what little there was of it, was the lowest on record for that month since 1965, while in contrast, August was the hottest on record since 1961, with temperatures up to 40 C (104 F) across the region. September was wet, averaging 60 to 70 mm of rain (2.4 to 2.75 inches) over the first fifteen days. Despite all of this, the grapes were harvested in mid- to late September with a higher than average maturity, and the average yield of 12,926 kilograms per hectare was the largest since 1983 (15,012 kg/ha).

Of the dozen 1998s that we tasted, the wines of the night, for me, were Vilmart’s Cuvée Création, Pascal Doquet’s Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs and Franck Pascal’s Equilibre Cuvée Prestige. Sometimes I think the 1998 might be the greatest Cuvée Création ever (although I can’t wait to see the 1999). Its subtle complexity and velvety texture make it feel sophisticated and elegant, a champagne for dinner jackets and evening gowns. Doquet’s Le Mesnil showed classic Mesnil chalkiness and the vivid, vibrant energy typical of 1998 chardonnay, while Franck Pascal’s Equilibre completely charmed me with its full-bodied yet finely harmonious aromas of persimmon, dried apple and spice.

Among the wines that disappointed me were the 1998s of Deutz and Taittinger, and surprisingly, Claude Cazals’s Clos Cazals. I had tasted the 1998 Clos Cazals once before and found it complex and expressive, but last night its floral perfume was almost overpowering, and its dosage awkwardly balanced. I expect it needs some time to sort itself out.

Additional time, in fact, seemed to be the theme across the board. Many of the wines seemed a little closed and reticent, and often I noted that fruit, alcohol and dosage were not currently well integrated. One of the things that struck me while tasting these was how ripe the fruit flavors actually were in many of the 1998s, which I don’t think of as being an overly ripe vintage. Having said that, however, in many wines the fruit was currently at an awkward midpoint, having shed the puppy fat of its youth but not yet having acquired the complexity and harmony of maturity. It’s a vintage I continue to have faith in, but I’m not going to open any more bottles for a while. I think I’ll go buy some more of that Vilmart while I still can, though.

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