It’s not every day that one enjoys a champagne as extravagant as this, but drinking Billecart-Salmon’s prestige cuvée at Le Grand Cerf in Montchenot this week gave me plenty to think about. First off, the wine itself is absolutely brilliant, still as lively and fresh as it was the day that it was released. We often speak about champagne being fine in texture, but few champagnes possess such a silky and pinpoint texture as this one. It emphasizes the purity and finesse of the vintage rather than the power, and in fact, it feels distinctly more delicate than the 1998 version, although I’m sure that if you compared the analytical statistics the 1996 would reveal as much or even more sugar ripeness. Perhaps most striking of all, although hardly surprising to those who know François Domi’s wines, is the sheer harmony of components here. This exceptional balance is not only responsible for that sense of delicacy, but also allows the nuanced and complex details of the wine to fully express themselves even at this wine’s youthful stage, with many miles to go before maturity.
Harmony is not something that can be taken for granted in this vintage. Twelve years on, the 1996 vintage continues to be controversial: some consider it to be one of the all-time greats, while others think that the high acidity is so out of balance that the wines will never resolve themselves properly. The truth, of course, encompasses both of these poles. There are indeed wines that feel screechy and awkward in their acidity. There are wines that show alarming signs of early oxidation, which is perhaps even more troubling. There are wines that simply feel too powerful and aggressive for classic champagne, due to that unusual one-two punch of extremely high ripeness and extremely high acidity. Yet when a winemaker gets everything right in 1996, as Domi did with the Nicolas François, the results can be breathtaking. It’s wines like these that have created the vintage’s exalted reputation, even though in the end, not all 1996s will truly be great. Here is one that you can count on, at least.