At lunch with Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Champagne Louis Roederer this weekend, he pulled out, amongst other things, a bottle of 1977 Cristal from the house's library. I've never even seen a bottle of 1977 champagne before. I didn't know it existed. Together with 1972, 1984 and 2001, it is one of the vintages of the last forty years that the Champenois would most like to forget. Yet this wine was utterly lovely.
There's a theory in Champagne that lesser vintages age more harmoniously and more consistently than great ones. This 1977 didn't have the power of the 1976 Cristal, nor the complexity of the 1979. But it felt terrifically balanced and impeccably refined, showing classic flavors of mature Cristal ranging from cocoa and roasted coffee beans to toffee, poached pear and fresh cream. It was intense in flavor without being rich, and I would bet that this intensity would fool many blind tasters into thinking it was from a more heralded year, such as 1975 or 1979. Naturally this bottle had the advantage of being stored in the same cellars where it was made, ensuring that it was in optimum condition—you would think that a lousy vintage like '77 would be long past its best, but this remained vibrant and lively, with no indication whatsoever of declining. In fact, it continued to gain in texture, complexity and dimension over the two hours that we were at the table.
It made me think about other champagnes from lesser vintages that I've drunk in their maturity, with notable standouts being the 1980 and 1951 Clos des Goisses, 1978 Cristal and 1956 José Michel. Perhaps there's something to this theory after all.