Harvest time 1996 – and by mid-October, Champagne’s growers, chefs de caves and, indeed, collectors could barely contain their excitement. With a bumper crop of 10,000kg per hectare, 10g/l acidity and 10 degrees of potential alcohol, this seemed on paper to promise perfectly ripe grapes balanced by high acidity and an optimum sugar ratio never before seen in the region. It was, quite literally, a perfect 10 vintage.
When the ‘96s started hitting the market eight years later, critical praise was almost universal, with a flurry of demand. Yet even at this early juncture, a few caveats were raised. As Charles Philipponnat recalls: ‘On release, the wines were heavy and the acidity was very prominent; they needed more time to balance.’ As a result, many houses released their 1996 later than usual. Yet five years later, the wines were even richer and heavier, with many seeming to age more rapidly than anticipated and losing their freshness. The dissenting murmurs grew louder.
Since then, critical reaction has been mixed – I have tasted several relatively underwhelming examples on various occasions – with many judges even preferring the 1995 in line-ups.
A quarter of a century on, an incredible selection of 42 prestige cuvée Champagnes were assembled thanks to Marina Olsson of Gomseglet Connoisseurs, a private collector who puts on annual tastings of extremely rare Champagnes. All the original (historic) disgorgement bottles were from Olsson’s private cellar and bought on first release, with the late-disgorgement examples sourced direct from the houses. All were tasted blind, and with only one bottle available, the tasting was a snapshot of that particular bottle on that particular day. As with any old wine, I expected some bottle variation – in this instance, from the quality of the cork rather than the storage.
While the vintage lent the wines plenty of richness, they were not too heavy, but harmonious
Given recent experiences with the vintage, my expectations were not sky high, and I was prepared for quite wide variations in quality. As things transpired, these concerns proved broadly unfounded. Very few samples were truly over the hill, and overall I was pleasantly surprised. A few of the Champagnes were beginning to decline, with some seemingly only held together by their acidity. In general, though, while the vintage lent the wines plenty of richness, they were not too heavy but harmonious, with the acidity not too pronounced but supporting them.
Philipponnat, who was in attendance, said, ‘When first released, the vintage was too acidic. Then it was too ripe, and the only thing that was going to balance the wine was time. Today the wines are finally coming together and it’s a pleasant surprise. The vintage is now showing its true colour and potential.’
So is 1996 truly the great vintage that it was originally billed as? The very best examples, such as Salon and Krug’s Clos du Mesil, are right up there in the pantheon of great Champagnes. Many of the other top houses have also produced excellent examples. However, there are enough blips and inconsistencies to leave a nagging question mark. Excellence across the board, the usual marker for top vintages, is not quite there.
In general, the blanc de blancs showed best, which is not surprising given the vintage reports at the time. Richard Geoffroy, ex-Dom Perignon chef de cave, claimed that some Pinot Noir grapes were dehydrated and overripe, and careful selection was needed to eliminate oxidation. Philipponnat compared 1996 to 2008, though the fruit of the latter is purer, and the wines should age more evenly. If I had to buy one vintage, 2008 seems a safer bet – and (somewhat) more affordable. Today, not all 1996s are available commercially, and I would be wary of purchasing on the secondary market, especially at their price. As one of the most hyped and, as a result, traded vintages, some bottles may have changed hands a few times. Origin is everything here, so prospective buyers should double-check provenance.