1996 champagne
The Collection
Krug's Clos de Mesnil, Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne and Salon were among the star performers from a tasting of 1996 Champagnes (photo by Xavier Young)
Wine The Collection 27 December 2021

Top 1996 Prestige Cuvée Champagnes

It was a vintage that excited on release but has since proved problematic. So, 25 years on, how are the top wines holding up? Christelle Guibert finds out
Introduction and recommendations by

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.

1996 champagne
The tasting comprised all the major prestige cuvées from the heralded 1996 vintage (photo by Xavier Young)

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.’

C
On the up: at Philipponnat's Clos des Goisses, whose LV bottling stood out

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.

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Top Rated Bottles

Christelle Guibert's top 1996 Prestige Cuvée Champagnes

Krug, Clos du Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996

Score
98
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2032
  • RRP £4,290
Clos du Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs Brut
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Salon, Salon Cuvee ‘S’, Le Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs Brut 1996

Score
98
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2035
  • RRP £1,242
Salon Cuvee ‘S’, Le Mesnil, Blanc de Blancs Brut
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Boizel, Joyau de France, Brut 1996

Score
97
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP N/A
Joyau de France, Brut
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Tattinger, Comtes de Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, Brut 1996

Score
97
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2026
  • RRP £655
Comtes de Champagne, Blanc de Blancs, Brut
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R&L Legras, Saint-Vincent, Blanc de Blancs, Brut 1996

Score
96
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £185
Saint-Vincent, Blanc de Blancs, Brut
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Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame, Brut 1996

Score
96
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £156
La Grande Dame, Brut
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Billecart-Salmon, Grande Cuvée, Brut 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £190
Grande Cuvée, Brut
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Bollinger, R.D., Extra Brut 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2026
  • RRP £281.50
R.D., Extra Brut
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Louis Roederer, Cristal 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2030
  • RRP £450
Cristal
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Moët & Chandon, Dom Pérignon, Oenothèque 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £404
Dom Pérignon, Oenothèque
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Paul Bara, Comtesse Marie de France, Brut 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP N/A
Comtesse Marie de France, Brut
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Philipponnat, Clos des Goisses L.V., Brut 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2030
  • RRP POA
Clos des Goisses L.V., Brut
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Pommery, Cuvée Louise, Magnum 1996

Score
95
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP N/A
Cuvée Louise, Magnum
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De Venoge, Louis XV, Brut 1996

Score
94
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £108
Louis XV, Brut
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Duval-Leroy, Femme, Brut 1996

Score
94
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £270
Femme, Brut
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Mailly, L’Intemporelle, Brut 1996

Score
94
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP N/A
L’Intemporelle, Brut
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Krug, Vintage, Brut 1996

Score
93
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £500
Vintage, Brut
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Moët & Chandon, Grand Vintage Collection, Brut 1996

Score
93
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP 75+
Grand Vintage Collection, Brut
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Billecart Salmon, Le Clos Saint-Hilaire 1996

Score
92
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £420
Le Clos Saint-Hilaire
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Dom Ruinart, Brut 1996

Score
92
100
Champagne
  • From 2021
  • To 2021
  • RRP £222
Brut
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