- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Madame Lily Bollinger, who ran the celebrated champagne house of that name from 1941 to 1977, once famously declared, “I drink champagne when I’m happy, and I drink it when I’m sad. … Otherwise I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”

I’m writing this a week before you’re reading it, but it seems safe to say that about half of America will feel happy this morning and half sad. Everyone, though, likely will be thirsty at some point. So following Madame Bollinger’s advice, champagne is the wine to drink today.

As another Frenchman, the Emperor Napoleon, put it: “In victory you deserve champagne; in defeat you need it.”

Presidential elections, unlike Napoleonic battles, occur only every four years, so what you really need (or deserve) is the very best champagne.

That means vintage or prestige cuvee champagne, a producer’s top-of-the-line bottling.

Fortunately, some of the finest champagnes now on the market come from what, by all accounts, was one of the best vintages in memory: 1996.

So no matter whether you’re feeling joyous or gloomy, and no matter whether you’re buying a single bottle to drink tonight or a case to enjoy during the holiday season, 1996 champagne should be on your shopping list.

Most champagnes are blends of grapes from different vineyards as well as wines from different years. Only following a harvest deemed exceptional will a producer bottle a vintage wine.

In truth, however, champagne houses always want to be able to offer some vintage wines for sale, so exceptional doesn’t always mean, well, exceptional. But in 1996, it truly does. This is a vintage to buy with confidence. And, if you have good (meaning cool, dark and dry) storage conditions, it’s also a vintage to save.

The 1996 growing season in champagne was marked by a hot, dry summer but a fairly cool harvest, with a string of quite cold September nights. The summer warmth enabled the grapes to ripen fully — or at least as fully as they can in such a northern region — while the cooler harvest temperatures allowed them to retain acidity.

The result was a rare double — high sugars as well as high acids. In the finished wines, this combination results in both full flavors and firm structures. The former makes the wines delicious now. The latter makes them excellent candidates for aging.

When tasting through a series of 1996 champagnes, the vintage character becomes apparent.

These are racy but at the same time powerful wines, taut and plentiful all at once. That paradoxical character constitutes their greatness.

Vintage and prestige champagnes are invariably expensive. Much of the time, I don’t think they’re worth it — particularly considering that you usually can buy two or three bottles of nonvintage champagne for the same amount of money. However, the top 1996 wines are glorious exceptions. For champagne lovers, they’re must-buys.

The following eight 1996 champagnes are listed in a rough order of preference, with cost a factor in the preference. All of them, though, all are highly recommended, no matter whether you find yourself happy or sad this morning.

Phillipponat Grand Blanc 1996 ($62). A stunning wine, marked by a firm structure, focused flavors, and superior length. Made entirely with chardonnay, it offers the delicacy typical of blanc-de-blancs champagnes along with the singular richness and complexity characteristic of Phillipponat, a house very much in the top echelon of champagne producers these days.

The wine undoubtedly will taste even richer in a few years, so you might want to save an extra bottle or two for November 2008. (Imported by Ex Cellars)

Bollinger Grande Annee 1996 ($110). At first, this wine seems atypical for Bollinger, a house renowned for toasty, brioche-scented, deeply flavored champagnes. The vintage character makes the initial sip seem tight, crisp, and citrusy. However, with time in the glass, as air mixes with the wine, enticing biscuity notes emerge, and the wine gains depth and power. At the same time, it never looses its citrus edge and so seems bright and rich all together. (Imported by Dreyfuss Ashby)

Pol Roger Brut 1996 ($65). Clean and focused but at the same time richly appointed, with hints of toasted nuts and creamy coffee augmenting fruit flavors reminiscent of crisp apples, pears and tart citrus. Although deliciously open and accessible, the firm structural character of the vintage keeps everything focused, and the wine should age effortlessly. (Imported by Frederick Wildman)

Roger Pouillon Extra Brut 1996 ($55). Extra brut champagnes contain no dosage, the somewhat-sugary dollop used to top off the bottle after disgorgement. Instead, they are completely dry, and so sometimes can taste quite austere and tart. This could be a problem in a vintage like 1996, and at first this wine seems tight and unexpressive. But like so many 1996 champagnes, it opens up with time in glass, the exposure to air bringing out rich, evocative flavors. (Imported by Country Vintner)

Veuve Clicquot “La Grande Dame” Brut 1996 ($150). Sure it’s expensive, but Veuve Clicquot’s luxury champagne is also supremely satisfying — rich and powerful but at the same time sumptuous and silky. More than in other vintages, the 1996 needs time — in a glass or even better in a cellar — to reveal its greatness. (Imported by Clicquot Inc.)

Charles Heidsieck Brut Rose 1996 ($75). A superb rose champagne, and very much one to drink during a meal, this wine displays rich red berry flavors, a firm structure, and plenty of crisp, refreshing acidity. More evolved than other 1996 champagnes, it’s deliciously open and accessible. (Imported by Remy Amerique)

Pol Roger Brut Rose 1996 ($70). Tighter and more restrained than the Charles Heidsieck, this rose seems typical of the vintage in that it becomes expressive with exposure to air and so is a strong candidate for cellaring. (Imported by Frederick Wildman)

Boizel Brut 1996 ($50). With buttered bread aromas, this rich, powerful wine lacks the nuanced subtlety of the best from 1996, but it still proves very satisfying — particularly if you’re a fan of an intensely yeasty, toasty style of champagne. (Imported by Country Vintner)

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