A vintage champagne that’s affordable

Like other fine wine, champagne can improve with age, as Duval-Leroy’s nearly 10-year-old vintage champagne demonstrates. Although 1996 produced excellent wines throughout France, no region did better than Champagne, where it will rank as one of the greatest vintages ever.

Most champagne is nonvintage; a blend of wine from several years’ harvests aimed at producing a consistent house style year after year. Individual champagne producers have the option to ”declare a vintage,” which means that they will bottle a portion of the harvest separately. (They save the remainder to maintain the consistency of the nonvintage blend.)

Vintage champagne is still a blend of wines, made chiefly from chardonnay and pinot noir grown in a variety of villages, but all the wine is from one year. (Gently pressing pinot noir or other black grapes delivers clear juice because the color comes from the skins.) Some years, such as 1991, only a rare producer will declare a vintage (Philipponnat’s 1991 Clos des Goisses, about $100, is sensational), but in a year like 1996, virtually every champagne house produced a vintage champagne.

By now most have disappeared from the retail market, but Duval-Leroy just released theirs. It’s a welcome addition because the only other 1996s I’ve seen still available are the luxury cuvees, such as Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame, and Nicolas Feuillatte’s Palmes d’Or, all excellent but all routinely priced at more than $125 a bottle.

Duval-Leroy’s location in the Côte des Blancs, the best area of the Champagne region for growing chardonnay, helps explain why their chardonnay-dominant bottlings excel. Additionally, the chardonnay for their vintage champagne, which constitutes roughly two-thirds of the blend, comes only from the best, or grand cru, villages within the Côte des Blancs.

Duval-Leroy’s 1996 vintage champagne is classy, seductive, and combines the elegance of chardonnay with the power of pinot noir. The extended aging has added a toasty-yeasty complexity. Its vibrant acidity, characteristic of this vintage, keeps the champagne fresh. With some nonvintage champagnes selling for more than $50 a bottle, this vintage champagne won’t last long.

Duval-Leroy Champagne, Brut, 1996 (about $50). Distributed by M. S. Walker, 800-238-0607. 

October 27, 2005