Non-vintage champagne may increasingly be regarded as a commodity to lure bargain hunters into unfamiliar supermarkets or reward assiduous salespersons, but vintage-dated champagne is different. By any standards it is a treat, the focus of interest for champagne connoisseurs, and the wine on which a disproportionate amount of care is lavished by winemakers in the Champagne region in north-east France.
Connoisseurs of vintage champagne, champagnes made exclusively from grapes grown in a single growing season, are entering a golden period when they can pick and choose between two distinctly superior years, 1995 and 1996. Although some good vintage champagnes carry one of the years 1991-1994 inclusive (Bollinger 1992 was beautifully creamy and approachable the other day), things have generally been rather lean for lovers of vintage champagne since 1989 and 1990 vintage champagnes were widely available.
As with the earlier pair, it is the later year that is usually the more impressive. Just as 1990s tended to have more guts and depth than 1989s, so it is with 1996 compared with 1995, although there are some fine 1995s currently on sale.
What was so extraordinary about the 1996 vintage in Champagne was that not only were the grapes exceptionally high in flavour and ripeness, they also managed to retain admirably high levels of acidity, the component that gives champagne its refreshment value and long life. Not since 1955 had such high levels of both acidity and grape sugars (enough to make base wines of nearly 11 per cent alcohol) been recorded in Champagne.
The grapes were by no means as ripe in 1995, resulting in slightly more austere, less well balanced wines than in the succeeding year, but Chardonnay did particularly well, so 1995 Blanc de Blancs should, in theory at least, be worth looking out for.
I recently tasted 51 current vintage-dated offerings from virtually all the well known producers and many of the more obscure - which provided a great opportunity to compare 1995s and 1996s. My main conclusion was that 1996 really is a great, great year for champagne, full of bounce and depth. It may have just as much or more acidity than the 1995, but it has so much more fruit that the 1996s are generally more approachable than the 1995s which need a bit more time in bottle for their much more obvious high levels of green acidity to soften.
Inconveniently, however, most champagne producers release their wines in strict chronological order. (An admirable exception is luxury house Krug which launched its fruity 1989 before the much more austere 1988; it is years away from releasing its 1996 and 1995.)
What was particularly exciting about this tasting was the number of relatively reasonably priced wines that showed well. Perhaps the greatest bargain for British wine buyers is the 1996 from the modest house of H Blin in the Marne Valley. It is currently on sale at Oddbins for £18.99 but from Monday until 26 May there is a discount of 20 per cent on any two-bottle purchase, bringing the per-bottle price down to a ridiculously low £15.19.
Larmandier-Bernier's Cramant Grand Cru 1996 Vieilles Vignes is wonderfully dry and already shows an impressive spread of flavours (although it will be even better in a year or two). Vine Trail of Bristol (tel 0117 921 1770) which specialises in wines from small French domaines offers it at £18.75 a bottle. In the US, Garagiste of Seattle (tel 888 264 0053) offer it at $31.98 according to WineSearcher.
Philippe Brugnon is another small-scale family champagne producer, based on the Montagne de Reims. His 1996 is broad and floral, very dense and satin-textured. It is about £19.99 a bottle from the Oxford Wine Company of Lechlade (tel 01367 253990) and Millets Farm, Frilford Heath near Abingdon (tel 01865 301144); Chateau Vintners of London, SW3 (tel 020 7376 8828); and Village Wines of Bexley (tel 01322 558772) who have it at just £17.59 as part of a mixed dozen.
Wine-buyers resident in Switzerland should be able to find a relative bargain in René Geoffroy's dramatically aromatic Premier Cru 1996 which, according to WineSearcher, is available for just 39 Swiss francs from Veni, Vino, Vici 062 723 0979. Its UK importers François Domange of London, N5 (tel 020 7354 1994) ask much more, £162 for six bottles.
Pierre Gimmonet's Blanc de Blancs Gastronome 1996 is another big, bold treat that is no longer available in the UK where Oddbins are already selling the 1997, but it is available at $28 from D & M Wines and Liquors of San Francisco (tel 800 637 0292).
Of the few bigger houses which have already moved on to the 1996 vintage, Perrier Jouêt's vivacious bottling and Taittinger's creamier version were showing particularly well. Most famous names are still offering their 1995s of which the best, if still youthful, examples in this tasting came from Bollinger, Pol Roger and Louis Roederer.
For full tasting notes and assessments of these 51 champagnes, see purple pages.