Geoff Kelly Wine Reviews
Independent reviews of some local and imported wines available in New Zealand, including earlier vintages.

Mike Parker is a wine lover of a rare breed,  so quiet about it you would never know of his interest,  indeed fascination,  with fine wines.  High on his list of first loves lies vintage champagne,  and syrah.  Mike's approach to the topic is to quietly collect together the most definitive examples of a chosen wine style he can find,  over a timespan extending for several years.  Then one day an invitation will arrive:  would you like to share in tasting the following 12 wines ...   And no,  when you remonstrate,  there is no question of sharing the cost.  An amazing man,  indeed.  And then there is the delightful meal which follows,  prepared by partner Marie Daly ...  

Thus it was some Martinborough winemakers,  Raymond Chan and I from Wellington,  and some other friends of Mike's gathered in Masterton at 3pm one recent Saturday.  Much has been written about the 1996 vintage champagnes.  In essence it is regarded as an unusual and good year,  combining good physiological flavour maturity with high total acids.  Michael Broadbent rates it 5-stars,  noting: 'producers said that the region had not seen a result like this since 1955 ... the grapes showing an unusually high level of sugar and acidity.  Previous years had seen either one or the other.'  Not all northern hemisphere wine writers have agreed,  however,  that the wines will be long-lived.  Now that the late-delivered (or extended-tirage) wines such as Bollinger RD and Dom Perignon Oenotheque have become available,  the time had arrived for a first appraisal.

The following notes represent my thoughts on the wines,  though noting / contemplating other views expressed.  The tasting was completely blind,  the wines measures poured in another room,  so no visual or bottle-shape clues intervened.  At the writing-up stage,  I opened nv Lanson Black Label,  to have to hand both as an everyday yardstick,  and as a non-MLF wine,  to help put the wines in perspective.  Immediately it became apparent that the key issue that makes these prestige wines different is the cropping  rates,  as expressed in the weight of dry extract.  This would be correlated also with the higher percentage of grand cru and premier cru vineyard fruit used in these wines.  The gentleness of pressing regimes,  and the low ratio of juice taken for these prestige wines,  is also relevant.  

As always in my bubbly reviews,  aroma and flavour are everything:  commenting on the imagined qualities of the bubbles (the manifestation of which is so dependent on the physical quality of the glass,  plus the variables of glass-washing) is little more than affectation.  The details in the 'admin' section borrow unashamedly from Michael's background info handout,  but are augmented by web info.  The first price given is the average wine-searcher value for the 1996 vintage,  today.

THE WINES REVIEWED – 1996 Champagne:

1996  Bollinger Grande Année Brut
1996  Bollinger RD Extra Brut
1996  Krug Brut
1996  Louis Roederer Cristal Brut
1996  Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Brut
1996  Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Oenotheque Brut
  1996  Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée Palmes d'Or Brut
1996  Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut
1996  Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut
1996  Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil  Cuvée S Brut
1996  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut
1996  Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Brut

1996  Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill Brut   19 ½  ()
Epernay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $418   [ cork;  cepage PN 70%,  Ch 30;  understood to be no BF;  en tirage c.9 years;  little detail on the website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$265;  www.polroger.com ]
Straw,  about midway in depth of hue.  One sniff however,  and any doubts arising from relatively forward colour are dispelled.  This is the kind of champagne you dream of,  once one has ever tasted Pol Roger's famous Churchill,  or Bollinger's likewise RD.  The depth of baguette-crust autolysis on bouquet has a quality to it reminiscent of Vogel's Original Mixed-grain lightly toasted,  but there is no way the thought of aldehydes intrudes.  As soon as you taste it,  it is clearly high pinot noir,  a certain firmness,  richness and backbone,  yet not fruity at all.  The length of flavour resting on this more-pinot than chardonnay fruit,  plus the extended autolysis qualities,  together are a delight.  Finish is infinite,  perfect acid balance,  dosage in the middle,  maybe 8 g/L.  This should hold for some years,  but is perfection now.  Highly rated by the group.  GK 11/14

1996  Bollinger RD Extra Brut   19  ()
Ay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $336   [ cork;  PN 70%,  Ch 30;  some BF in primary fermentation;  no MLF; secondary fermentation under cork;  en tirage 10 + years,  disgorged 10/07;  dosage 3 – 4 g/L;  a pity there is no back-vintage info on the website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$450;  www.champagne-bollinger.fr ]
Straw,  the second deepest,  initially a worry.  But like the Churchill,  this too shows an extraordinary depth of benchmark lees-autolysis on high-pinot noir fruit.  Again there is no trace of aldehyde it would be reasonable to mention,  just great flavour development plus noticeably higher acid.  It is not quite as fresh and magic as the Churchill,  there is a trace more biscuit complexity,  but you need them alongside each other,  to even think that.  This might not cellar quite as gracefully as Churchill,  on the acid,  but there is no hurry.  Unlike Krug,  Bollinger illustrates how oak should be used in champagne elevation.  The richness conceals a low dosage,  say 4 g/L.  GK 11/14

1996  Salon Blanc de Blancs Le Mesnil  Cuvée S Brut   18 ½ +  ()
Le Mesnil-sur-Oger,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $640   [ cork;  Ch 100%;  en tirage c. 10 years;  Salon compares the 1996 with 1928,  on an informative website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$525;  www.salondelamotte.com ]
Lemonstraw,  younger and almost shining,  one of the lightest in hue yet not at all weak-looking.  Initially poured,  the bouquet was not quite enchanting,  but the flavour was superb.  After 20 minutes or so,  bouquet had subtly changed to crumb of best baguette rather than crust,  with clear white mushroom notes.  In mouth it immediately looked like a high-chardonnay wine,  with a purity of flavour and autolysis which is compelling.  It simply became better and better.  This is one of the youngest-tasting wines in the batch,  it is not one of the notably rich wines,  but the balance is perfect.  Dosage might be around the 8 g/L mark.  You feel this would cellar for many years.  GK 11/14

1996  Louis Roederer Cristal Brut   18 ½ +  ()
Reims,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $536   [ cork;  PN 55%,  Ch 45;  en tirage 5 – 6 years;  no wine info on website;  Cristal tends to be a non-MLF wine;  current vintage price in NZ c.$415;  www.champagne-roederer.com ]
Lemonstraw,  just above midway in depth.  Right from the outset this smelt like fine champagne,  and followed through on palate.  Depth of autolysis is less than those marked more highly,  and there is a clear citrus note.  Palate is even more citrussy,  and mealy too,  not a weighty wine,  but great freshness for its age.  Finish is a little sweeter,  fitting in with the 9 – 10 g/L recorded.  This will cellar for years.  On balance,  this was the most-favoured wine among the group.  GK 11/14

1996  Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Brut   18 ½  ()
Epernay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $384   [ cork;  PN 50%,  PM 50;  en tirage 8 – 10 years;  tedious,  hard-to-use,  info-poor website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$250;  www.domperignon.com ]
Lemonstraw,  below midway in depth.  Bouquet is less dramatic on this wine,  clean,  soft,  some autolysis and more white mushroom.  Palate is distinctly on the easy / agreeable side,  gentle acid,  not a weighty wine,  clearly higher dosage perhaps 10 – 11 g/L.  In other words,  a 'popular' version of a prestige wine,   nothing to frighten the uninitiated.  Yet its escapes being bland:  you could drink an awful lot of this !  Cellar for some years,  since even here the dry extract is pretty good.  GK 11/14

1996  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs Brut   18 +  ()
Reims,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $364   [ cork;  Ch 100%;  c. 5% base wine aged in new oak;  en tirage c.10 years;  no vintage info or detail on website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$200;  www.taittinger.com ]
Lemonstraw,  the second palest.  This is one of the fragrant wines,  immediately suggesting high-chardonnay,  showing clear-cut baguette-crust autolysis but with a slight lanolin suggestion noted by several tasters.  In flavour you wonder if there is trace aldehyde,  then the thought of trace oak displaces it.  This shows some of the acid of the year,  in a lighter palate more like the Dom Perignon,  but drier.  The lingering flavours are lovely,  on a dosage perhaps 9 g/L.  This will cellar for some years.  GK 11/14

1996  Krug Brut   18  ()
Reims,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $526   [ cork;  PN 42%,  Ch 32,  PM 26;  BF for primary fermentation,  usually no MLF;  en tirage c.10 years;  website slow and lacking in real information;  current vintage price in NZ c.$355;  www.champagne-krug.com ]
The hue is clearly straw,  yet the depth of colour development makes it not one of the darker wines,  ending up below midway.  Bouquet seems high pinot noir,  with quite high oak at the blind stage,  complexed with good Vogel's Mixed-grain autolysis.  Palate is on the hard side,  too much oak for subtlety,  as is usual with this label,  exacerbated by high total acid.  It is however one of the richer wines.  All these competing factors make it hard to estimate the dosage.  It is sweeter than the Bollinger Grande Année,  so perhaps 8 g/L or so.  It is impressive rather than enjoyable wine,  but it should cellar well.  This is one of the wines where you can believe there is no MLF.  GK 11/14

1996  Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon Oenotheque Brut   18  ()
Epernay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $454   [ cork;  PN 50%,  PM 50;  en tirage c.15 years;  tedious,  hard-to-use,  info-poor website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$465;  www.domperignon.com ]
Brilliant lemon,  far and away the palest.  And the bouquet is the most out-of-line,  smelling clearly of roast chicken skin (unseasoned).  Behind that is citrus and citrus zest,  some crusty baguette,  and the impression of higher chardonnay (wrong).  Flavour is much more on-target than the bouquet,  reminders of Puligny-Montrachet now,  not phenolic,  seemingly drier and more autolysed than the standard Dom,  dosage perhaps 6 g/L,  more interesting.  If it didn't smell so odd,  it would be a much more rewarding wine than the standard Dom.  This should cellar for years,  on the colour and balance,  and hopefully come more into line.  GK 11/14

1996  Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Brut   17 ½ +  ()
Reims,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $230   [ cork;  PN 65%,  Ch 28,  PM 7;  en tirage 5 – 8 years;  another website lacking in information;  current vintage price in NZ c.$210;  www.veuve-clicquot.com ]
Straw,  towards the deeper end in hue and weight.  Bouquet shows a kind of vanilla biscuit quality more clearly than baguette,  with a hint of marmalade on Vogel's Mixed-grain toast below.  As you taste it,  there might be a suggestion of oak in the base wines,  and you start to think it is just a bit aldehydic and broad,  even though the acid is firm and fresh.  Unlike some of the wines,  further sipping makes the wines seem coarser rather than finer.  The nett impression is a flavoursome big champagne,  more enjoyable than the detailed comments suggest,  not as dry as some,  maybe 9 g/L.    Might not cellar so well,  on the relative development and stronger flavours.  GK 11/14

1996  Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Brut   17 ½  ()
Epernay,  Champagne,  France:  12.5%;  $246   [ cork;  Ch 50,  PN 45,  PM 5;  en tirage 8 – 9 years;  no back vintages on website;  current vintage price in NZ c.$265;  www.perrier-jouet.com ]
Older straw,  the darkest wine.  Bouquet is complex,  in a big baguette-crust and Vogel's Mixed-grain way,  and fresher than the colour would suggest.  Yet there is no getting away from the fact the style of the wine is older than many,  there might be a trace of oak (or is that development on the autolysis),  and there was a whisper of less-desirable cork-flavour,  just fleetingly,  on the palate more than bouquet.  This bottle may not be optimal,  therefore.  Very much a 'wholemeal' wine,  the dosage at the  higher end 9 – 10 g/L maybe.  Has the richness to cellar,  but is forward.  GK 11/14

1996  Nicolas Feuillatte Cuvée Palmes d'Or Brut   17 +  ()
Epernay,  Champagne,  France:  12%;  $154   [ cork;  Ch 50,  PN 50,  all grands crus;  en tirage 8 – 9 years;  no back vintages on website;  current vintage price (not in NZ) in Australia c.$AU245;  www.nicolas-feuillatte.com ]
Straw,  just below the middle for depth.  Bouquet shows a little oxidation / aldehyde / browning apple  character,  on pinot noir-styled fruit with pink mushroom qualities.  Palate is noticeably acid,  with the mushroomy flavours dominant over the bread-crust ones,  but good body.  Dosage might be 9 g/L.  More a food wine than one for dissection,  and already forward so less suited to cellaring.  GK 11/14

1996  Bollinger Grande Année Brut   17  ()
Ay,  Champagne,  New Zealand:  12%;  $288   [ cork;  PN 70%,  Ch 30;  some BF in primary fermentation;  no MLF;  secondary fermentation under cork;  en tirage c.5 years;  dosage 6 – 9 g/L;  current vintage price in NZ c.$185;  www.champagne-bollinger.fr ]
Straw,  the third deepest.  Bouquet is much more attractive than you'd expect from the colour,  clearly high pinot noir,  lots of lees-autolysis,  pink mushrooms,  some oak involved in this,  promising.  But then in mouth the initial impressions are fairly shattered,  excessively high total acid,  so the wine seems phenolic too,  and the aftertaste is oak rather than autolysis.  Yet it is rich,  and the dosage is elegant,  perhaps 6 – 7 g/L.  This is one of those wines where the only remedy is less thought ... and another mouthful.  You can well believe this is a non-MLF wine.  On the face of it,  not such an attractive prospect for cellaring,  but it might surprise.  GK 11/14