They were dazzling from all over Europe, and I can still remember many of them as if I had last tasted them yesterday: white wines from the 1996 vintage. It is very rare that a single growing season produces memorable wines from different grapes over a vast geographical area, but that is exactly what happened in 1996.
Across Europe, the wines showed the same profile: intensely expressive aromas, with deep fruit perfectly balanced by refreshing acidity. The Rieslings from Alsace were otherworldly. Albarinos from Spain were the best ever made. Chablis was extraordinary. Some German vintners who knew how to deal with the super-abundant acidity made the best wines of their careers.
These wines all tasted great right out of the chute, and they were blessed with so much acidic structure that they were -- and remain -- supremely long-lived. Even Muscadet, a famously fleeting wine for slurping with oysters when it is young and dumping down the drain the minute a new vintage becomes available, was durable. The best bottle of Muscadet I've ever tasted was a 1996 -- that passed my lips in 2003.
I've spent years cursing my own stupidity for not having bought and cellared more of those wines when they were available. But now all of us have our last chance to redeem ourselves, because 1996 has one last miracle in store, and it is actually in stores now: 1996 vintage Champagnes.
They are, as a group, spectacular. A few have already sold through, and several others (like Krug) have yet to be released. But the vintage is at high tide. This is not a wave you want to miss. I say that with some hesitation, since it seems that the wine trade is constantly hyping this or that year as the vintage of the century. But 1996 might really be the vintage of the (last) century. Analyzed by the numbers, the 1996s show a combination of ripe richness and energetic acidity that has not been seen since 1928. Analyzed by the glass, these Champagnes show a profile that recalls those amazing 1996s from other grapes and appellations.
The growing season got off to a cold start in Champagne in 1996, and pollination problems resulted in a poor fruit set, decreasing berry size and lowering yields. The remainder of the growing season was marked by oscillation between drought and rain, and also between periods of hot and cool temperature. This seems to have accentuated the distinctively bifurcated character of the wines, which are unusually rich but also unusually acidic. The harvest was virtually free of rain, and vintners were able to pick very clean fruit at optimal ripeness.
Since we're talking vintage Champagne here, it shouldn't surprise you to hear that the wines aren't cheap. However, the wines have been in the pipeline for so long that their prices don't seem to reflect the U.S. dollar's recent decline relative to the euro. Moreover, since vintage Champagnes are sold more as brands with relatively constant prices than as wines that are unique in each declared year and priced accordingly (like vintage Port), the very best years offer the very best values. I've grouped my recommendations by reference to wine types, with entries appearing in order of preference:
Blanc de Blancs
Roger Pouillon Grand Cru Extra Brut ($55): Ranking the wines in this category was the most difficult, as the Chardonnay grape seems to have produced the creme de la cremein this vintage, and all the wines are wonderful. This bottling is among the most mature, with some secondary notes showing through the extremely refined, very dry primary fruit. Subtle and superb.
Lilbert-Fils Grand Cru Cramant Brut ($65): This is an unusually rich wine for this house, which generally makes quite reserved, even austere Champagnes. In 1996 the wine remains stylish and taut, but with layers of depth I can recall from no earlier vintage.
Deutz ($70): None of the big houses had a better year in 1996 than Deutz, as all three vintage-dated wines are fantastic. The Blanc de Blancs is pure pleasure: Soft and ripe and even creamy in texture, with a rounded feel from ripe fruit and very soft effervescence, it is a heavenly cloud packed into a bottle.
L. Aubry Fils 1er Cru ($50): A gorgeous wine with lots of deep, soft aromas and flavors, yet structural elements that still make the wine seem taut and linear.
Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1er Cru ($45): Wonderfully classy and restrained, with a very dry profile that reveals the flawlessness of the raw materials. Delicious now, but still unwinding its considerable charms.
Pol Roger ($60): With perfect balance and unbelievable depth of flavor, this is a stunning wine that would trounce many Cuvee de Prestige wines from other vintages.
Gosset "Grand Millesime" ($85): This is packed with power and depth of flavor, but so energized with ripe acidity that it dances rather than lumbers.
Bollinger "Grande Annee" ($110): This is really still too taut to show all its potential, but in a decade it may surpass the 1975 Bollinger RD that remains one of the two best Champagnes I've ever tasted.
Deutz ($55): A steal at this price, this is simply the most balanced and complete vintage Brut I've ever tasted from Deutz.
Chartogne-Taillet ($45): Lovely fruit deftly rendered, with toasty, nutty undertones.
Taittinger "Comtes de Champagne" ($225): I tasted a bunch of wonderful Roses, but only three that were clearly spectacular. This leads the trio by a nose, with perfectly ripe, highly expressive fruit and amazingly integrated acidity.
Nicolas Feuillatte "Cuvee Palmes d'Or" ($175): Easily the best wine I've ever tasted from this house, this is immensely impressive as a whole and flawless in each of its parts.
Charles Heidsieck ($76): Full of expressive fruit and flavorful fun, yet somehow classy and reserved at the same time, this is an immensely interesting wine.
Cuvee de Prestige
Dom Perignon ($130): No wine risks disappointing expectations as much as this one does, but this will disappoint no one. It is unbelievably ripe and rich, with creamy texture and acidity that gently firms the finish. Magnificent.
Deutz "Cuvee William Deutz" ($130): A third killer 1996 from Deutz, this is powerful but not remotely pushy, with all sorts of complexities perfectly harmonized.
Nicolas Feuillatte "Cuvee Palmes d'Or" ($110): Is it damning with faint praise to say that, whereas the Palmes Rose is otherworldly, this is merely fantastic?
Perrier-Jouet "Fleur de Champagne Cuvee Belle Epoque" ($119): Fluffy and elegant as always, with fresh fruit and exquisitely soft mousse from very, very small bubbles.
Michael Franz will offer additional recommendations and answer questions live today at noon on washingtonpost.com.