2008 Champagne: tasting the prestige cuvées

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

The 2008 Champagne vintage is considered one of the region’s best ever. With most of the prestige cuvées now on the market, we asked Champagne Specialist Edwin Dublin to see whether the wines live up to the vintage’s reputation

The 2008 vintage in Champagne undoubtedly resulted in some of the greatest wines ever produced from this region and is already hailed as one of the greatest Champagne vintages ever. Vintage releases to date have not disappointed (our own UKC was brilliant and still youthful!) but now we can assess the prestige cuvées as (nearly) all have been released. Was the best saved till last? A group of us gathered at No.3 St James’s Street recently to cogitate and contemplate over six prestige cuvées from this vintage.

Some techy stuff first. Why is ’08 so special? Winter was bitterly cold, which is great for resting the vines after a harvest. Late spring and early summer were warm with good conditions for flowering and early bud development. Fears of rot were quickly overcome, but then it all went a bit gloomy for the rest of the summer, especially August, which was cool and grey. But then the sun came out and temperatures rose for beautiful ripening and harvest from mid-September. For recent times this meant a relatively long grape development, with excellent balance of sugars, flavours, aromatics and acidity. This combination meant that many producers, including some from this tasting, released their more forward and exuberant 2009s before the 2008s.

Broadly speaking the 2008 vintage character and style is one of soaring acidity and freshness beautifully balanced by generous fruit and a depth of concentration that, for now, can feel a little tight. Comparisons have been made to 1996 and 2002. I follow the critical pack in thinking, even at this early stage, that 2008 is greater than 1996 when considering the harmonious balance it exhibits. And despite some tightness, the ’08s are often more approachable at this stage than either 1996 or 2002 at a similar stage.

And so to the wines: below is a sketch of what I thought of them, in alphabetical order. The common point in all of these is that 2008 serves either to accentuate the prestige House style or else holds it (for now, at least) in a delicious state of tension. Longevity is a given here – the only question is how many decades and how you enjoy you drinking these: with youthful exuberance or with the greater complexities of maturity

The line-up of 2008 Champagne

What is a prestige cuvée?

There is no regulatory definition: they are basically the top wine (or, increasingly, wines, if one thinks of Dom Pérignon’s various iterations P2, P3 etc, or single-vineyard Krug) made by Champagne producers using their very best grapes.

2008 Champagne Bollinger, La Grande Année: A classic Bollinger, statuesque with oodles of black cherry fruit and a light dusting of oak spice. But before the power overwhelms you, the Chardonnay shimmies on through to counterbalance the weight, adding freshness and light. There is a concentrated core that remained unfurled even after time in the glass, which made this – for me – the most enigmatic of the line-up. It will be fascinating to see how this develops into the resplendent RD it will surely become. (NB Grande Année is, strictly speaking, not a prestige cuvée, but earns its place as it will go on to become – I presume – their prestige RD cuvée.)

2008 Champagne Dom Pérignon: No matter the vintage, Dom Pérignon is invariably ready to go from release. Once again that hedonistic charm is combined with a complexity and elegance that belies this. All is beautifully placed. Brioche, hazelnut, buttercream here, citrussy minerality there, a touch of dark forest fruit, all kept in place by that ’08 structure, so that it never quite goes over the top. So yes, you can have it now, but it will reward keeping for as many years as you care to wait. The P2 and P3 expressions that must surely follow will be fascinating.

2008 Champagne Pol Roger, Sir Winston Churchill: A complete wine. Impressive at first, it seems almost too much to approach, but then all becomes clear. It’s a bit like Winston himself, who would surely have approved of this. Wild strawberry and morello cherry scents firm up on the palate, woven through with a zesty almost limey touch. All contribute to Pol’s trademark combination of majesty and elegance in a glass, leading to the richest of mouth-filling finishes that never seems to end.

2008 Louis Roederer, Cristal: Waves of intoxicating Pinot fruit waft up – pure, concentrated, with a touch of violet that held my attention for ages before delving into the glass. The palate is both weighty and airy – Pinot Noir on wings. I am a huge fan of the “straight” 2008 Louis Roederer vintage and they make a fascinating comparison. The terroir differences between the vineyard sites for these two wines, and hence the style, is accentuated in this vintage. The more calcareous Cristal terroir (and perhaps the 40% of biodynamic grapes?) is evident here, giving a more mineral and scintillatingly sinuous encounter now, with the promise of so much more to come.

2008 Champagne Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne: Despite the nervy tension underneath, that wondrous Comtes richness is still to the fore. The Grand Cru provenance is clear – did I detect Mesnil in those agrumic notes? Oger in the yuzu? A breadth of fruit structure in the touch of oak used in the Chouilly fruit? Whatever, even in this most structured of vintages Comtes is a (slightly) guilty pleasure to drink now. A privilege too as it hasn’t been released yet, this being a preview bottle. (We expect it to be released in spring of next year.)

2008 Champagne Veuve Clicquot, La Grande Dame: This is particularly interesting because Veuve’s chef de cave felt that in ’08 this cuvée, always Pinot Noir-dominant, needed the most it’s ever had – 92%. Surely the highest of all the blended cuvées tasted today (we never know what goes into the Winston, of course). Despite this, however, the nose is more leesy than fruit and it’s on the palate where you first get that Pinot hit: a line of pure fruit that broadens with time, later supported by mineral agrumic notes from the Chardonnay, all on a balanced streak of acidity. Like Bollinger, this too is a little hesitant in giving too much away now. But the components are certainly there for a long future.

The 2008 vintage is the gift that keeps on giving. Watching these develop over the years, and with still more releases to come, I – for one – can’t wait.

If you’re interested in purchasing any of the wines detailed above, please contact our Fine Wine team on 0203 301 2883 or at finewine@bbr.com, or explore all 2008 Champagne on bbr.com