Some people think that 1996 is not only the greatest champagne vintage of the decade, but one of the greatest champagne vintages of the century. I thought so too at one time, when these wines first started to appear on the market. I have since become more cautious in my opinion—there are individual wines that are stunning, and that should continue to evolve in brilliant fashion, but there are also wines that are beginning to appear shrill and imbalanced in their acidity, and others that are even appearing alarmingly oxidative. I’m in no hurry to dispose of the 1996s in my cellar (and in fact, I still wish that I owned more than I do), but I think that the vintage has proven to be far more variable in quality than most people anticipated.
The year began with a dry, cold winter that saw temperatures drop as low as minus 20°C (minus 4°F) in February. Fortunately, the vines escaped major damage, thanks in part to a strong north wind that circulated the cold air. As is becoming increasingly more common in modern times, the weather fluctuated dramatically over the next few months: sunny weather in April saw temperatures climb to 26°C (79°F), yet May brought more frost, with a low of minus 5.5°C (22°F) reported in the Vallée de l’Ardre. June was largely warm and sunny except for a brief period of cold around the 19th, which resulted in the bizarre combination of precocious growth along with millerandage, particularly in chardonnay. The summer was mostly hot and dry up until the latter part of August, and the northerly wind continued to blow throughout the season. Cold September nights in the weeks leading up to the harvest preserved that famous ’96 acidity—the harvest began as early as 14 September in some areas, and continued until mid-October under sunny skies.
One thing to remember about 1996 is that it was essentially unique—nobody had ever seen a vintage with the same combination of high ripeness and high acidity. Producers were thrilled with the extraordinary phenomenon of “10/10” (10 degrees of potential alcohol and 10 g./l. of acidity), which involved sugar levels comparable to those of 1989 and 1990 but also acidity levels of vintages such as 1986 or 1980. On paper, this should be terrific, even ideal. In some cases, it probably is. But not all ’96s have aged gracefully, and this has provoked a good deal of criticism. “Most of the 1996s will die before the complexity of the fruit balances out the acidity,” says Charles Philipponnat of Champagne Philipponnat.
Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, offers an explanation for the variability of the ’96s. “Many Champenois don’t think the same, but 1996 is about concentration, from dehydration in the berries,” he says. “The north wind concentrated the acidity, the flavors, the sugars in the berries. But the pitfall of ’96 was that it concentrated the oxidative compounds in the bad grapes. Many people were seduced by these components at the time of blending, but they have evolved very rapidly. This is why some wines are not yet ready to drink, while others are already over the hill. This is also why there are not many rosés from ’96, because of this oxidation in the pinot noir.” Geoffroy notes that the wines of Burgundy show similar characters in this vintage, and have correspondingly suffered from similar problems.
Of course, there are excellent champagnes from 1996, even if they haven’t always been entirely predictable. Essentially it boils down to individual wines—it’s difficult to make generalizations about 1996 other than the most obvious ones (i.e. high acidity), and the merits and faults of this unusual vintage are likely to be debated by champagne connoisseurs for decades to come.