The growing season in 1998 was characterized by extremes, with wild fluctuations between hot and cold weather. Warm weather in March resulted in accelerated growth of the vines, roughly ten days in advance of the average for chardonnay and 12 days for pinot noir. The temperatures dropped in April, however, culminating in severe frosts on the 13th and 14th, and by the end of April the vegetation was no longer in advance, but instead a week behind. Hot weather returned in May, with temperatures as high as 32°C (89°F) on the 13th, yet bizarrely, there was a frost just ten days later. The month of July was grey and damp, with the least amount of sunshine seen for that month since 1965. On the other hand, August was the hottest since 1961, with temperatures close to 40°C (104°F).
Throughout all of this, the grapes somehow managed to thrive: flowering progressed normally, without coulure or millerandage; outbreaks of oidium and mildew during the wet summer weather were successfully navigated; and while the hot August sun caused widespread sunburn, destroying five to ten percent of the crop, the final yield ended up being high, fixed at 13,000 kg/ha. The harvest began on the 12th of September under heavy rain, but the sun miraculously returned by the 14th, drying out the grapes and rapidly increasing the sugar levels over the following two weeks. In the end, the potential alcohol at harvest was higher than average at 9.8 percent, which was actually even higher than vintages such as 1995 and 1988 (both of which averaged 9.2%).
It’s not always easy to pin down the character of 1998 champagne. Sometimes it’s noticeably rich in body, while other times it seems to emphasize finesse and clarity. The wines have always felt firmly structured, even if they aren’t as overtly acidic as vintages like 1996 or 1995 (and in some cases this is a good thing). Total acidity in 1998 averaged 8.1 grams of sulfuric acid per liter, which is higher than 1990, for example, which averaged 8.0 g./l., or 1991 and 1992 (both averaging 7.9 g./l.).
Most people in Champagne talk about 1998 as being a pinot noir vintage, and while I don’t disagree, I’ve also always found the character of 1998 chardonnay to be highly compelling, with many top blancs de blancs—such as those of Jacques Selosse, Diebolt-Vallois, Larmandier-Bernier, Agrapart or Jean Milan—showing a vibrant energy and crystalline purity. The best wines of the vintage can attain lofty heights: I prefer Philipponnat’s 1998 Clos des Goisses to the 1996, for example, and I feel the same about Larmandier-Bernier’s Vieille Vigne de Cramant. Wines such as these will continue to benefit from additional time in the cellar, while some other wines from the vintage are surprisingly open and accessible now.