This was the most difficult year for the region in a long time, causing Champagne expert Tom Stevenson to write, “Anyone who declares vintage wines this year needs their head examined.” Grapes struggled to ripen in the wet and cool weather, and the poor quality of the harvest sometimes caused a slight drop in quality among non-vintage wines when they were released a few years later.

In truth, things didn’t look all that bad up until September. The winter was mild but very wet, delaying budbreak. March was a particularly rain-drenched month, but in May and June the weather turned unusually hot, with temperatures consistently over 30°C (86°F). Flowering proceeded normally under sunny skies, and everyone began to anticipate a large harvest. July, unfortunately, brought severe storms involving both rain and hail that caused widespread damage across the region, but due to the potentially large number of grapes, this was not deemed disastrous. A burst of sunshine in August raised growers’ hopes for the coming harvest.

It’s said that the last three weeks before the harvest have the most influence on the quality of the vintage, and in 2001, these last few weeks were just about as bad as it gets. September brought incessant rain for three straight weeks, interrupting the ripening of the grapes and promoting the spread of grey rot. It was difficult to know when to pick, as growers who wanted to wait for sugars to accumulate had to weigh this against the increasing possibility of rot. Picking eventually began between 22 September and 2 October, depending on the area, and growers had to select extremely carefully to eliminate rotten or unripe grapes.

Overall, the quality was below average in this vintage. Several growers told me that pinot noir was the toughest variety in 2001, which makes sense considering that it ripens relatively late. What seems clear, however, is that while the vintage was difficult, it wasn’t as bad as an equivalent vintage might have been 20 or 30 years ago, thanks to advances in viticulture, triage and technique.

Ironically, I think that almost all vintage champagnes from 2001 are actually worth buying, due to a sort of inverse logic: since the vintage was so bad, the only people who dared to make vintage wines were those who worked extremely well in the vines and who had exceptional sites. Laurent Champs of Champagne Vilmart, for example, was pleased with the quality he obtained in 2001, particularly with chardonnay, and he bottled both the vintage-dated Grand Cellier d’Or and the Coeur de Cuvée. When I tasted the 2001 vins clairs with him in the spring of 2002, he noted that the wines showed “a good balance between acidity, sugar and alcohol,” citing old vines and low yields as being keys to success in this vintage.

The wine of the vintage, for me, is the lovely Clos des Goisses by Philipponnat, which is of course grown in one of the warmest parcels in all of Champagne. Close behind it is the Inflorescence La Parcelle by Cédric Bouchard, grown by essentially biodynamic methods in a highly favored microclimate. Among other successes well worth seeking out are Agrapart’s Cuvée Vénus, Vilmart’s Coeur de Cuvée and the Cuvée Spéciale by Pierre Péters. None of these will be wines for extremely long-aging, of course, but they’re expressive and compelling wines for current consumption, and have a lot to say about how great wines can be made from “lesser” vintages.