One of the most highly regarded vintages of recent times, 2002 was a year of outstanding weather conditions, resulting in a healthy crop of grapes that combined both quality and quantity. The vines largely escaped damage from either frost or hail, and growth in the spring was earlier than usual, with rapid and healthy flowering thanks to sunny skies. The warm summer was notably dry, with 30 percent less rainfall than usual between April and September—in fact, since 1961, only 1996, 1976 and 1962 saw less rain than in 2002. August, however, saw higher-than-average rainfall, promoting rot in the vines and causing some anxiety among growers. Fortunately, the sunny weather returned in September, lasting through most of the harvest.

This was clearly a rich year: 2002 boasted the highest alcohol levels since 1990, averaging 10.5 degrees (to put this in context, 2003—a year commonly viewed as being extremely, even excessively ripe—averaged 10.6 degrees of potential alcohol). In addition, Pierre Larmandier of Larmandier-Bernier notes that 2002 saw a “maturation by concentration that we usually don’t have,” as a north wind dried the grapes in the period before the harvest, concentrating both sugars and acidity. This sort of concentration, where the grapes begin to shrivel and lose weight on the vine, is extremely rare in Champagne, and in 2002 this served to reduce the yield by 10 to 20 percent.

Curiously enough, the vintage was not initially received well by the press. In 2003, for example, La Revue du Vin de France panned the 2002 vins clairs for being heavy and alcoholic; even more damning, in his book 4000 Champagnes, published in 2004, Richard Juhlin wrote of the 2002 vintage, “With a few delightful exceptions, this vintage will not leave its mark on history.”

Today, this is widely accepted to be untrue by champagne producers and connoisseurs. “It’s a dream vintage,” says Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon. Jacques Diebolt of Champagne Diebolt-Vallois, who has been making champagne since 1959, called 2002, at the time, “the best vintage I have seen in my lifetime.” There is certainly a sense of richness and depth in the 2002s, reflecting the warmth of the vintage and the concentration in the grapes. Yet there is also a remarkable balance and harmony that is found in these wines, and rather than emphasizing their ripeness, the 2002s consistently demonstrate a feeling of clarity, finesse and poise. “2002 for us is really the definition of elegance,” says Floriane Eznack of Veuve Clicquot. “You have a lot of minerality and a lot of clean, pure aromas.”

There are many successes in 2002, from Diebolt-Vallois’s Fleur de Passion to Vilmart’s Grand Cellier d’Or to the sublime Cristal Rosé by Louis Roederer. Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, Vilmart’s Coeur de Cuvée, Salon and Krug are also notable standouts, but in truth, the vintage is remarkably consistent, and many producers made excellent wines. At this stage, some 2002s are appearing less primary in flavor than others, and there has been some concern among tasters about potential longevity or premature development. For me, this isn't necessarily an indicator of a shortened lifespan: it could be that flavors have developed a secondary complexity faster than usual, but that they will stay on this plateau for a very long time rather than decline, and so far it seems that this is the case. Time, of course, will tell.