The growing season in 2004 was largely favorable, with normal fruit set and healthy ripening. A cool, wet August caused some concern regarding ripeness and the spread of rot, but sunny weather returned at the beginning of September: maturity levels were reasonably high by the time harvest began in the middle of the month, and aside from some areas that were hit by oidium, the grapes were largely healthy.
Above all, the 2004 vintage is remembered in the region for its exceptionally high yields: grapevines always tend to produce more following a year in which their yields have been restricted, and after the miniscule crop of 2003, the vines overcompensated with a vengeance. “They went wild and overproduced,” says Jean-Paul Hébrart of Champagne Marc Hébrart. “In 2003, we had an average of three grape clusters per meter—in 2004, there were 26.” (He considers an average of 13 to 14 to be optimal.) Other stories regarding yields in 2004 could also be astonishing, even in a region that is not known for cropping overly low to begin with. One well-known and highly-regarded grower (I’m not going to tell you who) told me that a particular wine of his was harvested at the equivalent of a whopping 60,000 kg/ha, five times higher than a typical yield! And yet, that wine turned out to be excellent—it appears here in this guide, reviewed favorably, and as I had already tasted it on several occasions with positive notes before he ever told me this, I was shocked. Obviously this was an anomaly even in this high-yielding vintage, but in general, the crop was abundant in 2004 even after widespread thinning.
It’s tempting to draw easy conclusions between yield and quality, and many consumers assume that Burgundian-type yields are necessary to make good champagne, which is erroneous. What is remarkable about 2004 is its combination of quantity and quality—the wines show a classic freshness and liveliness, with an excellent balance of fruit and acidity. They are elegant and flowery, lighter in body than 2003 or 2005, but rarely do they feel dilute. Considering the high ripeness of the other vintages between 2002 and 2006, the 2004s add a welcome acidity and vigor to non-vintage blends, and vintage cuvées have been delightful as well, delicious in their youth but showing an outstanding harmony and energy that indicates promise for the cellar. There are a number of excellent 2004s that I’ve stocked away in my own collection, and with the perspective of time, 2004 has become one of my favorite vintages of the decade, sometimes equal in quality to 2002, if entirely opposite in character.