Champagne is everywhere this time of year. Much of it is non-vintage (grapes from various years painstakingly blended into a consistent house style), but vintage Champagne is the real star—mercurial, delicate and made for connoisseurs.
The special offerings aren’t made every year, but when conditions are favorable enough to produce them, they become an estate’s premier product. Vintages set collectors’ hearts afire and are traded at auction for big money to a cult following of bidders—a fine setup considering their numbers are relatively small. “You have a handful of years that really matter,” says Per Holmberg, head of American wine sales at Christie’s.
One of those is 1996. At a Sotheby’s New York auction earlier this month, it comprised the largest number of vintage-Champagne lots by far. At Christie’s, bottles of Dom Pérignon 1996 went for an average of $117 in 2004; the average grew to almost $250 by 2013. And the price of the ultra-covetable Krug Clos du Mesnil has hovered around $1,200 a bottle for years.
“It was a freakish vintage,” says Holmberg. “High sugar and high acidity, and it tended to have great fruit and nice balance.”
Those in the Champagne region who actually make the wines agree. “It was one of the five or ten best harvests of the century,” says David Henault, winemaker for Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, which claims a stellar 1996 itself.
But how to collect the good stuff? Read on for advice and tasting notes from a few select 1996 vintages.