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Class of 1996

by Guy Ruston (Managing Director Asia Pacific)

I love a good retrospective or a “where are they now?” The BBC’s ‘Match of the ‘70s’ and ‘Match of the ‘80s’ were television gold for the nostalgic armchair football supporter when they were aired (some years back now).  Another great TV treat in recent years was the series ‘Classic Albums’, a wonderful walk down music’s memory lane - but equally enjoyable to see how members of the likes of Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac have aged, with some rock stars showing some inevitable wear and tear, some lost to excess long ago and others inexplicably alive and kicking. It is with that same sentiment that horizontals of classic vintages are my favourite vinous pastime.

One of the most celebrated vintages of Champagne on release, 1996 remains a benchmark vintage. A year in which the grapes achieved record levels of acidity and ripeness, the two pillars of greatness for fizz, Champagne’s Class of ’96 offered consumers an abundance of fantastic, age-worthy wines to pick from. Twenty-one years on, there has actually been a lot of debate as to whether or not this vintage has lived up to its billing. Indeed some examples, as they have aged, have failed to harmonize all that fruit with all that acidity; maybe the pressure to live up to the rock star status of the vintage was too much? A few collectors and I got together recently to check in on seven examples, all in the name of researchof course, to see where are they now.

1996 Selosse

Probably the hottest name in Champagne in recent years, the maverick-like Anselme Selosse has re-written the rule book. There can be little doubt of his place at the forefront of the grower movement. Perhaps better known for his lieu-dits and solera-style efforts rather than his vintage cuvees, these incarnations of his philosophy command a hefty price tag. Almost crystalline purity on the nose with an almighty pang of granny smith apples. I imagine a few years ago, the acidity on this would have made your teeth fall out. Crisp, clean but with a very Selosse-style breath. Very fine mousse. Not quite as bonkers as some of his other cuvees but a wild ride nonetheless, stacked and packed with zesty, stone fruit, honey and hints of almond.  

If this were a classic album it would be Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’; a kaleidoscopic and genre-bending masterpiece.

1996 Philipponnat Clos des Goisses

Wow, just wow! The intensity on the nose alone is breathtaking. Beautiful red fruit aromas, you close your eyes and you’d think it was a Burgundy! The weight and viscosity of the palate is unreal. The precision and persistence is first class. A special vintage from this special vineyard.

Classic Album: Pink Floyd ‘Darkside of the Moon’. Turn the lights off, put your head phones and prepare to be transported. Utterly timeless.

1996 Dom Perignon Oenotheque

Who doesn’t love a reboot? These guys are master craftsman. As RP once noted, to be able to produce such a high quality product in such volume is extraordinary. Baked apple and citrus on the nose. Impeccably balanced and perfectly weighted. The finish goes on and on. I’ve always been more of a Krug man than DP but this is superb.   

Classic Album: Fleetwood Mac ‘Rumours’. A band that went through a few reboots of their own. Amidst personal turmoil and trauma they managed to produce this masterpiece.

1996 Dom Perignon Rosé

This Champagne was the talk of the town when it was released back in 2004. I imagine, pre-Lehman Brothers, that many a long city boy’s lunch would have involved a bottle or two of this. Lovely red fruit aromas with haunting notes of Asian spice. Fantastic richness on the palate too although there is definitely some wrestling going on between the acidity and fruit on this. Far less precise compared to the Cristal but there is something irrepressibly charming about the Dom. Very different stylistically to some of the more recent releases.  

Classic Album: Jimi Hendrix ‘Electric Ladyland.’ A virtuoso guitarist and live act embracing the weird and wonderful possibilities of the studio.

1996 Cristal Rosé

The colour is insane, it doesn’t even look like a Rosé. Orange peel, cloves and a hint of ginger on the nose.  So exuberant. This follows through well on the palate too which is perfectly weighted and utterly captivating. The length too is quite incredible. Makes you smile.  

Classic Album: Paul Simon ‘Graceland’. Both joyous and poignant, a song writing genius at the top of his game.

1996 Krug

The poster boy for the power and intensity of this vintage, this explodes from the glass, grabs your senses and never lets go. Rich and honeyed on the nose with impeccable precision and incredible depth. A towering Krug. Mouthfilling flavours with layer upon layer of spiced apple,  toasted almonds and brioche. Absolutely epic.

Classic Album: Metallica ‘Metallica’. Massive riffs and rich, anthemic melodies.

1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil

One grape, one vineyard. Simple right? This is off the charts. The brightness of the nose immediately pulls you in. The purity is mesmeric. Lush, tropical fruit with stunning smoky notes. So much energy on the palate but perfectly poised. It has that amazing quality of being rich but weightless at the same time. This might be the best Champagne I’ve ever had. As good as it gets.

Classic Album: U2 ‘The Joshua Tree’. Essentially a collection of simple folk and gospel songs turned into panoramic, pyrotechnic, stadium fillers.

Ok ok - so this retrospective really just focused on the best of the best of ’96, which at 21 years of age are the real deal. Lots of acidity and lots of fruit are a common theme but these seven Champagnes are all so different. I’ve no doubt that in some wines from this vintage the fruit will have now lost out to the acidity but there are unquestionably some of Champagnes greatest hits in this vintage.

Many thanks to our generous host for this superb evening. 

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