What’s your favourite champagne vintage? If you haven’t been asked this question recently, you’ve probably not been attending enough Finest Bubble tastings. It’s a debate that arises frequently over a glass of bubbly at our events, not least because vintage comparisons are a common theme of our effervescent gatherings.
If you have asked or been asked this question, its likely you answered or were answered with: Vintage 2002. It was a showstopper of a year whose growing conditions, despite taking place nearly two decades ago, remain legendary in the region. We’ve hosted tastings to showcase its prowess and it has often been named the vintage of the century. But did the hype and unanimity of its success result in the unfair neglect of another, perhaps equally, great vintage?
2002 vs 2004
The 2002 and 2004 growing seasons were vastly different. In 2002, a cold winter and mild spring precipitated early and healthy flowering in June. Idyllic sunny and dry conditions throughout the September harvest produced grapes of exceptional acidity that went on to make outstanding and ageworthy champagnes. In 2004, the winter was mild with intermittent storms and hail, while the spring and summer months were hot and sunny. High sugar levels assisted the yielding of high quality fruits, particularly Pinot Noir, and the abundant harvest was one of the largest ever for the region.
Upon release of the first vintage dated champagnes, 2002 swiftly became known as the ‘near-perfect’ year, while 2004 was celebrated for the unprecedented size of its crop – leading the nearly-as-good-wines of that year to be somewhat overlooked. As the champagnes matured, the 2002s performed exactly as expected. Stunningly rich with vibrant and generous fruit, they fulfilled the sky-high expectations placed upon them. At the same time the 2004s – which were generally accepted as great-but-not-outstanding – continuously outperformed what were perhaps pessimistic expectations, impressing both connoisseurs and consumers alike.
Indeed, this difference in assumptions regarding the quality of the two vintages is evident in their descriptions on JancisRobinson.com. Vintage 2002 is described as “a magnificent vintage with near-perfect growing conditions”, while 2004 is described as producing “structured, well-balanced wines which have exceeded expectation.”
We therefore decided to pit them against each other in a blind tasting (which eliminates any existing bias), to determine once and for all whether vintage 2004 was overshadowed by the reputation of 2002.
Last month, we gathered five well-tuned palates – Jancis Robinson MW, Richard Bampfield MW, Giles Fallowfield of the Champagne Guru, Matt Segal from Frederick’s, and The Finest Bubble’s Nick Baker – to blind taste seven pairs of the same prestige cuvée champagnes, from both 2002 and 2004. We also included newly released Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2004 (despite it not having a 2002 sibling), as it’s simply too good to miss out.
The champagnes were served blind in pairs by brand (the tasting panel knew neither the vintages nor the brands) and are listed below in the order tasted on the day (tasting notes are Nick’s). The panel live scored each champagne using our smartphone app and the group average scores are presented in the table of ranking below our tasting notes.
|Bollinger R.D. 2002 | 17.5/20 | Avg Score: 17.4/20
60% PN, 40% CH | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: October 2014 | Dosage: 4 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 5 Years
Bundles of oak giving charming toasty notes with underlying dried fruit flavour. Palate quite tight right now.
|Bollinger R.D. 2004 | 18/20 | Avg Score: 17.6/20
66% PN, 34% CH | Lees Ageing: 12 Years | Disgorged: June 2017 | Dosage: 3 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 2 Years
Has quite a forward nose, lots of peach and apricot fruits and on the palate the classic dried fruit character and nuttiness comes through. At this very young stage the oak seems quite prominent. Quite closed still.
|Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002 | 19.5/20 | Avg Score: 18.8/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: September 2012 | Dosage: 6.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Years
Upfront nose, quite creamy vanilla, slight reduced notes showing as hints of rubber and underlying grassy, almost gooseberry, notes. Has great bubbles and long length and again a hint of sweetness showing itself by rounding the palate, though still quite dry.
|Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004 | 19/20 | Avg Score: 18.5/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: 2014 | Dosage: 5.5 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 5 Years
|Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2002 | 18.5/20 | Avg Score: 17.8/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 9 Years | Disgorged: March 2012 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 7 Years
Seemed quite restrained on nose but after a few more minutes in the glass it developed a lot with an abundance of fruit, lots of lemon richness with apple and pear and some tropical hints like guava, all underlined by good fresh acidity. Great length.
|Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004 | 19/20 | Avg Score: 18.8/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 8-10 Years | Dosage: 9 g/l
Quite tight on the nose to start. Has great spicy character supporting bundles of fruit and fantastic length. Lovely elegant pastry creamy ending. Opens up on nose going back a few minutes later.
|Dom Pérignon 2004 | 18/20 | Avg Score: 17.6/20
53% PN, 47% CH | Lees Ageing: 8 Years | Dosage: 5 g/l
Lots of citrus and riper fruits on the nose which just develops more on the palate, good balance of acidity and long length.
|Dom Pérignon 2002 | 20/20 | Avg Score: 18.7/20
51% CH, 49% PN | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: July 2009 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 10 Years
This has a powerful upfront nose with hints of honey and apple and a suggestion of creaminess. On tasting you get a mouthful of flavours and the trademark brûlée creaminess and at the time I noted it had layers of fruits and I made a comparison to “green gage plums with custard.” I also made a note that it was “a very laid back champagne” by which I guess I meant it sort of changes your mood. There is just so much going on in the glass and in your mouth you sort of go into a trance – sit back and enjoy!
|Krug 2004 | 18.5/20 | Avg Score: 17.8/20
Krug ID: 214041 | 37% PN, 39% CH, 24% PM | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: Spring 2016 | Dosage: 6 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
This champagne some two years after release is just starting to come a little out of its shell. Still quite tight with citrus and orange notes quite dominant, left in the glass for a little while brings out more of the dried fruits and smoked nuts. These dried fruits characteristics almost give a sweetness to the champagne with some of that bottle age character emerges with pastry and hints of buttery character, almost coconut. It finishes fresh with a saline almost as far as iodine hint really reminding you of the seaside. Really refreshing champagne dominated with citrus fruits and ageing slowly.
|Krug 2002 | 17/20 | Avg Score: 17.8/20
Krug ID: 415064 | 40% PN, 39% CH, 21% PM | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: Autumn 2014
Seems very slightly darker, lovely gold colour. Less creamy nose, loads of pineapple notes and a lovely rich palate comes through. Loads of spiciness and power of lemons and grapefruit. Seems quite soft on the acidity.
|Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2004| 18/20 | Avg Score: 17.8/20
100% CH | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: November 2016 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Beautiful rich ripe apple and cinnamon flavour with some of that creamy caramel starting to come through. A hint of custard and spice. Light and bright on the palate. The delicacy is key, texture is good and rich with a nice mineral character.
|Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004 | 18/20 | Avg Score: 18.3/20
70-80% PN, 20-30% CH | Lees Ageing: 10 Years | Disgorged: January 2015 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 4 Years
Great fruit-forward character, a signature of the generous 2004 vintage. Heaps of brioche, toast and some honeyed notes on the finish.
|Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2002 | 19.5/20 | Avg Score: 18.5/20
70-80% PN, 20-30% CH | Lees Ageing: 11 Years | Disgorged: January 2014 | Dosage: 8 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 5 Years
Loads of development noticeable on both nose and palate. Great bubbles and loads of bread and caramelised character. Impressive length with a hint of smokiness on the finish.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2002 | 17/20 | Avg Score: 18.3/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 6 Years | Disgorged: 2009 | Dosage: 10 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 3 Years
Such a lovely rich nose with bananas and pineapple coming forward. Great richness and the fruit makes the dosage seem very low. Elegant lightness and saline. This isn’t a perfect bottle as lacks some of the fruit richness that you get in Cristal 2002.
|Louis Roederer Cristal 2004 | 17.5/20 | Avg Score: 17.9/20
55% PN, 45% CH | Lees Ageing: 5 Years | Disgorged: 2010 | Dosage: 9 g/l | Post-Disgorgement Ageing: 9 Years
Lots of fresh lemons, lime, guava and on the palate hints of gooseberry and masses of pineapple.
Firstly, all fifteen champagnes averaged 18.2/20, so we can safely conclude that both years produced outstanding champagnes that have stood the test of time. As for the all important vintage comparison, the difference in scores was so slight as to be almost non-existent: the 2002s averaged 18.19/20 and the 2004s averaged 18.13/20.
Nick, Richard and Giles displayed a slight preference for 2002 over 2004 (approximately a 0.2/10 differential), while Jancis and Matt preferred 2004. Notably, Jancis – who arguably has the most refined and experienced palate (sorry, chaps) – had the slightest preference differential: 18.21 for 2002 vs 18.31 for 2004.
Further, the vintages within brands generally scored similarly, as shown in the table of ranking below. The brands with the biggest score difference between vintages were: Dom Pérignon, 18.7/20 for 2002 vs 17.6/20 for 2004; and Taittinger Comtes, 18.8/20 for 2002 vs 17.8/20 for 2004. This is perhaps evidence of Dom Pérignon’s purported philosophy of allowing each vintage to express its true and unique identity, rather than controlling the character of the vintage in order to match a consistent house style – a practice adopted to some extent by all producers, but adhered to more strictly by some.
So, on the grounds of this tasting alone, we can conclude that 2002 does not significantly outshine 2004 – as its initial reputation might have suggested. The 2004s more than held their own, essentially matching 2002 for average scores and even being preferred by two of the panel.
|Group Average Scores | Overall Avg: 18.2/20 | 2004 Avg: 18.13/20 | 2002 Avg: 18.19/20|
|Rank||Champagne||Group Avg. Score / 20|
|=1||Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002||18.8|
|=1||Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2004||18.8|
|3||Dom Pérignon 2002||18.7|
|=4||Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2004||18.5|
|=4||Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 2004||18.5|
|=4||Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2002||18.5|
|=7||Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2004||18.3|
|=7||Louis Roederer Cristal 2002||18.3|
|9||Louis Roederer Cristal 2004||17.9|
|=10||Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2002||17.8|
|=13||Bollinger R.D. 2004||17.6|
|=13||Dom Pérignon 2004||17.6|
|15||Bollinger R.D. 2002||17.4|