Noone really likes to speak about age. At least humans don’t. But if we talk wine there’s a big difference. Vintages and numbers get thrown around by self reclaimed connoisseurs wanting to show off. Often they leave those wanting to find out more about wine behind as they back off in silence and discomfort of ignorance.
While proper vintage-dropping requires not only expertise about years and their weather conditions, the more general difference between vintage and non-vintage champagne solely requires rudimentary knowledge. Great stuff for champagne beginners.
In fact there are major differences in style and expression from year to year so vintages truely do matter. Speaking about champagne, there are two kinds of major vintage indications: non-vintage champagne and vintage champagne.
The vintages in the cool climate region Champagne – which is situated directly on the northernmost border of the wine growing climate – change immensely from year to year. Sun pampered or tormented by long rain periods – every year the weather of a region behaves differently and consequently influences the style of the wines of this year.
There are normally only 3 to 4 so-called millésimes made within a time frame of 10 years. With climate changing and average temperatures rising slightly, Champagne has come to harvest many more high quality years than it was the case in the last millenium, so vintage-champagnes tend to appear much more frequent today.
The most significant characteristic is that 100 % of the used base wines have to be made from one certain year – the vintage indicated on the bottle label. A vintage champagne will also be allowed a longer ageing period on the lees in order to develop more intense aromatics and turn their excellent potential from the particular year into a stronger character. By law it is 36 months minimum but many producers will extend the ageing even to 48 months, 5, 6, 7 years or in rare cases even more. The joy of the vintage champagnes lay in their abundant flavors and intense character so most producers pamper their champagnes with time to gain their best expression.
Given that only the highest qualities will be used, the quantaties are usually smaller, even more so a producer decides to use nothing but his best grapes, best base wines or best parcels.
Non-vintage champagne is the more common champagne indicated by nothing. Right, nothing. In contrast to the millésimes which always carry the golden year of their origin on the label, non-vintage champagne doesn’t say “non-vintage” on the label. It’s what you normally find in every store that sells only a few bottles of sparkling.
Non-vintage champagnes, sometimes also called Brut Sans Année or BSA, are blends from the base wines of different years. Quite often made from two different harvests they can consist of many more vintages if the champagne house can afford the pricey stocking of different wines over many years. Around 95% of all sold champagne bottles belong to the non-vintage category.
The biggest part of the blend is normally from the most recent harvest, a smaller percentage from the so-called reserve wines (vins de réserve) meaning the wines of one year or even various years before, depending on the kind of champagne style the house wants to create. Non-vintage champagnes have to age at least 15 months by law but many producers give them at least 18 months, often even 24.
Champagne houses with worldwide known brands stock many more vintages and different base wines to create a standardized product from year to year and balance vintage imperfections with the power of better years before. This way they create a reliable product for their clients which desire to have the same pleasant experience time and time again.
The assemblage, the process of blending years and grapes, can be compared to the work of a perfumer. The champagne house uses many different reserve wines as single ingredients, just as the perfumer who would use many essences and fragrances. In many hours of precision work they unite the different elements in a refined Cuvée, aiming to achieve the exact same taste as the non-vintage bottles made from other base wines who are already travelling the world. Their consistent taste acts as a ever recognizable brand.
Smaller grower champagne producers on the other hand often allow a bigger diversity in styles from year to year. Even though a few try to create a house cuvée as well, they normally don’t have the quantities, the space or the financial power to put aside as many different reserve wines as the big players. In the end it results in a slight change from year to year which might sometimes be the reason for good, other times for unpleasant surprises.
WHAT TO BUY?
The decision between non-vintage and vintage champagnes is mostly one of cash as the good vintages carry heavier price tags as the more reasonably priced non-vintage champagnes. So it all comes down to the question of occasion, mood, possibilities or, looking for a champagne to serve with your menu, to the desired pairing.
In the two categories you can find good quality and not-so-great champagnes alike. The best aspect of this dilemma: you will have to taste. So why not pick a vintage AND a non-vintage champagne and treat yourself with some bubbles. Next time you’ll have one of those self-claimed connoisseurs around you’ll be able to do some vintage-dropping, too.
This post is also available in German.