Vintage champagne; is it such a big deal?



Vintage champagne is often talked about in much revered terms and the prices it can sell for suggest a far superior product to non-vintage champagne but is it so much better than non-vintage? First let's look at the differences between the two.

Non-vintage champagne is produced year on year in a consistent house style and to achieve that consistent style champagne houses have to use a blend of wines produced from grapes from different vineyards picked in different years, often many different years, and usually, though not always from all three of the authorised champagne grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Reserve wine is kept back each year to use in the non-vintage blend (or cuvée) and accounts for about 20% of the total blend. It is a real skill producing that consistency of style given the differences in grape quality, weather, position of the vineyard and taking into account the effects of ageing on the reserve wines.

Vintage champagne is not produced every year but only when the producer deems the vintage to be worthy, usually three or four times every decade; the grapes have to be from the year's harvest specified on the label. Even in vintage years the champagne houses' priority has to be the non-vintage champagne as that is what they sell most of and they need to be sure that using the better grapes for the vintage does not compromise the style of the non-vintage. Although there are some who think it does.
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Non-vintage champagnes must mature in bottle for a minimum of 15 months of which 12 months must be on the lees (mainly a deposit of yeasts which forms after the second fermentation in bottle has finished). Vintage champagne spends longer ageing, at least three years. In practice it is often much longer before any wines are released - two to three years for non-vintage and four to ten years for vintage. The additional ageing time means that vintage champagne develops more body and more complex flavours.

In younger non-vintage champagne therefore the primary flavours will be fruit - citrus fruits like lemon and grapefruit and stone fruits like peach and apricot. In non-vintage champagne that has aged a while a buttery or creamy texture and secondary flavours like brioche/ toast and nuts may start to develop. These secondary flavours will be more intense in vintage champagne because of the longer ageing; in addition the body will be fuller, the wine richer and further earthy flavours and aromas like leather and mushrooms may be present.

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Vintage champagne is likely to age better and for longer. Non-vintage champagne should be drunk within 12 to 36 months of bottling (remember it has already aged at least 12 months in bottle before release) whereas non-vintage champagne can be kept for five to ten years or longer (after its minimum three years ageing in bottle). Vintage champagne represents only 5% of total champagne production which accounts to some extent for the difference in price.

It's all a matter of taste
At a blind tasting of sparkling wines that I hosted last year, a vintage champagne from a well-known champagne house was the least favourite wine of the evening - and was believed to be a cheap, tank method-produced, new world, sparkling wine. It was certainly an acquired taste - very yeasty with lots of those earthy flavours and with small bubbles which did not last long - and it cost over £45. So although vintage might be a step up in price, it may not always be to your taste.

Perhaps we have become a little too nonchalant about non-vintage champagne given its prevalence on the supermarket shelves, often priced at a discount. The UK, by the way, accounts for 23% of all champagne exports and is by far the largest importer. If you prefer those primary fruity flavours, find a brand of non-vintage that you like but if you like a richer style and nuttier flavours consider trying vintage champagne; any reputable wine merchant should be able to give you advice on where to start.

Take a look at our favourite vintage champagne, which is definitely one to consider for special occasions.

Cheers!

© Wines With Attitude Limited, www.wineswithattitude.co.uk

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Lindsay Cornelissen DipWSET is passionate about good quality wine and set up her online wine business, Wines With Attitude, to share that passion with other wine lovers.

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