“…and like the finest French Champagnes, it is vintage dated.”
– Orson Welles, Paul Masson Commercial (1979)
Vintage champagne carries a kind of cachet that’s hard to ignore. Its very existence is unusual in a region where the tradition is to produce a non-vintage wine that is consistent from year to year. But that’s why it is special. A vintage champagne is made only in years where the quality of the harvest was exceptional.
Champagne is as far north in France as you can go and still see commercial vineyards. It is a region where blending is everything. Not simply blending grapes from different vineyards, but three different varieties – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. To cap it all, because the region was on the very margins of where grapes will ripen, it became tradition to reserve wines to blend with future vintages so that a consistent wine could be produced every year. Rising annual temperatures – perhaps a sign of Global Warming – mean that vintage champagnes can be produced more frequently.
Olivier Krug eschews the term Non-Vintage for his marque, preferring to call it simply Krug Grande Cuvée. Rather, he refers to the Grande Cuvée as a multi-vintage wine. Krug have even gone so far as to admit what we’ve all suspected – that NV wines do vary from year to year. Krug include a code on every bottle that you can enter on their website to tell you the exact composition that awaits you; vineyards, blend, and proportion of different vintages.
Some in Champagne would argue that the concept a vintage wine in Champagne detracts from the quality of the Non-Vintage. Others take another view entirely – that you should produce a Vintage wine every year as a reflection of the growing season. Good or bad harvest, make the best wine you can and showcase what made that year unique.
Whichever view you take, vintage champagne will be made from some of the best grapes available to a Champagne House. They must also be aged in bottle for three times as long on the lees as a non-vintage – three years rather than one. This time spent on the dead yeast adds richness to the wine alongside complex biscuit and brioche flavours. Most vintage champagnes exceed this minimum, and it is unusual to see one released before 5-6 years – just as well, as it takes about 18 months before any noticeable flavour develops.
While vintage champagne can be enjoyed upon release, in many cases it will age for another decade quite comfortably. A non-vintage should generally be consumed within 5 years of release.
Even when making a vintage expression, Champagne producers will aim to express their house style in the blend, so vintage Moët will be recognisably Moët – only better. Because they are aged for longer and from better quality grapes, the quality of the wine is a definite step up. Some, such as Heidsieck & Co. Gold Label, are also very attractively priced making them great buys over similarly priced non-vintage champagnes.
Very occasionally, we are able to offer vintage champagne at exceptionally competitive prices. You can browse the range available online here. Be sure to select your local store to see the full range!
(Oh, and you can see a rather hilarious – if slightly tragic – clip of Orson Welles right here)