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How to choose vintage Champagne

What should we expect from vintage Champagne? A reflection of the house style, or a daring snapshot of a single year? Margaret Rand hears growers' and houses' different views on the tiny but important category

Champagne used to be so simple. There was nonvintage, which was what you drank. There was vintage, which was special. And there was the prestige cuvée, which was drunk by rock stars, models and other such undeserving types, on whom it was by definition wasted.

But then some odd things happened. Champagne fragmented into myriad styles. And between blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs, zero dosage, demi-sec, rosé saignée or assemblage, and, most probably somewhere, rosé prestige saignée blanc de noirs zero dosage aged in futs de chêne, vintage Champagne suddenly didn’t seem so special any more. It’s just one option in a huge Champenois pick ’n’ mix.

Which begs the question of what vintage should be. Should it reflect the vintage (seems obvious, but read on) or the house style? What about terroir? And what are winemakers looking for when they select the vins clairs (base wines) for a vintage wine, that they aren’t looking for in their non-vintage?

Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët, looks for a ‘petit je ne sais quoi; more energy’. For Hervé Augustin, managing director of Ayala, it’s about ‘relatively powerful, elegant, racy wines with personality, structure – a wow factor’.

It’s not necessarily the hottest years that oblige, says Nicholas Klym, chef de cave of Ayala: ‘Hotter years give more concentration but not finesse – not necessarily the right balance for vintage’. And the winemakers must be certain about it: if they hesitate, it probably shouldn’t be vintage.

Most years, lately, have obliged. In the last decade, only 2001 was poor in Champagne (see box, p61). The 2003 vintage was atypically hot, but a few producers, notably Moët and Bollinger, made a vintage. Some made a vintage every year except 2001. Most made one every other year. From being something that was only possible three or four times a decade, vintage Champagne has become commonplace. And in the process, perhaps, less special.

Despite the string of good years, vintage Champagne is still only a tiny part of the total production. In the UK we buy a disproportionate amount of vintage: some 35% of vintage shipped outside France comes to us. In the US, vintage was just 1% of the total in 2009; in the rest of Europe, vintage represents less than 2% of shipments. Even in France it’s only 3.6%. If it’s lost some of its gloss, it’s not because it’s being churned out.

It strikes me that growers see vintage differently to the Champagne houses. Benoît and Valérie Lahaye, growers with 5ha (hectares) and impressive quality, make nine different cuvées, including zero dosage, no malolactic, and one without sulphur. They’ve made vintage of some sort every year since 2004. This seems a baffling, complicated approach – until you talk to them and understand what they are trying to do, which is to express every aspect of their terroir and their vines. This is vintage as part of a constantly shifting range, not a step in a hierarchy.

Some 12% of the Lahayes’ production is vintage, which is a lot – though growers often do make more than houses. ‘The houses have more choice [of blending materials]’ says Lahaye; ‘I have little choice, and so non-vintage is more challenging. For me, vintage must express both the character of the vintage and the soil. I have a style of the winemaker, not a style of blending, or a house style.’

A snapshot

For René Geoffroy, a vintage Champagne is ‘a photograph of a terroir in a particular year.’ His fellow grower Pierre Larmandier of Larmandier-Bernier expresses a similar view: ‘My object is to express one year and one place. When I use the term “vintage” I just mean “this year”. The way we work [biodynamically] means that we have less difference between vintages. People say it’s because we have lower yields, but I hope it’s not only that.’

Larmandier only puts the year on the back label: ‘If I put it on the front, people only read that, not “Vielles Vignes de Cramant”. I want people to think about the terroir. We don’t build our vintage. I make vintage from old vines in Cramant because I want to express that. For me, when I taste vintage from the great houses, it’s too perfect; it has no connection with a specific terroir.’

While a grower can aim to express a particular terroir in a particular year in his vintage wine – or indeed express whatever he wants to, with nobody tostop him – the large houses are far more constrained. For them, non-vintage is god. Only once the blend for the nonvintage has been settled – and it must of course taste the same as it did last year, while being blended from often very different components – is a decision made on vintage. ‘The philosophy of the house is never to hurt the non-vintage,’ says Jean-Marc Lallier-Deutz of Deutz. ‘We don’t release a vintage if it doesn’t fit with our style,’ he adds. ‘There’s not much vintage effect here.’ So would they say, ‘This is a year of great character, let’s do it?’ ‘No. It has to fit the character of our vintage.’ The 1996 vintage, for example, didn’t fit the character of Deutz vintage, so they made a William Deutz and a William Deutz rosé instead.

Risk taking

This is just the opposite of the current philosophy at Moët, where chef de cave Benoît Gouez has turned vintage Champagne on its head. It used to reflect the house style, which is to say something intended to offend nobody. Now Gouez wants wines that are extreme, that take risks to reflect their year. He started with an assertive 2000, moved on to a chunky 2003, and has just released the big, fine, muscular 2002.

When it comes to what their vintage wine should express, most houses fall somewhere between these two extremes of house style and vintage. For example, Dominique Demarville, chef de cave at Veuve Clicquot, says, ‘we declare a vintage when the Pinot Noir is powerful and structured’. 2008 is a Veuve-style vintage, 2009 is not. Terroir doesn’t really feature for the big houses: they get their wines from all over the place (with a few singlevineyard exceptions). Terroir is a preoccupation of the growers.

But what about the quality of vintage fizz, when it is being squeezed at the top end by prestige cuvées? Don’t these cream off the best wines? At Deutz – where, I have to say, quality is high – the difference between the non-vintage and the vintage, and the vintage and the prestige cuvées, is noticeable but not huge; or not as huge as one might expect.

‘The place of vintage is to be in the middle, a gastronomic wine but cheaper than William Deutz,’ says Lallier-Deutz. ‘It’s for aficionados. And if you lay it down, it’s close to William Deutz in quality.’ The vintage is roughly half the price of the prestige cuvée. Lallier-Deutz says it’s perfectly possible to make two ‘best wines’: I wonder.

Some producers find they don’t need vintage at all. Henri Giraud of Maison Giraud-Hemart has a non-vintage and a prestige cuvée but no straight vintage; Jacquesson has stopped making vintage, though is still selling it; at Ruinart, vintage accounts for only about 1% of production, and is made just for the French market.

Says Jacquesson’s Jean-Hervé Chiquet: ‘We decided at the end of 2002 that we couldn’t make two best blends possible, so we stopped making vintage.’ Instead, each year’s blend is based on a single year, plus around 30% reserve wines, and it can be very different from the previous year’s wine. Jacquesson is actually making a couple of other vintage wines now, single-vineyard Avize and Dizy, but the superb precision and elegance of its wines does make one ponder if Champagne generally might benefit from a less-ismore approach.

A connoisseur’s wine

Frédéric Panaïotis, chef de cave of Ruinart, expresses his view of vintage thus: ‘For the consumer it usually represents the best deal, sitting between non-vintage and prestige, but that doesn’t seem to translate into sales. It’s for connoisseurs; the pricing can be a disadvantage for those who know only a little. They go for non-vintage or, if they’re rich, for prestige… Vintage should be the bargain in the line-up. It has the best quality/price ratio, because you’re only paying for the grapes. At Ruinart, the vintage is a bargain.’

Prestige cuvées, curiously, can end up doing what non-vintage does, but more expensively. At many houses they are a safe wine; excellent quality, certainly, but safe. (However, ‘Dom Ruinart isn’t safe at all,’ says Panaïotis.) Prestige wines are mostly rich and deep and follow house style. It’s left to vintage, in these cases, to be the adventurous wine, the one the winemakers can have some fun with. Look at the excellent Veuve Clicquot range: vintage is the most daring wine, sandwiched between the consistency of Yellow Label and Grande Dame.

At the Union Cooperative at Avize, too, the co-op’s prestige cuvée, Orpale, doesn’t vary too much from year to year. ‘If you wanted a more extreme wine it would be vintage, not Orpale,’ says Cédric Jacopin, director of oenology.

Vintage Champagne may be the riskiest style, but the fact that it’s made almost every year, yet hasn’t risen as a percentage of the total production, suggests that consumers don’t want too much risk in Champagne. Are vintage wines really that extreme? ‘Most vintage Champagnes aren’t intended to express too much,’ suggests Larmandier. ‘People are afraid of it; they reject wines that are too expressive.’

Gouez, of course, has taken steps in that direction at Moët. ‘Less rational, more emotional’ is how he describes his new-look vintage. ‘I focus on wines that are interesting, and then I see. I don’t have to keep a classical balance in the wine.’ Down with moderation!

Written by Margaret Rand

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