Why is there not more vintage Champagne knocking around? It should be a good-value prestige wine, says Andrew Jefford, but too often it’s ignored – by producers and drinkers – in favour of bland non-vintage
What is it with bubbles? The moment a bottle of wine gets six atmospheres of carbon dioxide squashed into it, the normal rules cease to apply. Nowhere is this more true than in Champagne as non-vintage wine is favoured to vintage wine.
Take vintage, for example. Wine is agriculture, and agriculture unfolds according to the rhythm of the seasons. This makes the vintage the main focus of interest for almost every wine producer – Lagrange to Grange, Harlan to Haut-Brion – around the world. Every year brings a new chance for growers or winemakers to practise their craft. Every year, they hope for better grapes than last year. (In common English parlance, the word ‘vintage’ is mistakenly used to mean ‘exceptionally good’.) A winemaking career, when retirement beckons, is a run of 50 vintages in the cellar; the community of drinkers who follow and collect their wine will pass firelit evenings comparing one vintage with another. This, indeed, is the main cause of envy felt by beer and whisky producers for their winemaking confrères. Vintages are stories: the narrative never ends. Bottles of beer or whisky, by contrast, are changeless, which explains the craving for malt’s strange ‘finishes’ or meaningless distilling dates, and beer’s seasonal recipe changes. Otherwise the drinkers might yawn… then up and leave.
Until, that is, you get to Champagne. Over 90% of UK Champagne imports are vintage-free, the wines blended from the fruit of different seasons. Their appeal is not that of temporal uniqueness but of human skill in disguising the various ways in which one year might differ from another. They’re usually called non-vintage, but they might as well be called anti-vintage, since the more that vintage character can be excluded from them, the happier their creators will be. ‘Krug is Grande Cuvée,’ says Olivier Krug. This, of course, is the Socrates of the style – up to 10 different years, up to 25 different villages, and up to 50 different wines in the blend. ‘Everything else,’ he continues, ‘is a non-priority issue.’
And yet that everything else, for most Champagne houses, does include a wine called ‘vintage’. Is it, like vintage port, the most expensive wine in the range and the summit of stylistic perfection? Absolutely not. The summit is what is usually called a cuvée de prestige: Comtes de Champagne, Cuvée Winston Churchill, Cristal, Dom Pérignon. (Prestige cuvées mostly bear a vintage date, of course, but few buy them because of the vintage: they are bought because they are blended from the best vineyards the house can lay its hands on, or because they have ultimate snob value, or because they are the only wine names which rock stars, footballers and models seem willing or able to remember.)
Piggy in the middle
The wine called ‘vintage’, by contrast, is a kind of relay post. It’s better (or it should be) than non-vintage, but it doesn’t have the glitz of the prestige cuvées; indeed it is usually nearer in price to the former than the latter. It doesn’t look very different from the non-vintage, nor is it marketed on its own in any way; in terroir terms, it is usually a blend, just like the non-vintage. But – phew! – it does at least come from a single year.
Most vintage Champagnes seem a lost opportunity. They should mark an exciting contrast to the happy, simple reliability and uniformity of the non-vintage. They should promise compelling difference and individuality; they should be great wine with bubbles rather than ready-steady-fizz. By definition, of course, they will be made from the fruit of a single year, but why stop there? Why not give them the vineyard breed that comes from using fruit from the top villages alone, or from the house’s own vineyards alone? Why not reduce the dosage (perhaps to below 6g/l) to accentuate their purity and impact? Why not bottle and label them differently from the non-vintage? Why not oak-ferment them, even if the non-vintage is steel fermented? Why not block the malo, even if the non-vintage goes through malo? Why not age them for a decade? Why not produce three different vintages, each from a different sub-zone of Champagne? Why not make vintage a rival to the prestige cuvée, pitched at the same level but offering something entirely different?
I asked five different Champagne houses what the point of vintage is. Most focused exclusively on the notion of the year. ‘It’s the expression of one year in Champagne,’ says Olivier Cavil of GH Mumm, ‘and is only made in an exceptional year. The challenge for us is to translate the style of the house through the expression of a single year.’ This is a fair representation of a near-uniformly held view, the only exception being Benoît Gouez at Moët (see panel, right) whose own philosophy (now that Dom Pérignon is marketed separately) is to create ‘something with different values from non-vintage, with no constraints of style. Making it reflect the vintage would be a constraint where I want freedom.’ Olivier Krug, by contrast, recalls his father Henri saying that vintage Krug ‘only reflects the climate of the year’. ‘It’s the opposite philosophy to Grande Cuvée,’ Olivier himself explains. ‘The decision to do a vintage is not influenced by business or money or marketing. We only make it when we believe the year is spectacular or good enough.’
Sometimes this leads to tough decisions. ‘If you say no to a vintage,’ continues Krug, ‘you are saying you will have a gap in your range in 10 years’ time.’ The reason why there was so much vintage Champagne declared in the difficult years of the early 1990s was because no one wanted to be without a vintage at the millennium. (Krug made no vintage between 1990 and 1995, but then its vintages tend to be drunk later than those of rival houses.)
Historically, the dominance within present-day ranges of gigantic NV blends is a relatively recent phenomenon. According to Pol Roger’s Patrice Noyelle, until the 1950s Pol Roger only produced vintage Champagne. Even as late as 1982, half of all the wine produced by Krug was vintage. Nowadays, Pol Roger’s annual production of vintage is 15–20% of its total bottlings, which is high; Krug usually makes 10–15% vintage (though 2004, at 30%, will be a generous exception). Just 4% of Roederer’s total sales in the UK are vintage, compared with around 15% for Cristal.
So who is buying vintage Champagne, and why? ‘Rich gourmands,’ says Noyelle. For Roederer’s Charles King, it is ‘the wine aficionado or enthusiast who appreciates that vintage has a specific flavour profile to offer’. Lynn Murray of Taittinger’s UK importer, Hatch Mansfield, points out that vintage ‘gives consumers an opportunity to trade up without having to spend to the limit of the prestige cuvée, which for some people is not feasible. In our case it’s regular Champagne drinkers looking for something different but with the Taittinger style – our focus being on a higher percentage of Chardonnay.’ ‘People buy vintage,’ agrees Olivier Krug, ‘because they want a better Champagne from a house they like. Often they don’t care much about the vintage; they just want a different fine wine.’
I am surprised to discover that most houses I talk to seem to feel mildly guilty about vintage – as if it is a middle child for whom they would like to do a little more if only they weren’t so busy with the eldest and the youngest. ‘We could do better,’ admits Noyelle, when I ask how much of a shove Pol Roger gives to its vintage wine. Very little, it would seem; nor do Mumm or Perrier-Jouët. Taittinger tries to encourage restaurant customers to try it, and Moët is beginning to launch its vintage with a fanfare, even if it isn’t ready to advertise it separately yet. ‘Everybody has the feeling that it lacks profile today,’ admits Benoît Gouez at Moët. Vintage, in sum, has to make its own way in the world, and search out its own drinkers. Those just beginning their voyage of Champagne discovery will find little to entice them towards the style. You need to be, according to Benoît Gouez, ‘curious and adventurous’. (Vintage is aimed at Decanter readers, obviously.)
But are they any good?
What about quality? Tasting every Krug vintage between 1981 and 1995 was, admittedly, a privilege. The mushroomy, velvety 1981 was deliciously unique, while all of the others were outstandingly concentrated, complex and allusive, with 1982 the most charmingly complete, and 1990 the longest and the most exotic (‘a volcano’ is all that the legendarily taciturn Henri Krug can be coaxed into saying about it). Given the price of Krug vintage, though, anything less would be insulting.
But recently tasted vintage Champagnes from other houses have been variable. Both the ripe, clarion-clear 1997 Roederer, pungent with vine fruits, and the intense, multi-dimensioned 1996 Jacquesson, perfumed with peach, hawthorn, honey and nougat, have been dramatically good. Pol Roger’s 1998 has all of the house’s elegance, delicacy and freshness, though with no evident sense of grandeur yet; it may come. Bruno Paillard’s cold, gothic 1996 and Veuve Clicquot’s unfocused and simple 1999, though, were both frankly disappointing, and dramatically outclassed by top growers’ vintage Champagnes like the finely detailed 1999 Special Club from Pierre Gimmonet (see page 55) or Delphine Cazals’ intensely floral 1998 Clos Cazals from a walled vineyard in the village of Oger.
Variation within a range of vintage wines depends on three factors: the percentage of vineyards owned as a proportion of total requirements; how clear a stylistic stamp a particular house has; and often changes of key personnel, too. Few houses don’t have a perplexing weed among the flowers in a vertical flight of vintages (like Pommery’s 1988 or Lanson’s 1983), and only those houses with their hands firmly on every stage of the production process can truly ensure consistent excellence.
Vintage Champagne should be a wonderful opportunity to expand the Champagne horizon and excite and challenge the drinker, but Champagne has been cossetted by easy sales success into producing wines which often please without exciting, and which are ‘good enough’ but not great. Vintage remains a fuzzy, fugitive style about which drinkers are hazy; statistically, because of the volume dominance of non-vintage and the PR dominance of prestige cuvées, it barely achieves lift-off. Champagne could do better with its neglected middle child – but will it?
Moet bets the house
The balance between house style and vintage style in vintage Champagne is on the mind of Benoît Gouez, chef de cave at Moët, at the moment – because he’s abandoning the former in favour of the latter. He describes what he’s doing as ‘evolution not revolution’, though to any outsider it looks like a complete volte-face.
His view is that Moët’s vintage wines were too dominated by Moët’s house style (meaning the style of Moët’s non-vintage Brut Impérial) which is pretty but fairly neutral. Even Gouez describes it as an ‘all-purpose’ wine. At some time in the 1980s Moët’s vintage wine became a sort of super-Brut Impérial: made to higher standards, but with little of the personality of the year.
The change began with the expressive, balanced 1999 vintage, and is more marked with the just-released 2000. ‘Unleashed creativity’ is how Gouez describes what he’s doing with vintage now; a ‘less rational, more emotional’ approach to deciding the style of the vintage wine. And he wants to go to extremes: the 2000, tight and young now, has power and muscle in its vibrant, yellow plum and pineapple fruit. As it ages it will develop more generosity. ‘Most years have a certain diversity and homogeneity,’ says Gouez; ‘you can create different styles out of the same year.’ In future the style of Moët’s Grand Vintage, as it is now called, will be a matter of intuition: the wines will, it seems, be more love-them-or-hate-them than before.
Take the 2003 vintage, which won’t be released for a couple of years. Gouez does not expect this mega-hot year to be generally declared, and says he’ll be very happy if Moët is the only house to make a vintage wine. From what he says (‘it’s not acidity that gives Champagne longevity, it’s balance’) one might infer that it will be fat and soft – like the 1976s, perhaps, but more so.
The style of Brut Impérial, however, will not change – for now. Says Gouez, ‘It might evolve in the future: it has evolved in the past, and now I’m thinking of how I could prepare another evolution in 5–10 years, maybe less.’