Vintage Champagne

Capturing the character of a great year.


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A vintage Champagne is a joint venture between the winemaker and the climate," says Olivier Krug. He is in the tasting room of Champagne Krug in Reims, pouring a flute of 1995 Krug—the latest vintage of his family's Champagne.

What he says might seem like a truism. After all, grapes are an agricultural product and there is a harvest every year.

But in Champagne, "vintage" takes on a new meaning. About 90 percent of the sparkling wine produced here is blended into nonvintage Champagnes (sometimes indicated on bottles with the letters "NV"). These wines are blends of wines from a number of years, or vintages. You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating: Nonvintage Champagne is a reflection of the house style, while vintage Champagne is a reflection of the year.

"If you focus on a house style, then that is a nonvintage wine," says Benoît Gouez, chef de caves of Moët et Chandon, the largest house in Champagne. Moët's house style, for example, is Champagne that is soft, fruity and open. Krug's style, on the other hand, is more wine-like Champagne with a full, concentrated character. Vintage Champagnes, continues Gouez, "have to come from years that have a special character. [The] 1996 is the great example in the past decade."

So what gives a vintage Champagne that "special character"? The weather is obviously a critical factor.

Champagne is the most northerly, coolest wine region in France. Summer and early fall weather is critical here, and more unpredictable than it is further south. I have been in Champagne at harvest time in two succeeding years, and happened to be there on the same date both years. One year, it was pouring rain, and in the other there was a heat wave. It is this tremendous variation in weather conditions that first gave Champagne houses the idea to blend Champagnes from different years—it ensured some degree of continuity.

The newest vintage Champagnes—
a year-by-year assessment

The charactor of a vintage Champagne is a reflection of that year's weather. These are the most important vintage years of the recent past. Wines from these vintages are either now on the market, or will be released over the next several years.

1995
Ripe, generous wines. The summer was sunny after rain and frost earlier in the season. It was a large harvest of generally ripe grapes that produced a classic vintage, a welcome relief after the dearth of good vintages since 1990. Many of the greatest wines in 1995 are blanc de blancs. The 1995 vintage wines are ready to drink now.

1996
Some say this is the greatest vintage ever, some (those with long memories, or vast cellars) that it was the best since 1928; grapes had both high sugar and high acidity. Benoît Gouez of Moët et Chandon calls it "one of the greatest harvests in Champagne." Didier Depond of Salon says it is a "classic great." The result has been wines that have structure, a firm edge of acidity. They will take many years to develop. The 1998s, and probably even the 1999s, should be drunk before the 1996s.

1998
At the time, this was the largest harvest on record, with a whopping 324 million bottles produced (compared with 280 million for 1996). This was an extremely variable summer, with alternating heat and cold, which caused some mildew and botrytis. Strict selection, especially for vintage wines, was important. The wines are soft, and already developing. Because the Chardonnay became superripe, this is a year that is better for Pinot Noir-dominated wines.

1999
A year marked by low acidity, which has meant that its vintage Champagnes are generally very soft, almost sweet. Again, another harvest of big quantities, almost twice the quantity of a decade before.

2000
This was called the miracle vintage, because a summer punctuated by hail and rain dried up in early September, and the skies were blue for harvest. It was also a long harvest, lasting nearly a month. Although many producers were tempted by the three zeros to make vintage Champagnes, the resulting wines are not the greatest.

2002
This is a good vintage, the best since 1996. Forget comparisons with Bordeaux 2002—in Champagne, the weather cooperated. The few 2002 Champagnes that have been released by smaller producers so far show great balance and potential ageability. Watch for the big names to release their 2002s in three or four years' time.

 

"Every decade you have two years when everything [at harvest] is right, and two years when there is no chance. In the other six years, you have to look for wines that are intriguing and exciting," says Gouez.

Only the best
Ever since Moët et Chandon first created vintage Champagne in 1842, it has been a concept that the region's winemakers have taken very seriously. Top producers such as Roederer, Krug, Bollinger and Veuve Clicquot have only ever made vintage Champagne in the best vintages, and have looked down their very superior noses at those who make a vintage Champagne every year.

Nonvintage Champagnes are meant to be drunk as soon as they hit the market. Not so with their vintage siblings. Vintage Champagnes—and this includes vintage-dated prestige cuvées—are wines that can age. By law, producers must hold vintage Champagnes longer than the nonvintage bottlings in their cellars before releasing them for sale. The law indicates that vintage wines have to be held back for three years after the harvest; many producers keep the wines back even longer.

But vintage wines are still very young wines by the time they come on the market. That's because, unlike nonvintage wines, they do not have the benefit of older reserve wines in the blend. So they age, and they can age magnificently. These are the wines that Champagne connoisseurs age until the bottlings are 20 or 30 years old.

In excellent years—like 1996, 1995, 1999 and probably 2002—all the houses that make a vintage Champagne will release a vintage bottling. In other, less ideal vintages—like 1993, 1994 and 2003—the houses will make their own decisions about whether to make a vintage Champagne.
For most Champagne houses, the amount of vintage wine they make, in terms of volume, is minor. But in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on the Côte des Blancs, which is just 15 minutes from Epernay—the heart of Chardonnay country—there is a producer whose whole existence is based on the concept of vintage Champagne.

Champagne Salon was founded by a wealthy fur trader, Eugène-Aimé Salon, in 1921, because he wanted to make a Champagne he would enjoy drinking. He didn't need to make large quantities, because he was only selling to his friends. Since the 1921 vintage, there have only been 34 releases of Salon, all of which have been vintage-designated wines. Salon is quite rare; its production tops out at about 60,000 bottles in the years that it is made.

Salon is also a Champagne of firsts. Didier Depond, current director of Salon, explains: "When Eugène Salon created Salon, it was rare to have [a Champagne made with] 100 percent Chardonnay, and a vintage wine at that. He was the first who voluntarily developed a blanc de blancs." Salon couldn't have chosen a better place to make a vintage wine, either—Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is one of Champagne's grand cru villages and its wines have a reputation for being long lived. And the Salon Champagnes need plenty of aging. They're released after 10 years in the bottle, but they need another 10 before they show their absolute best.

Age becomes beauty
Ageability is what vintage Champagne should be about, according to Erick de Sousa. His is a family of grapegrowers, one that also started producing Champagne in 1986—and also in the Côte des Blancs. For the first 15 years, de Sousa made a 100-percent Chardonnay blanc de blancs, the Cuvée des Caudalies. From the 2002 vintage, the cépage will be 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

"You can certainly enjoy a vintage [wine] young, when it is all about fruit," de Sousa says as we taste in his Avize cellars. "But if you age it, then you get all the wonderful secondary aromas, the toast and the almonds."

Ageable wines, it should come as no surprise, are those that are made from the best raw materials. Champagne winemakers have nothing but outstanding grapes to rely on when crafting these wines; they cannot blend in older or reserve wines. In accordance with French law, vintage Champagne must consist entirely of grapes harvested that year.

What the winemakers are allowed to do is blend from specially selected lots of wines. The goal here? To achieve the X factor that winemakers alternately refer to as "style" or "character."

"What drives our decision about vintage? We have to be able to select wines that have character," says Moët et Chandon's Gouez.
"For us at Dom Pérignon, there are three dimensions: aging, vintage and style," agrees his colleague, Vincent Chaperon, a member of the winemaking team of Moët's Dom Pérignon. "Style is the balance between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, between two opposing universes. It is the link between all Dom Pérignon releases, but every year is specific."

Every producer has its own approach to vintage Champagne. For Deutz, vintage is an important element in their lineup; Deutz produces four different vintage Champagnes. There is what has to be called the standard vintage, simply called Champagne Deutz; a rosé version of this wine is also made. There are then two blanc de blancs: Deutz Blanc de Blancs, and Amour de Deutz, which was launched with the 1997 vintage. Finally, the top of the range is Cuvée William Deutz, a blend of all three Champagne grapes (Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier). A Cuvée William Deutz vintage rosé is also produced.

Fabrice Rosset, president of Deutz Champagne in Aÿ, says fruit is the stylistic key. "Because the Deutz style is for our wines to be as natural as possible, they have to be as close as possible to the fruit," he explains. "And in the case of a vintage [Champagne], that means close to the style of fruit that reflects the character of the year as much as possible."

Year in, year out
Why so many different vintage bottlings? To offer a wide selection, says Rosset, and to meet demand: "We have the ability to make the vintage [bottlings] because we have access to such good fruit. We created Amour de Deutz to mark the millennium, so that wine has a particular reason to exist."

Things are very different over at Laurent-Perrier, in Tours-sur-Marne. Although the company owns Salon, the Laurent-Perrier brand focuses almost entirely on nonvintage Champagnes. "We only make around two percent of our wines as vintage," says Yves Dumont, the company's president. "Our tradition is for blending because of the northern climate. For Grande Siècle, our prestige cuvée, we only had three vintages: 1990, 1995 and 1996. And then we decided to stop that and make Grande Siècle a nonvintage. We may be the only Champagne house to make its prestige cuvée a nonvintage, but we wanted consistency of style."

It's an assertion that begs the question, is vintage Champagne intrinsically better than nonvintage? For Olivier Krug, the answer is no. "Certainly, vintage equals age plus balance," Krug allows. "But if you're looking for complexity, then a top nonvintage is more complex—it has more components, for a start."

But, says Krug, vintage is special somehow. It's different. He calls his family's vintage Champagnes "a fantastic encounter between the climate and Krug." He means there is certainly a style to vintage Krug, just as there is a style to Krug's Grande Cuvée, which is nonvintage. But with vintage, the conditions of the year add an extra factor. "We only make a vintage when there is something spectacular," he added. "It's more than quality, it's a question of the quality and character of the year."

And with the world's climate changing as it is, the possibility that these vintage years might become more frequent is an issue that fascinates Champagne producers. In the last decade, every year except 2001 has been a potential vintage Champagne year. Salon's Depond says, "we have had a succession of good [potential vintage] years—1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999, 2000 and 2004. Now for Salon we can choose the really great years and not the merely great years."

Laurent Fresnet, chef de caves of Champagne Henriot, agrees that climate change may set the quality bar higher. But he also notes that there is a downside to increased global warming, one that is a serious concern in Champagne.

"Since 2000," says Fresnet, "we are noticing many more abnormal weather conditions—hail, big storms. And while the summers are hotter, the winters are colder."

Economically speaking, the more vintage Champagne years there are, the less cachet vintage Champagne will have. At the same time, it could mean that wine lovers will be able to discover sparklers that have, until now, been out of reach in terms of price and availability. Its character—combining the best of a year with some of the best grapes from the best vineyards—will always mean that vintage Champagne remains special, even as it becomes more of a wine for drinkers, and less a wine for collectors.

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