Delve into the complex world of vintage champagne
Discover how it is made, and what exactly qualifies it as ‘vintage’
Why it is a delicate and intricate process for the champagne maisons to master
I’ve spoken before about champagne, explaining everything from the various grapes and their characters to what the hell riddling actually is. Yet as I said then there was one very important aspect to champagne that I missed out: vintage.
The reason is simple, that reason being that the concept of vintage is not. The general consensus is that vintage champagne is by its mere existence more prestigious – and therefore better – than standard bruts and even reserves. The first thing you need to understand is that that is not true. Not by a long shot.
In essence, a vintage champagne reflects a specific year. It might use the same mix of grapes as any other sparkling wine, but they all have to be harvested within that 12-month period. It’s a pretty simple idea to be honest and one that’s adhered to rigidly, but also one that raises a host of problems for the champagne houses.
Champagne as a region is anything but consistent. Year on year the climate can be drastically different – more rainfall, higher temperatures, frost at precisely the wrong time – and therefore so too can be the grapes. One year the chardonnay may be terrible but the pinot noir superb (much like 2016 to be honest) which changes the wine drastically.
Now, every champagne maison has it’s own house style which is reflected in their non-vintage bruts. These bruts are designed for consistency and are therefore the same no matter whether it’s 2010 or 2017. A huge part of that consistency is the blending in of reserves from previous years which, by their previously-stated nature, is impossible for vintage.
This means that vintage champagnes are entirely dependent on the whims of nature. Chefs de Cave can of course make the most of what they have, but a bad year for Champagne tends to mean a bad vintage. Indeed, if the harvest is awful enough there simply won’t be any vintage champagne made.
It’s a problem that many houses face, especially those for whom vintage is their lifeblood. Dom Perignon is the most important example; their vintage-only policy has caused them plenty of hassle more than once in the past.
The upside is that chance to miss a year cuts out the worst of the mishaps that could happen. It ensures a kind of baseline of quality, part of the reason so many epicureans go crazy over vintage. The thing is, that’s still no guarantee that the wine is exceptional, just that it’s good enough. What a vintage does guarantee however is character.
Because a vintage is a reflection of the year itself, it often forces Chefs de Cave to step outside their comfort zones. They have no control over which grapes do best in a year and so have to make the most of their ingredients. Given that these individuals are phenomenal at what they do, the result will always be good but, more importantly, will often be surprising.
Imagine what would happen if one year the chardonnay crop failed completely. I’m talking not a single grape making it to juicing. Most bruts would be fine, relying on their reserves to re-create house styles, but what would happen to vintages? Some houses would obviously pull out, not willing to try without Champagne’s key bounty. Others however would produce a very unusual wine indeed.
Let’s say this happened in 2018. Given this year’s harvest it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. It doesn’t matter whether the wine produced would actually be to your taste or not, it would become one of the most famous – perhaps notorious – years in champagne history. The prices of the vintages that were produced would be astronomical and would become the crowning glory of many a collection.
Would they therefore be good? Would a wine made out of desperation, one that reflects a terrible year for the entirety of champagne actually be as delicious as that auspicious price tag would attest to? It’s very unlikely, which is exactly the issue with vintage champagne.
To the well-informed, who knows which years in history were good for champagne, the kinds of people that you hear saying in over-loud voices “ah 2006? What a fine year that was!” vintage is the best there is. To everyone else… well, like anything you just need to be careful. You never know quite what you’re going to get.
Words by: Sam Kessler