Through decades — if not centuries — of attention to quality and clever marketing, champagne has turned from a winemaking accident into one of the most prized wines in the world, capturing the popular imagination as few other drinks have.
Unlike most of the wine world though, vintages aren’t a primary concern of the Champenoise — a majority of champagnes are non-vintage (usually labelled as NV on the bottles). This means a cellar master blends wines from various vintages to achieve consistency. While this practice started out as a way to ensure that they could put out quality wine every year despite the finicky weather conditions of Champagne, it’s become a hallmark of the region.
While winemaking technology can increasingly help offset bad weather, cellar masters these day still blend for consistency in order to keep to a characteristic “house style” that marks the identity of a Champagne house.
What is vintage champagne?
Vintage champagnes are made with wines vinified from grapes grown in a single year. This only happens for select years where the weather conditions can create an outstanding wine. Kayla Kirkpatrick, Champagne educator and CEO of champagne subscription service Emperor Champagne shares, “Growers don’t always get the perfect weather conditions. They need enough sunshine to give us sugar and ‘fatness’ in the grapes, and cool nights for the acidity needed for ageing.”
This doesn’t happen often — vintage champagne accounts for only about 5% of total production in the region. When they do though. champagne houses take the opportunity to show off a little, and make complex, long-ageing wines that express the highest standards that a house can reach.
Why should you care?
If you’re disposed to sitting down to contemplate a glass of First Growth Bordeaux for hours, Champagne might seem a little frivolous — something you drink at an art gallery opening or at a party.
At its heart though, champagne is still a wine; and most vintage Champagnes are made to express all the characteristics one looks for in a fine bottle: complexity, length, and elegance. While many NVs are made to be fresh, fruity and easy (exceptions include Champagne Bollinger, whose richer, full-bodied house style is pinot noir-dominated); vintage Champagnes are made to be cellared — developing more secondary and autolytic flavours like nuts, brioche, honey, and even earthiness.
“Champagne really comes into its own when it’s been left in the cellar to age for a long period of time…Vintage champagne has a lot of complexity. Over time the acidity goes down and the complexity goes up, and that’s when champagne really starts to show you its true potential,” explains Kirkpatrick.
How long to wait?
Just as how you would never chug a red Burgundy from last year, vintage champagne too, requires patience. As a rule of thumb, Kirkpatrick recommends cellaring a bottle for however long a producer has aged it for — since Champagne houses usually wait about a decade to release a certain vintage.
Louis Roederer, for example, most recently released the 2008 vintage of Cristal. While cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon considers it their most finesse expression yet, the 2008 Cristal could stand to wait another 30 years before being enjoyed.
How to drink it
When you do finally pop open a bottle of vintage Champagne in 30 years (or now, if you’ve got a 1996 on hand) there are several things to expect. For one, the wine will have lost some of its effervescence.
“With younger champagnes, you get more and bigger bubbles, more acidity, more energy and sprightliness,” says Kirkpatrick.
With the older stuff though, you’ll get less, but much finer bubbles and a “silkier” mouthfeel. This is a wine to serve at the same temperature as a fine white (12°C – 14°C) to help express the wine’s non-fruit flavours.
Lécaillon also recommends decanting champagne of that age for about 30 minutes to open up more flavours; while using a champagne glass with curved sides (rather than a straight flute) to preserve the bubbles and concentrate the aromas of the wine.
What’s a good year?
While every producer and parcel of land is different; there are certain years where things are generally better or worse — 2001 and 2017 are considered bad years, with unpredictable weather and cold, wet days during harvest season. Meanwhile, 2015 was said to be excellent; although to really tell you’d have to wait a decade or so.
Kirkpatrick shares, “My all-time favourite vintage is 1996. It was surreal. 2002 and 2012 were also excellent. It’s interesting that more often than not, the best vintages are in the even (not odd) years. It’s a really good rule of thumb if you’re looking at a wine list.
2005 generally wasn’t a good vintage but I’ve had a 2005 from Jacquesson [& Fils] that was exceptional. So every now and then you get a little producer that just nails it where the rest of the region failed.”