23 July 2014

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Vintage Champagne - a hidden gem


Vintage Champagne is something of a hidden gem in the fizz world. Sarah Jane Evans MW explains why it should be top of everyone’s wishlist

Vintage Champagne 1 - Vintage Champagne pic 92947805_web.jpgWhat were you doing in, say, 1990, 1996 or 2002? If you have a reason to celebrate an event in one of those years, then you should be popping the cork on vintage Champagne. All three were great vintage years and, even better, vintage is the best style of Champagne to pair with food. So, if you are having a celebratory feast, make sure it’s vintage that you’re pouring alongside it.

And yet, despite it being such a good choice with food, vintage Champagne seldom gets talked about. It’s a relatively rare drink, in fact, accounting for only about 5% of all the Champagne we drink in the UK. Instead, we prefer to indulge ourselves in NV (see box of definitions), which varies from the outstanding – Krug Grande Cuvée is a classic – to the sour (too many of the £10 tempters in the high street). And if NV is what we buy on Friday nights, then prestige cuvées are for flaunting.

Between the two extremes, vintage has somewhat lost its identity – particularly since our supermarket shelves are so full of trendy zero dosage, demi-sec and rosé fizz. Yet the top wines of the table wine world are all vintage wines. Like port, Champagne vintages are not made every year – it depends on the weather, as well as on the amount of the previous vintage sitting unsold in the cellars. However, that’s where the similarity ends. Vintage port is the top of the tree: the most expensive and collectable of the wines from the Douro Valley in Portugal, which needs plenty of cellaring before it’s ready to drink. Vintage Champagne is the opposite. Currently rated less highly, it’s ready to drink when it’s sold – although it will develop gently for years, especially in magnum.

'If you are having a feast, make sure it’s vintage that  you’re pouring alongside it'

On the other hand, there’s a definite bonus from this general confusion about vintage Champagne: despite the care taken in making it, it works out cheaper than prestige cuvées (except with wines like Bollinger Grande Année, which is both a prestige cuvée and a vintage at the same time). Vintages show a rich, more complex, and intense character that comes from a minimum of three years’ ageing. So, while NV is the perfect aperitif, and very good with shellfish, vintage Champagne is the one to linger with over a meal.

Fizz & food fusion

Moreover, NV is generally restricted to a pairing with poached salmon at weddings, but with vintage you can be much more ambitious: go for smoked fish, or abandon fish altogether and match it to duck and light game, or to veal in rich sauces. Alternatively, where you have a vintage that has developed a nutty, gently spicy, character, you can pair it with Japanese flavours. It’s also worth experimenting with cheese – pick hard cheeses, not too mature, with a salty edge. Manchego is perfect, with the caramel character of the sheep’s milk and a welcome salty intensity.

'Vintages show a rich and intense character'

Vintage rosé will similarly face up to a number of flavour challenges. The colour looks to be a perfect match for lobster and veal but the underlying tones of redcurrant and raspberry give it an affinity with duck and lamb, as well as with food spiced with coriander, cumin or pink peppercorns. Until the wine world wakes up to the joys of vintage Champagne, take advantage. It’s the wine for those who like authenticity not ostentation, and love the idea of drinking Champagne throughout the meal.Vintage Champagne 2 - 106477444.jpg

Where vintage fits

NV Non-vintage. Made mainly from one vintage but blended with a number of previous vintages to create a consistent house style. The lowest priced of all Champagnes and aged for a minimum of 15 months.
Vintage Made entirely from the grapes of one vintage and aged for a minimum of three years.
Prestige cuvée Can be NV or vintage. Made from a special selection of grapes to produce a highly priced top wine.

Five favourite vintages

1998 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne (from £100; Fortnum & Mason, Harrods (magnum), Majestic, The Wine Society)

Deliciously understated, a prestige cuvée of real refinement. Abounds with almonds, vanilla and citrus: a riot of flavour, all perfectly controlled.

2000 Moët et Chandon, Dom Pérignon (from £80; Harrods (magnum), Majestic, Seckford Wines)

Drowned in glamorous publicity, it’s very easy to overlook the wine underneath. Very full and bold, with punchy freshness. A wine with plenty of years left in it yet.

2000 Pol Roger (from £45; Berry Bros & Rudd, Fortnum & Mason, Handford Wines, Lea & Sandeman)

Shows the signature purity of style that Pol Roger is known for; never in the least cloying and always very finely balanced.

1998 Orpale Grand Cru (£56, Marks & Spencer)

A regular award winner, M&S’s top Champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes making it taste fresh, with lemon curd and buttery brioche showing through.

1999 Charles Heidsieck Brut Rosé (£92.50, Harrods)

There are a number of fine vintage rosés about, and this one is particularly delicious, with its basket of berry fruit backed up by some developing nutty complexity.

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