We Brits consume more vintage Champagne than any other country. But, asks Giles Fallowfield, what makes this particular wine so distinctive?
Champagne – Champagne made entirely from the grapes of a single harvest – accounts only for a very small percentage of the wine made in France’s most northerly vineyards. And, even though the UK
accounts for less than 5 per cent of worldwide sales, it still represents by far the most important market for this style of Champagne.
As a result, the Champenois see the UK as the connoisseur’s market. Producers often refer to ‘le goût anglais’, our preference for older-vintage Champagne from houses such as Pol Roger, Bollinger
and Billecart-Salmon, whose wines age particularly well.
The vast majority of the Champagne we drink, a cross-vintage blend of several different harvests, is known as non-vintage, and there’s a good reason why this has long been popular. When the
Champagne region first rose to fame and was struggling to keep up with demand for good-quality fizz, blending together wine from different harvests was seen as the best way of ironing out quality
Even with global warming, it’s still a struggle this far north to get noble grape varieties ripe enough every year. It’s sometimes too cool and there’s not always enough sunshine.
Vintage Champagne – decent vintage Champagne – is only generally produced right across the appellation in years when the climate is particularly kind, especially in the weeks running up to the
start of picking around mid-September. Over the past decade, however, harvests have been getting earlier and, in 2003, most of the grapes were brought in by the end of August after the driest and
hottest vintage on record.
Vintages are widely declared by a majority of producers perhaps three or four times a decade, but these are not necessarily evenly spaced. At the end of the 1980s, for example, three superb
harvests came one after another in 1988, 1989 and 1990. There was then a gap until 1995 before conditions were widely favourable again – a stark reminder of the key role of the weather in this
It doesn’t have to be hot and sunny to ripen Champagne’s three main grape varieties – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – but damp, humid conditions are definitely undesirable. The black
grapes (the two Pinots) are particularly susceptible to rot under these conditions, while late spring frost is an enemy to all three.
Champagne doesn’t demand the same sugar levels needed to make good table wine, particularly red. About 9.5 per cent to 10 per cent of potential alcohol is usually enough, while 11 per cent is on
the high side.
Good Champagne, particularly vintage, needs sufficient acidity to keep it fresh and zingy for the five years or so – or sometimes twice as long – that most quality producers keep the wine ageing in
their cool, chalky cellars before it is released. Even this summer, few 2000 vintage Champagnes will be released onto the UK market, though there may be bottles on supermarket shelves from less
well-known producers or under own-label brands.
A few houses have released the 1999 vintage, while some are still offering the brilliant 1996 and almost as impressive 1995. Given a price range of between £30 and £60, these wines arguably
represent the best value for money from the appellation.
The Champenois are pretty much alone in the vinous world in releasing their vintage wines only when they are ready, or very nearly ready, to drink. The cost implications of this policy are
significant for them. Very few of the larger houses own enough vineyards to supply even half their requirements, so producers both large and small must pay for grapes in the 12 months following the
harvest. But they don’t receive any money for the resulting wine until it goes on sale, which in the most extreme examples may be more than a decade later. Salon and Krug’s current release, for
example, is 1990.
So what makes vintage Champagne so special and should it be treated differently to other styles of fizz? Vintage Champagne is, in fact, where the region comes closest stylistically to table wine,
and it is the one wine in which the characteristics of an individual year can be tasted. Because it’s the most wine-like style, it’s also the best to match with food, particularly fish and seafood,
such as turbot, lobster, crab and scallops.
Most of the time, winemakers, especially those at the largest houses, try to hide harvest peculiarities. Their aim is to produce a consistent house style that shows little variation from bottle to
bottle, so they use every blending trick in their armoury to achieve consistent style, taste and aroma. The idea with vintage Champagne, in contrast, is to celebrate the individual characteristics
of a particular harvest. It may be rich and ripe as a result of hot summer – 1976, 1989 and 1995 spring to mind – or lighter and fruitier, yielding a wine for earlier drinking, such as in 1997.
Alternatively, a fine, slowly developing wine resulting from a cooler but sunny growing season can be exceptional. Such wines often have great acidity and need considerably longer to mature: 1988
is a classic example, and 1996 displays many similar qualities.
At a recent tasting of Bollinger Grande Année vintages – going back to 1988, taking in 1990, 1992, 1995 and 1996, and finishing with the current 1997 release – it was notable how different the
wines were in terms of their speed of development and taste profile, even though they came from the same mix of vineyards.
At its best, vintage Champagne, rather than the more hyped prestige cuvée, is the true expression of this appellation and its unique terroir. Near their glorious peak of maturity, as many of the
best 1988s are, the combination of Burgundy-like wine complexity overlaid with initial freshness makes the wines one of the world’s ultimate drinking experiences.
STYLE GUIDE TO CURRENT VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE RELEASES
Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 1999
Deliciously fresh, beautiful balance of 66 per cent Pinot Noir, 34 per cent Chardonnay, with toasty notes developing but good potential for further ageing.
Stockists: Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason, Lay & Wheeler, Berry Bros,
The Wine Society
Veuve Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1999
A powerful wine, lifted by an exciting streak of acidity that reflects the year more than Clicquot’s Pinot Noir-dominated house style. Will keep for a long time but already good.
Stockists: Waitrose, Selfridges, Majestic, Oddbins, Threshers
Pol Roger Brut Vintage 1998
A 60:40 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend, more approachable in its youth than the top-class 1996 it follows, which may still be found in some outlets.
Stockists: Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols, Berry Bros & Rudd, Tanners
Bollinger La Grande Année 1997
In style, this is a luscious and relatively developed – for Bollinger – mix of the monster 1996 and the rich 1989. It’s drinking well now, but there’s no hurry to drink this 65 per cent Pinot
35 per cent Chardonnay blend.
Price: about £60
Stockists: widely available
A 50:50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend that conforms to winemaker Alain Terrier’s house style, pure in flavours with a crisp acidity and silky texture.
Price: about £32
Stockists: Majestic, Oddbins
Billecart Salmon Cuvée Nicolas-François Billecart Brut 1996
Released after the 1997, this classy offering is still pretty closed but clearly has a long and glorious future.
Price: about £50
Stockists: Berry Bros & Rudd, Lay & Wheeler, James Nicholson, Oddbins, Selfridges, Uncorked
Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut Vintage 1996
The best vintage Champagne released by Mumm for years, its elegant style reflects the improvements winemaker Dominic Demarville has brought to other Mumm cuvées since he joined.
Guide price: £33.99 (1995 vintage, Threshers)
Stockists: only available in restaurants and hotels later in 2006
Piper-Heidsieck Brut Vintage 1996
As at Mumm, quality has improved dramatically here and this 1996 is the second star vintage of the 1990s (the other being 1990), according to Piper’s winemaker Regis Camus. He predicts it will
still have great freshness in 10 years’ time.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Magazine Spring 2006