Non-Vintage Champagne versus Vintage Champagne
Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne is a blend of two or more years of (current and/or reserve) champagnes prepared each year to produce a consistent style of wine. The blend of each grape varietal used will vary depending on the quality of grapes in any particular year.
Vintage Champagne is champagne of a single year’s harvest and is only made in good years. Vintage champagne should have more depth, complexity, character and weight than non-vintage (NV).
All Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, of which 12 months maturation on lees is required for NV cuvees. The minimum for vintage cuvees is three years. In practice, most Champagne wines are kept in the cellar for much longer: 2-3 years for NV wines and 4-10 years for vintage Champagne.
‘Dosage’ is the last step before final corking. This is the addition of a small quantity of ‘liqueur de dosage’ to the wine – also known as the ‘liqueur d’expédition’.
The quantity added varies according to the style of Champagne:
- Doux: more than 50 grams of sugar per litre
- Demi-sec: 32-50 grams of sugar per litre
- Sec: 17-32 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra dry: 12-17 grams of sugar per litre
- Brut: less than 12 grams of sugar per litre
- Extra brut: 0-6 grams of sugar per litre
- “Brut nature”, “pas dosé” or “dosage zéro”: zero added sugar and contains less than 3 grams (residual) sugar per litre
Important information on the label
A label is placed on the front of the bottle, and sometimes on the back too, stating specific mandatory items and other consumer information. In addition to Champagne appellation, the percentage of alcohol and the bottle capacity, there are some important additional data which will tell you the story of that Champagne…
The label on the bottle will tell you if it is a vintage in which case the year is prominently displayed.
There is also information about the level of ‘dosage’ which will give you an idea of the sweetness of a particular champagne.
Another important information is the registration and code number issued by the Comité Champagne, preceded by two initials that indicate the category of producer:
- NM for Négociant-Manipulant,
- RM for Récoltant Manipulant,
- CM for Coopérative de Manipulation,
- RC for Récoltant-Coopérateur,
- SR for Société de Récoltants,
- ND for Négociant Distributeur, and
- MA for Marque d’Acheteur.
Where appropriate, the label contains specific details relating to the type of cuvee (whether Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, Blanc de Noirs, etc.).
Optional information can be included at the producer’s discretion and could contain information about the varietals used, date of disgorgement, sensory characteristics, suggested food-and-wine pairings, etc.
Blanc de Blancs: “White of whites,” that is white wine made only from white grapes (Chardonnay). Young wines tend to have significant brightness (acidity) and mild citrus notes. Upon maturing, more fullness to the fruit comes forward and notes of roasted hazelnut, toast, butter or biscuit appear.
There are six grand cru villages for Chardonnay:
- Le Mesnil-sur-Oger
Some iconic Blanc de Blancs include:
- Salon ’Cuvée ’S’ de Salon’
- Krug ’Clos du Mesnil’
- Charles Heidsieck ’Blanc de Millenaires’
- Jacques Selosse – all the chardonnay cuvées
- Jacquesson ’Avize Champ Caïn’
Blanc de Noirs: “White of blacks,” that is white wine from black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier). Blanc de Noirs has deep golden colour and is more intense in flavour than a non-vintage multi varietal blend. Blanc de Noirs Champagnes are, on the whole, richer and more full bodied than wines with a major component of Chardonnay. Tasting notes often mention red and black fruit aromas. But two examples can be as different from each other as from a Blanc de Blancs. The prestige cuvée by Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises from old Pinot Noir vines has set the benchmark for other Champagne houses.
There are eleven grand cru villages for Pinot Noir:
- Mailly Champagne
Some iconic Blanc de Noirs include:
- Krug ’Clos d’Ambonnay
- Bollinger ’Cuvée Vieilles Vignes Française’
- Selosse ’Le Bout du Clos – Ambonnay’
- Egly-Ouriet ’Blanc de Noirs Vielles Vignes’
- André Clouet ’Un jour de 1911’
Rosé: Pink champagne is generally made by blending a small amount of still red champagne wine into the cuvée. The minerality and acidity are usually lower and the raspberry or strawberry driven fruit predominates over roasting and autolytic character.
An alternate method (Saignee) is to “bleed” the red colour of crushed black grapes into the cuvée.
Some iconic Rose Champagne include:
- 1988 Ruinart’Dom Ruinart Rosé Vinothèque’
- 2002 Louis Roederer ’Cristal Rosé’
- 1978 Veuve Clicquot ’Cave Privée Rosé’
- 1997 Vilmart ’Cellier Rubis Rosé’
- 1993 Dom Pérignon ’Rosé Oenothèque’
The uniqueness and character of the different vintages are the greatest treasures in the wine world. Think for example of rich and vigorous vintages, such as 1947, 1959, 1976, 1989, 1990 and1996… or if you prefer a subtle elegance and finesse, think of 1966, 1969, 1971, 1979, 1985, 1988, 1995. Regardless of which years you like the most, the different vintages have a variety of varieties that make wine history even more fascinating.
The vast majority of wine lovers rarely or never try young champagne. Experts ask rhetorically: Is there anything more enjoyable than drinking high quality 20-25 year old champagne? In perfect maturity and harmony? So much more complex than young wines while not yet overweight… They continue by saying that the most important question to consider is at what age should the champagne be drunk? Do you prefer your champagne youthful and pale or do you appreciate the golden colour and honey-wrapped bouquet of an aged champagne? This is obviously a matter of personal preference.
On a more technical note, if you are interested in the alchemy of champagne, you should know that as long as the wine is in contact with its yeast precipitate, ageing is very slow. The carbonic acid acts as a conservative and very little oxygen comes into contact with the wine at the original bottling. However, during the disgorgement, the wine is exposed to a lot of oxygen which begins a normal oxidation process. The more developed the wine is at the disgorgement, the faster the oxidation process goes. Thus, late disgorged champagnes from the beginning of the century can be very spiky and young in character, but already a few days after the disgorgement they would become ﬂat and oxidized. In short, experts say that the ideal age for disgorging, if you want to store the champagne, can generally be 5-8 years.
To conclude, Champagne can age. In fact, vintage champagne is often intended to. They might lose a little fizz, but they gain in body, character and complex flavours.