Walking into the Champagne section at a wine store can be both exhilarating and intimidating. Sparkling wine—especially that from the heralded Champagne region in France—evokes celebration and happiness.
But purchasing a bottle of vintage Champagne (wine made from grapes harvested in the same year) and only in years deemed worthy by the winemakers can be wrought with confusion. At any one time, today’s consumer is faced with dozens of brands all featuring different vintages, some from a single plot: Dom Pérignon P2 2002, Krug 2006, Krug 2004 Clos de Mesnil, Salon 2008, Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2012, and Louis Roederer 2012—and many, many more.. Even Louis Roederer Cristal has four vintages on the market right now, including the Vinotheque 1996 and Cristal 2009. It doesn’t help that bottles can fetch hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
How does a consumer choose what to buy?
“The typical consumer still has confusion around Champagne in general, let alone understanding and discerning between vintages,” explains Caleb Ganzer, managing partner of Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a wine bar in New York City. “It can be quite hard for sommeliers to keep vintage Champagne straight. The combination of climate change and a bit of zealous brands seeking to capitalize on the ‘prestige’ of vintage Champagne has lead to a great preponderance of the bubbly millésimé (vintage).”
Ganzer refers to the often-confused term “Champagne” for any sparkling wine. In fact, Champagne can only be used for sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region by the traditional method of production; all other sparkling wine is considered simply “sparkling wine.” Within Champagne, there’s non-vintage, the most common type you’ll see on a wine store shelf or restaurant menu. It combines wines produced in multiple years into a relatively consistent house style. Any bottle you pick up—regardless of year—should taste the same.
Then there’s vintage Champagne, a bottle of wine produced from grapes harvested in the designated year. Champagne houses tend not to make a vintage every year. They only produce them in years deemed “vintage” by the winemakers, and follow strict guidelines of production by the overseeing body, the Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC). When they release a vintage varies greatly from house to house, because there are no restrictions beyond the mandated aging period of three years. Brands like Krug, Dom Pérignon, and Salon will hold vintages for eight to 11 years, or more, before they release them on the market; smaller producers may release vintages just three years later, the minimum defined by the AOC. At any one time, you’ll see a decade or two span of vintages available.
Read the Label
Brands suggest you read harvest reports and tasting notes on their websites or assume you are an educated wine consumer; you’ll just know what to buy. But that’s oversimplifying the situation—and certainly putting a lot of onus on the consumer’s knowledge. For even the most astute connoisseur, it can be a challenge. Tasting notes start to sound the same after a while, and the intricacies of the weather in a specific year may demand an infographic to make it even remotely digestible. Consumers may hesitate to throw down the credit card, unless they know they are getting the best value for their money. “Consumers only want the best, but vintages are different in style and quality,” says Didier Depond, president of Champagne Houses Salon and Delamotte. “It is always a dilemma for the consumer when they have to select a vintage.”
There are some things to keep in mind, say Depond and other Champagne experts. First off, there is no absolute best. A consumer cannot distill it down into one year being objectively better than another because so many factors are at play.
Give It Time
Consumers can, however, rest assured that any vintage they find on the market at their typical wine shop or restaurant list will be ready to drink. Champagne houses tend not to release the wines until they are the optimal drinking window. That means Champagne producers do the hard work of aging the wines, either on the lees (yeast particles left over from the fermentation process that are thought to provide additional flavor in the final wine) and in the bottle for you. Could it age for longer? Yes, but you don’t have to if you want to drink it tonight.
“We keep bottles in the cellars for many years until the winemaking team has decided they are ready to be presented,” says Olivier Krug, the sixth generation head of Krug Champagne, who notes their vintage will usually rest for a decade before hitting the shelves. “If you find a Krug Champagne available that is because it is ready to be enjoyed. You need not worry.”
That’s also why consumers saw the 2009 vintage from Champagne brands like Cristal and Dom Pérignon before their respective 2008 vintages, and Krug’s 2003 before its 2002. The latter needed more time aging before it was ready to drink. Brands may also release a vintage, say 2012, but also save some of the wine for special edition bottles to be released later. That’s how Dom Pérignon’s Plenitude series works. It involves aging the Champagne in eight year sprints. The current release, 2002 P2 stands for a wine that has undergone two aging periods, or 16 years, of the 2002 vintage. For Krug, that’s the recent launch of the 2006, nearly 13 years after harvest.
Age Isn’t Just a Number
It’s enough to make even a sommelier dizzy. It’s easy to see why a consumer will scan the shelf looking for the oldest vintage available, as they’ve been led to falsely believe that’s the best indicator of value. But brands and sommeliers say that older isn’t necessarily better. “People can get hung up on vintages in Champagne in an unfair way,” Ganzer says. “Just because a vintage might seem ‘young’ does not mean it’s not ready to drink.”
Ganzer explains that most consumers would not enjoy a bottle of Champagne from the 1970s as much as they would something from 2016. Older wines often lose freshness, effervescence, and the golden color that’s so beloved by wine drinkers. Plus, there is value in younger vintages—storing wine costs money, and that overhead is passed along to the consumer in the final price. The less time it’s held by the producer, the lower the amount the consumer will pay on the retail end. That’s why smaller producers often release wines after the minimum aging requirement. These are the value picks, says Ganzer, who suggests looking to the Special Club, a group of 28 grower-producers in Champagne, for vintage bottlings that come in lower in price than major houses.
If a consumer does go for an older wine, it is going to cost them. Xavier Barlier, senior vice president of marketing and communication at Maisons Marques & Domaines USA, the American distributor for Louis Roederer Champagne, says that their customers understand that they are paying up for the older wine. “Vintage Champagne is what I call a ‘destination wine,’” he adds, noting that their Champagnes reach a peak drinking window of 15 to 25 years after harvest. “Consumers know what they are buying. They are willing to pay a premium for our wines.”
You Can Play Favorites—and Play the Field
Familiarity with producers plays an important role in shopping for vintage Champagne as well. Ganzer admits he’d rather drink vintage Champagne from a bad year if it’s a good producer over a great vintage from an average producer. That’s also why houses, like Roederer, always sell out their vintage; they have a host of fans ready to buy the newly released vintage. “Producer should always take precedent over style, quality, or vintage,” he says, adding that it’s a better use of funds to stick to a style you like.
Getting to know producers also requires the fun part: tasting. “A lot goes into making a great Champagne, but personal preferences prevail,” says Niccolo Ragazzoni, vice president of Dom Pérignon. He—like Barlier, Krug, and Ganzer—suggest tasting as much as possible to understand what you like and don’t like. Consumers can do this by purchasing non-vintage bottles from houses because these are often much less expensive than the vintage bottles. They are a strong indicator if you will enjoy the style of the vintage Champagne from the same house.
Barlier recommends talking to sommeliers and wine merchants, too. These professionals have often tasted the wine with the brands and can better explain what to expect from vintages than tasting notes alone. “One of the good things about Champagne houses is they spend a lot of time and money educating buyers,” Ganzer says. Retailers and sommeliers will be well-versed in the differences among houses and vintages.
Consumers should not get hung up on when to drink what they buy either. If you have it, you can open it and enjoy it. Saving it won’t make it better, just different. “Finding the sweet spot of age and flavor and ability to charge a premium for this service do add up to the question that winemakers must consider when harvesting, vinifying, and declaring—or not—a vintage,” Ganzer says. “Typically speaking, a house will not declare a vintage and print it on the label unless they think it’s a worthwhile endeavor.” That means, drink up, whatever vintage it is.
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