Vintage champagnes from large champagne houses and small growers are like flipsides of a coin. We take a look at their different winemaking philosophies.
In 2008, the region of Champagne, according to Marie-Christine Osselin, Moët & Chandon’s wine quality manager, was known for having a peculiar “cold weather”. The mild winter transitioned into a rainy, grey spring. Summer was cool and dry, sparing the grapes from disease. September brought rains—worrisome for any winemaker as harvest time nears—but a northwesterly wind arrived to sweep away the wet spells.
“Because of the wind, we had 12 days of beautiful weather and dry conditions before harvest,” recalls Osselin. All three grape varieties—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay—were healthy. The Chardonnay, in particular, “had very good acidity”. Benoît Gouez, Moët & Chandon’s chef de cave since 2005, decided to declare 2008 a vintage year for the maison or house. After a seven-year ageing in the cellars, the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2008 was released. Even if you weren’t aware of the vintage conditions for 2008, the bubbly gives away the clues on your palate: fresh, bright, citrusy scents; floral notes; light touches of plum and orange peel; and a razor-like acidity.
The Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2008 is only the maison’s 72nd vintage champagne since the house was established 270 years ago. Moët & Chandon, along with Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and many other big champagne houses, make vintage bubblies only in good years, when ideal climate conditions lead to an exceptional harvest. These sparklers are regarded as the maisons’ prestige cuvées—the finest bubblies they produce—and are often sought after by wine buffs.
Otherwise, every year, the maisons make what is known as the non-vintage (NV), a cuvée that is a blend of multiple vintages; a failsafe practice that allows winemakers to override a weak vintage or poor harvest by blending wines from previous years to achieve a quality that is consistent with the houses’ style. Thus, a NV from a maison will taste the same each year, unlike a vintage champagne. (Moët & Chandon’s Grand Vintage 2006, for example, offers more ripe apple and buttery notes than its younger sibling, a reflection of the very warm vintage in 2006). The NV is usually the de facto flagbearer of the house, the bottle that makes it into splashy ads and swanky parties.
Apart from branding, the NV’s other role is commercial, accounting for a majority of the maison’s sales and helping to fill in the ledger in years when vintage champagnes are not released. Most of the maisons don’t own vineyards but buy their grapes from vignerons or growers throughout Champagne. Some of these growers, who are usually small, family-run businesses, also produce their own non-vintage and vintage bubblies (also known as grower champagnes in vino parlance), typically in small volumes of a few thousand bottles.
A Different Expression
Unlike the maisons, not every grower has the resources to keep their remaining grapes or harvest during a poor year and use them in a NV in the future. Thus, in such circumstances, the growers will still produce a vintage, a practise that is analogous to that of red and white winemaking.
“With a grower champagne producer, almost every year is declared a vintage year,” says Nicola Lee, managing director of Malayan International Corporation, and Consul General of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne in Singapore. “Vintage champagnes from growers are very much terroir-focused. This allows them to display diverse styles and expressions derived from their vineyards. That is their unique selling point. I haven’t had a vintage champagne from a grower that I have not enjoyed.”
Ong Yixin, managing director of Kot Selections, a wine importer specialising in boutique wines, says that Champagne’s top growers are making some of the most distinctive and delicious vintage bubblies, given their “greater attention to detail in both the vineyard and cellar”, and making “what would be considered a micro-cuvée in any house”. One of Ong’s brands is Chavot-based Laherte Frères, a grower who makes, alongside non-vintages, a vintage cuvée named Les Empreintes every year. “The wine could be lean in short years, and quite big in hot years,” notes Ong.
But are uneven champagnes worth drinking? Lee thinks a weak vintage has its own appeal, a notion that “can be applied to all wines in general”. She cites opening a Bordeaux from 1994 and a Burgundy from 1997—both of which were considered problematic vintages—only to be pleasantly surprised. “Thus, the same can be said for champagne,” she muses. “A vintage may be weak, but the winemaker’s skill in handling the grapes can produce a good bottle of wine. If the harvest was badly damaged, as was the case last year when a combination of severe frosts and storms brought yield down, it will prove a great challenge for the winemakers. It will be exciting to taste such a vintage.”
Zachary Tay, group sommelier of Sprmrkt Kitchen & Bar, echoes Lee’s sentiment. “Making champagne in a poor vintage is generally frowned upon but we must not forget there are micro climates within the appellations. It is up to the discretion of the winemaker if he decides that, contrary to the vintage, the harvest was of great quality,” says Tay. “The proof is in the pudding. If the vintner can produce a stunning cuvée in a ‘poor’ year, it makes my mouth water at the prospect of a great vintage.”
The good and the bad of global warming in Champagne according to Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, president of Champagne Taittinger:
Champagne’s climate has never been so good in recent years, from a strictly qualitative point of view. The quality has been very regular. Global warming brings forward the plant’s cycle a little earlier. The ripening period now experiences longer and warmer days, which lead to a better maturity for the grapes. Over the past 15 or 20 years, it can be considered that Champagne no longer has maturation difficulties as it did in the past.
Global warming also has negative aspects. Since it induces an earlier start of the vine cycle, the young shoots, which hatch from the buds, are more frequently exposed to spring frost. This can lead to significant losses in harvest potential, as was the case in 2017.
Frost damage is one of the most penalising aspects in our industry. Thus, work on frost protection systems is regaining interest among wine growers. We are also studying different viticulture systems, which could emerge in the coming years.
This story was first published in Wine & Dine’s Mar/Apr 2018 issue – Wonder Women.