What's in a vintage?
Why vintage Champagne costs so much and why it's worth it
The sparkling wine that we call "vintage," whether from Champagne, France, or any other place always costs more than the regular or nonvintage sparkling wine. Here's why. (Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune)
Mumm Napa Brut Sparkling Wine, nonvintage: $19. Mumm Napa Brut Sparkling Wine, vintage 2007: $28.
Bellavista Franciacorta Cuvee, nonvintage: $48. Bellavista Franciacorta, vintage 2006: $69.
Pol Roger Brut Champagne, nonvintage: $52. Pol Roger Brut Champagne, vintage 2002: $110.
What a difference a year makes.
The sparkling wine that we call "vintage," whether from Champagne, France, or any other place that makes wine in the Champagne method, always costs more than the same producer's regular or nonvintage sparkling wine sold next to it on the shelf.
We know that the two wines — even if they are released to the market at the same time from the same winery — are different wines, or else the names wouldn't differ in that one word only, but is the more costly a better wine and, so, deserving of the higher price?
By and large, yes. The singular distinction between the two wines from the same house is that one comes from grapes grown only during one season, but necessarily a beneficent one. Vintage sparkling wines are not produced from harvests that fail to measure up in quality. The wines from those lesser years are used in the winery's nonvintage wine (more properly called, in truth, "multivintage" because it almost always contains many years' wines blended together).
Other factors weigh in to justify the higher charges for vintage sparkling wines. "Overall, it is the length of the process, compared to making nonvintage wines, that explains the price," says Arthur Silvente, a representative of Duval-Leroy, a French Champagne house.
For example, and although it is not a rule that holds in other countries, all French vintage Champagne must lie on its spent yeast cells for a minimum of three years after the commencement of the second fermentation in the bottle. (For nonvintage Champagne, the minimum is 15 months.) Most Champagne houses routinely and willingly exceed, by a long shot, the three years' aging minimum for their vintage wines.
In order to fruitfully and successfully tolerate such aging, vintage Champagne starts out its life with more stuffing. The base wine is always made, not only from grapes raised in a particularly fine single season, but also from those higher-quality, better-tended vineyards and sites that the winemaker either owns or from which it buys grapes. For vintage Champagne, one buys grapes bespoke, not off the rack.
All of this — the better beginning, the longer aging — conspires to create a wine that sports more nuance, greater layering of flavor, increased complexity and greater aging potential than nonvintage Champagne. It understandably costs more.
In my view, the best value in vintage Champagne these days comes from those who are grower-producers. You will see the letters "RM" on labels of their Champagnes (in wee print, near the name of the house); the letters mean "recoltant-manipulant," someone who grows the grapes and then makes the Champagne from them — cradle to capsule, as it were.
2006 J.L. Vergnon Brut Resonance Mesnil sur Oger Champagne: Tasted side by side with the same grower-producer's nonvintage, called Eloquence ($47), you see how the selection of all chardonnay from three Grand Cru vineyards ups all antes in the vintage wine: the mineral-laden, taut and incisive house style is warmed by the character of orchard fruit (apples and pears), finishing with sparks of chalkiness. $62
2002 Laurent Perrier Brut Champagne: Half chardonnay, half pinot noir; half cream, half citrus; half Brahms, half Bach; great price. $55
2002 Moet et Chandon Brut Grand Vintage Champagne: Half chardonnay, half the two pinots (noir and meunier); aged seven years on its yeast; Hawaiian fruit (grilled pineapple, hazelnut, coconut), creamily delivered; the texture is especially appealing. $70
2002 Pol Roger Brut Extra Cuvee de Reserve Champagne: The 2002 vintage was perfect for this house, the punch of power deftly delivered; big but not loud; complex, rich, enticingly scented; like witty conversation, many little things all at once. $110
2000 Duval-Leroy Brut Femme de Champagne: Eleven years' yeast yields micalike layers of mineral, citrus, fruit, bread and nut flavors and aromas, like a kaleidoscope at each sniff or sip; linear, incisive, but round and toned. $150
2007 Mumm Napa Blanc de Blancs, California: Green apple speckled with lemon zest; fresh, crisp, fine mousse. $27
2005 J Vineyards J Brut, Russian River Valley, Sonoma: Difficult to find a California bubbly with this much cellar aging; slick and sleek, but layered too, with a nut-citrus combo that's entertaining. $48
2006 Bellavista Franciacorta Gran Cuvee, Lombardy, Italy: A wow of a wine for all its peach, apple, lemon curd and mineral scents and tastes delivered on a fine mousse with a super-crisp finish. $69
2006 Domaine Carneros by Taittinger Le Reve, California: All estate chardonnay plus lots of age delivers a layered ether; rich and creamy on the tongue but every aroma and flavor is a grace note, a ping, all clustered and electric. $95
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.