Del Boy in ‘Only Fools and Horses’ showed himself to be a complete plonk plonker. He ordered a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau … ‘the 79’ vintage. The vexing question of ‘vintage’ confuses consumers – particularly with Sparkling wines – so here’s how to avoid combobulation.
The word ‘vintage’ is the anglicization of the word ‘vendage’ (meaning harvest), influenced by ‘vin/vinum’ (wine). If a wine displays a year on the bottle it indicates the year when the grapes were harvested and the wine vinified.
However, some people misunderstand this. They think that a year on the label shows that it was an exceptional year. In a way, you can blame Port. Historically Brits loved Port, and fixated on the concept of vintage because of the practice of Port formally ‘declaring a vintage’ as a hallmark of quality. Consumers have transposed their understanding of Port practice to other wines styles: so vintage – good; non-vintage – bad. This is quite simply wrong. A vintage shows the year it was made. A ‘declaration of a vintage’ year indicates that the wine is likely to be exceptionally good. These are different things.
In some wines the year really matters. In places where the weather is very variable, like Bordeaux, a warmer year gives riper fruit; a cooler year gives savoury flavours, and rainy years dilute the grape flavours. Great wines need great weather (a vintage year). Wines from those great years are pricey, sometimes thousands of pounds more than for the same bottle of wine from a different year. Luckily there are lots of vintage charts to check which years are the desirable ones.
Did you know that only 85% of the grapes have to come from a particular year to be able to display that year on the bottle? That means that 15% don’t. Perhaps because adding a little something from a different year can enhance the wine. Keep this in mind as you read on.
So how does this affect Sparkling Wine? We all know that Champagne comes in Vintage and Non-vintage versions. Is vintage better? Not necessarily. In Champagne the main difference is ageing: Non-vintage Champagnes only have to be aged for 15 months, but vintage Champagnes have to be aged for 3 years. However, most Champagnes are in fact aged much longer than that – the average is 4.5 years – so the minimum ageing regulations are less significant.
Let’s remember what goes on in the winery. Still wines are grape juice that has fermented once and is bottled to be drunk. Champagnes and Sparkling wines also start the same way. Fermented grape juice (which others call ‘wine’ and fizz producers call ‘base wine’) is then blended into the chosen Cuvée, which is bottled, adding some more yeast and sugar, to re-ferment the wine in the bottle and make it bubbly. Next it is riddled and disgorged and has dosage added. So it is a different wine-making process than that of its still wine cousins, and one of the most important steps in making Sparkling Wine is the blending. For that, you need the palate of a master.
Non-Vintage Sparkling wines are a blend of different grapes – usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, – which have been harvested in different years and blended together. Sparkling wines are complex wines whose important characteristics come from blending and ageing. Just as a painter would be hamstrung by having a very limited colour palette, so a winemaker can only be at his best if he has access to a wide spectrum of different wines to blend and craft into the most delicious wine. In short, you need a full palette to please the palate. Wines from different years give different flavours and characteristics and potentially contribute to a more complex and better wine. In fact, the recognition that wines from different years may help to make a better wine is inherent in the reasoning for allowing 15% of wine from a different year to go into wines described as ‘Vintage’.
Blending wines from different years is also a way of guaranteeing consistency for the ‘house style’ of a Champagne so that wherever you are in the world you can buy a bottle of the Non Vintage and know that it will taste the same. No nasty surprises.
Prejudice persists however, and I have seen even wise oenophiles veer away from Non Vintage Champagnes. Such behaviour is as ridiculous as Del Boy’s. Just remember, a year displayed on the bottle label only records when (most of) the grapes were harvested. It is not necessarily a claim that the year was a good year. In an effort to escape the negative connotations of ‘Non-Vintage’ (which sounds less good than vintage) fizz producers are beginning to call their wines Multi Vintage (MV rather than NV) to emphasise that you are getting more – not less – for your money.
However, just to confuse you, there are times when Champagne declares a Vintage Millésime – when the weather has been better than average and great wines are expected. Curiously in the last 60 years ,46 years have been declared Vintage Millésime: So a Vintage Millésime is the mode, but not the median or mean.
So watch out fizzerati. A bottle of fizz can have a year on its label even if its not a particularly good year just as long as 85% of the grapes come from that year. Some fizz producers will display a year on the label – displaying it as a vintage fizz – knowing that consumers mistakenly believe that it is a sign of an excellent wine for which they can charge a greater price. At Ambriel we never put a year on the bottle unless we believe it to be an outstanding wine. No tricks, just treats.
So buy Vintage or Multi-Vintage Sparkling – either can be wonderful – just don’t be misled.