Vintage vs Non-Vintage Champagne
What is the difference between vintage vs non-vintage Champagne? And what does it mean for how your Champagne will taste?
For starters, it helps to explain why one would choose to make a non-vintage wine. In Champagne, the weather can be, well, unpredictable. Maintaining stocks of wine from particularly good years or more bountiful years, allows producers to have a more reliable amount of wine to put to market. What’s more, having a range of wines to blend from allows producers to have a house style that is consistent from year to year.
Now, from the addition of the ‘liqueur de tirage’, (the ingredients to start the second fermentation in the bottle), to being released, a non-vintage Champagne must be aged 15 months minimum, with at least 12 of those months spent ‘on the lees’. Understanding what time on the lees means for the style of wine is crucial.
The lees are the yeast cells that ate the sugars in the wine, creating both alcohol and carbon dioxide. Under pressure, the carbon dioxide remains dissolved, but pop that cork, expose the wine to oxygen and the carbon dioxide bubbles up!
Once the yeast is finished - creating both alcohol and carbon dioxide - its work may be done, but it will continue to contribute flavor, even after it is exhausted. The time on the lees creates the autolytic process, in which the lees begin to break down and release compounds like amino acids and mannoproteins. It is this process that adds the toasty, nutty and sometimes lactic character to the Champagne. Interestingly, the lees also have a preserving effect on the wine, preventing oxidation.
When it comes to age between a vintage vs. non-vintage Champagne, a non-vintage only requires 15 months from tirage to release. Whereas a vintage Champagne, which must contain 100% of the stated vintage, must be aged at least three years, with one of those years on the lees. In reality, many vintage Champagnes will spend much longer on the lees, but even if they don’t, the extra time aging after the lees are disgorged will encourage the Maillord reaction. That is the interaction between the dosage sugars and the wine, increasing the roasty and toasty deliciousness. With this aging, you begin to get more intensely broiled nutty and creamy notes. A bit of oxidation will come into play as well, so expect flavors of roasted rather than fresh fruit that will begin to manifest.
Another aspect of a vintage Champagne style is that, while different houses will have different styles, you will see more variability from year to year than you see in the house’s standard non-vintage bottle.
Below you can find some classic vintage vs non-vintage Champagnes. In the next article in this series, we will explore some of the specialty bottles on the market and what they mean for what’s in your glass!
2002 Champagne Billecart-Salmon Cuvée Nicholas François
2008 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne
2009 Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill
Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve N.V.
Read more about Champagne styles: