Champagne's 2015 vintage almost "too good"

From the drinks business: Champagne’s 2015 vintage almost too good

The biggest challenge for Ruinart’s chef de cave this year will be making a NV Champagne that’s “not too good”, given the high quality of the 2015 vintage and the need to maintain consistency each year.

At a tasting of Ruinart’s blanc de blancs NV and vintage Champagnes in London yesterday, Frédéric PanaÏotis, chef de cave, reported that while 2015 yields in Champagne had dropped by around 20%, the quality of its harvest had been exceptionally high.

“Don’t expect me to say its a vintage of the century because I never say that, but I have a pretty big smile on my face at the moment”, said PanaÏotis. (Article continues)

They want to try not to make it as good as they can? That’s very disappointing.

Not at all! In fact, it’s essential . . .

Do not compute. Please explain. Why wouldn’t you want every vintage to be as good as possible?

That is not what he was saying. Re-read the quote:

Ruinart’s chef de cave was speaking specifically about making a NON-VINTAGE Champagne.

What does non-vintage mean?

Ah. OK. Sorry . . .

So – in terms of WINE and WINE LABELING – the word vintage describes the calendar year in which the grapes were harvested. In order for a wine to be a “vintage wine” (legally), the grapes used to produce the wine must be from one single year’s harvest.¹

Only some TWO percent of all Champagne produced is VINTAGE Champagne. Everything else is NON-VINTAGE² Champagne. (This is typically abbreviated as “nv” or “n.v.”)

Let’s forget about global warming for a moment. The Champagne region is one of the northernmost places in Europe where fine wine is produced. Changes in the weather and other factors mean that not ever year produces excellent quality grapes. Indeed, some years just downright suck, while other years might produce grapes of incredible quality³. What does a winemaker do when Mother Nature gives him or her crappy grapes? As the saying goes, You can’t make good wine from bad grapes; but you can always make bad wine from good grapes.

The answer – at least in so far as Champagne⁴ is concerned – is to make non-vintage wines. Non-vintage wines will contain wines from two or more – and in Champagne, it’s always more! – different years, which are then blended together.

The “bread-and-butter,” if you will, of every Champagne House is their non-vintage Brut (think Mumm Cordon Rouge, for example, or Verve Clicquot’s “Yellow Label”). THIS wine – the nv Brut Champagne – and not a wine like Cuvée Dom Pérignon or Cristal, is truly the “rock” upon which a producer’s reputation rests. No other wine is produced in such volume by a Champagne producer.

For example, the article quotes the Chef de Cave of Ruinart Champagne as saying

Clearly, he thinks 2015 is an outstanding year in terms of grape quality, and thus in the quality of the (eventual) wine produced from those outstanding grapes.

But what if 2016 is one of those years that seriously sucks? And what if 2017 is very good, while 2018 is not as bad as 2016 – it’s not horrible – but what if it’s only of “average” quality?

A non-vintage wine will compensate for that. So, while some of this wine will be bottled as “2015 Champagne,” most of the grapes from 2015 will be produced into wine and HELD in reserve. Some of the wine that was produced from 2015 grapes will be blended in with the wines that were made in 2012, 2013, 2014 in order to produce non-vintage wines. – Some of the 2015 will be later blended wine wines made from 2016, 2017, 2018 . … possibly even wines from 2020 and beyond! (Some n.v. Champagnes may be a blend of wines from 5, 7, even 10 different years! The general average is at least three.) By keeping the wines from excellent vintages in reserve, a winemaker will be able to produce a CONSISTENT wine day-in, day-out, and so EVERY bottle of nv Brut will taste the same as every other nv Brut – it is something you, the consumer, can count on 24/7/365; indeed year after year after year. This is the goal in making a non-vintage wine: you want to keep your customers satisfied by offering a consistent product that they know and love.

Now re-read the quote:

When asked if this year would result in a Dom Ruinart vintage Champagne, [chef de cave Frédérick] PanaÏotis is confident, the last being from the 2004 vintage.

“I think we should be able to make a Dom Ruinart in 2015”, he confirmed. “[non-vintage] Blanc de blancs I have no choice, it’s not an option not to make it. This year the goal with [the n.v.] Blanc de blancs is to not make it too good. You want to make its good but not too good because what am I going to do next year when its not so good? It has to be consistent. So this year I might use some reserve wines and save some of this year’s for the future. We have to think about that.”

Does that make more sense now?

¹ All over the world there is a slight “fudge factor” built into this requirement (I.e.: the requirement is rarely an absolute 100 percent), which makes sense from a winemaking point-of-view. It is kept to a minimum in order to preserve the character and quality of the vintage, however, and the requirement is generally held at 95 percent.

² Some 25+ years ago, Champagne Krug began calling their wines “MULTI-Vintage,” which is more truthful, I suppose, and you will occasionally see wine lists or articles today referring to “multi-vintage” Champagnes rather than “non-vintage”.

³ Of course this is true everywhere, but rarely do vintages truly “suck” in the New World. Indeed, back in the 1970s (and before), one Napa Valley winery used to print on their cardboard boxes, “Every Year is a Vintage Year in California.”

⁴ This is true of some other regions as well, most notable the Douro Valley and its Port wines (where, again, some two percent of their total production is Vintage Porto).

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Thank you very much for explaining all of that. Yes, I understand now.