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Heat wave in France – what does this mean for vintage champagne?

Epernay heat waveIn case you didn’t see the news, France recently experienced a heat wave.

The north of France, including the Champagne area, saw some of the highest temperatures reaching 350 C (950 F) in a few places.

The last year when such high temperatures were recorded was 2003 – in some plots the grapes practically fried on the vine.

Most champagne houses wrote off the idea of producing a vintage champagne as a waste of time, judging that the yields were too low, sugar levels far too high and acidity levels not high enough. Houses that, nevertheless, declared a vintage, were considered either unwise, or just plain crazy, but there were some serious names amongst them: Moët & Chandon and Bollinger.

Perhaps that tells us something about the prospects for the 2019 vintage and about vintage champagne in general too?

 

Sales of vintage champagne are going through a bit of a slump,  stuck in the middle between, on the one hand, easy to understand and less expensive non-vintage champagnes,  and on the other hand, the much more expensive prestige cuvées which receive more attention from those marketing and selling champagne. It’s not surprising therefore that these, usually expensive, wines have caught the imagination of a number of consumers and are often seen as representing the pinnacle of a wine maker’s skill.

However, from a producer’s point of view, the appeal of vintage champagne is rather different.

Making non-vintage champagne is the greatest challenge for a chef de cave in Champagne.  It’s the  NV that carries the weight of any house’s reputation. There’s no room for mistakes or for deviation from the established house style. This is no easy task for the wine makers because the quantity and quality of the grapes available inevitably vary each year.

On the other hand, vintage champagne doesn’t have to conform so rigidly to the house style. Instead, it is the expression of year in question and so the wine maker has more freedom to be creative and it offers him, or her, the chance to really show off their skills.

Paradoxically, despite the sluggishness of vintage champagne sales, it’s becoming more common to see a house, particularly the smaller vignerons, release a vintage champagne much more often than the 2 or 3 times per decade that has been normal in the past.

LInstantanee reducedThis might be the result of an effort to revive the popularity of vintage champagnes; it might be because the weather is changing and wine making techniques are improving, or simply because champagne makers enjoy creating a vintage champagne.

A case in point is Huré Frères in Ludes who release a vintage every year with the witty name of Instantanée. It’s not meant to be exactly the same as the previous year’s vintage.

From the consumer’s point of view, it’s worth remembering too that a champagne maker doesn’t have to declare a vintage at all. Vintage champagne will never be the major profit or volume generator for a house. That suggests that if a house does release a vintage, the wine maker must feel that it is something special of which he or she is proud.

Last but not least, with prices of vintage champagne well below the sometimes stratospheric (and hard to justify?) levels of the prestige cuvées, champagne lovers who venture to choose a vintage champagne may well find that both their pocket and their palate are pleasantly surprised.

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