A gentleman’s guide to vintage champagne

When it comes to bubbles, not all champagne is created equal. Some of the most famous champagne brands in the world, such as Dom Pérignon, Salon and Cristal, only exist as vintages. With differences in style, production and taste, vintage champagne is much more than an expensive version of regular fizz.

Katy Lavanant, an independent fine wine consultant, said: “Vintage champagne is a different product to non-vintage champagne. It has different flavours and aromas and is not to everyone’s taste. Non-vintage champagne is generally revered for being fresh, acidic and very fizzy. Vintage champagne is often less fizzy, much richer and more like a good white Burgundy.”

As Dom Pérignon celebrates the 300th anniversary of the death of its founder, we discover what makes vintage champagne special.

ABBAYE D'HAUTVILLERS

VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE VS NON-VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE

Champagne houses only declare vintages in years with the best harvests, creating blends which offer a different taste experience to their non-vintage bottles. Unlike non-vintage (NV) champagnes, vintage sparkling wines can only be made from grapes from that year. And, while NV champagne only has to be aged for 15 months, vintage wines are aged for at least 3 years after the second fermentation.

BUYING VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE

Vintage champagne is more expensive than NV equivalents as it costs the houses more to make. You can pick up vintage champagnes from larger brands from under £50 a bottle (about £15 more than NV equivalents), while more exclusive brands retail for up to £250 a bottle. You may find occasional bargains in supermarkets, or airports, but the more rare the wine, the harder it is to find. Salon only produces about 10,000 cases per vintage and is only found through specialist wine merchants.

DRINKING VINTAGE CHAMPAGNE

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You will get more flavour from the grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinor Meunier) if you serve the wine at 12-14°C rather than the typical 6-8°C for NV. Allow bottles to breathe for up to 30 minutes first to release maximum aromas. Forget standard champagne flutes; the straight sides let bubbles escape too quickly. Vintage champagne flutes (see photo) have rounded sides to concentrate the bubbles in the middle of the glass.

ULTIMATE CHAMPAGNE EXPERIENCE

The best introduction to vintage champagne is a tutored tasting. To commemorate the 300th anniversary of the death of Dom Pérignon, Grape Escapes is running an Atelier Tour to Hautevillers, the home of vintage champagne. This two-day package includes specialist tastings of 19 different champagnes, vintage champagne workshops and a private tour of the abbey where Dom Pierre Pérignon is buried. Accommodation is at the five-star Château Les Crayères.

From £933 per person from Grape Escapes 

VINTAGES TO LOOK OUT FOR

The quality of the harvest varies across the Champagne region each year, and depending on the weather, some grape varieties perform better than others. 2002, 2004 and 2005 are generally excellent vintages, which should be easy to find across a wide range of retailers.

By Julia Hunt

Further Reading