Champagne and port: Is vintage dead?

Richard Woodard

11 November 2019

Changes in climate, viticulture and advances in winemaking are transforming champagne and port production. So why not make vintages every year? Richard Woodard takes a closer look


With a few exceptions, we are accustomed to the fact that people make wine every year, no matter how variable the vintage. If you’re in Bordeaux (and you’re not Château d’Yquem), chances are you will bottle every harvest, whether it’s the vintage of the century – which tends to come up roughly two or three times a decade – or it’s 1992. Or 2013. Or 2017.

In these terms, champagne and port are the anomalies, the outliers. Sure, in most years, you can find somebody who has made some vintage port or vintage champagne, but these tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. This is especially true in the case of classic vintage port (single quinta is another matter), where declarations only happen a few times each decade.

But hang on a moment. With all the changes and transformations that have swept through the wine world, from climate change to the huge strides made in viticultural and winemaking techniques, is the selective approach to vintage champagne and port still tenable? And, given the obvious interruptions to supply during ‘off’ years, is it even commercially desirable?

Champagne

Even for a vintage-dedicated house, it’s a remarkable sequence: between 2002 and 2006 (inclusive), Dom Pérignon (DP) bottled 10 vintage wines – five blanc and five rosé. The run, in the words of chef de caves Vincent Chaperon, is both ‘unbelievable’ and ‘exceptional’, and one that he’s very proud of. Chaperon reckons DP declares roughly seven times a decade for blanc, and less – maybe four or five – for rosé, adding that this frequency has increased in recent years on the back of climate change-inspired warmer vintages and that he expects more rosé than blanc ‘declarations’ in the future. But there are still years when no DP is made – that five-year sequence will soon be broken – and changing conditions in the vineyard are more strongly related to the character of the wines than the frequency of vintages.

Vintage champagne: Seriously misunderstood

Veuve Clicquot red winemaker Pierre Casenave has just cracked open a bottle of Clicquot Cave Privée Rosé 1990 (disgorged in August 2011). Light amber in colour, it’s rich in flavours of crème caramel, nougat and almond, with stewed red fruits on the palate. The evolved fruit is similar to the character of a sweet Austrian wine, but it’s bone-dry and the acidity persists. It’s a glorious wine, but Casenave isn’t happy – he doesn’t think most people understand it. ‘It’s our fault,’ he says shaking his head. ‘Champagne has built its reputation by making something very consistent, so people are not really aware of the vintages. ‘They will think this is corked. It’s difficult. Even in France, there are few people who understand that champagne can age beautifully. It makes me furious, because for me these wines are part of the treasure of Veuve Clicquot.’ Every champagne house has as its number-one priority the core, non-vintage cuvée. Everything else has to remain subservient to this and to good quality and quantity reserve wines.
There’s an undeniable logic to this, but the price paid is that vintage champagne remains mostly unloved, unappreciated and misunderstood.

‘Our wines are changing,’ says Chaperon. ‘We have been trying to push the intensity and the richness of the vintages… I’m sure that the vintages you drink today are going further in intensity than those of the past.’ The key to these new conditions, he adds, is to maintain balance. ‘It’s not that the further you go, the better it is. With white wine, you can go too far.
‘With [base] wine for champagne, you can overpass maturity and get something that’s too heavy. We always want to bring back energy, vibrancy and precision, next to the depth. We want both.’

Thoughts on the excellent (in terms of both quality and quantity) 2018 harvest led Chaperon’s Moët Hennessy colleague, Ruinart chef de caves Fred Panaïotis, to consider the future of the vintage in more general terms. ‘Will [2018] translate into the best wine ever?’ he asks, rhetorically. ‘That’s way too early to say, but it will be hard not to make a vintage in 2018.
‘Today, it’s hard not to do a vintage every year – 2001 was probably the last one where most people couldn’t. But maybe in 20 years it will be that way again, for different reasons.’

The importance of being NV

Climate change, which has mainly been champagne’s friend in the recent past, could easily become its enemy. But there are other reasons why winemakers don’t make a vintage every year – even when they want to. ‘I see a vintage only in March [following the harvest] when I blend,’ says Laurent Fresnet, chef de caves at Henriot. ‘In 2012, for instance, it was a beautiful, but very small harvest… Very mature, very high potential for ageing.’ A perfect year, then, to make Henriot prestige cuvée Enchanteleurs (since renamed cuvée Hemera)? Yes – but no. Fresnet didn’t have enough grand cru fruit for core expression Brut Souverain, so he had to, in his words, ‘kill my Enchanteleurs’. It still pains him to this day.

Cyril Brun, chef de caves at Charles Heidsieck, thinks that vintage champagne could be made in ‘90%’ of years now, but highlights the central problem for many cellarmasters: the profile of vintage wines – high expression, strong potential for ageing – is the same as that of reserve wines. And he’s clear which he needs to prioritise. ‘It means that you have to potentially compromise the quantity of reserve wines when you make vintages with high frequency,’ says Brun. ‘But the role of the reserve is so critical [to maintaining the consistency of non-vintage] that my choice is made. I would certainly be happy to make three vintages per decade, even if there is more potential.’

But reserve wines aren’t just crucial to core non-vintage products. Bruno Paillard wanted to make a zero-dosage champagne as soon as he founded his eponymous house in 1981, bottling his first attempt giving an extended maturation period to a good-quality wine base. ‘He thought that would bring sufficient elements to domesticate the acidity of the wine,’ recalls his daughter, Alice Paillard. ‘But it was not the case. The wine was good because it was a prestige cuvée base, but the harmony was missing, so he discontinued it immediately.’ Only in 2018 was Paillard finally ‘rich enough in reserve wines’ to release Maison Bruno Paillard Dosage : Zéro as a multi-vintage wine, with 50% of the blend taken from reserve wines, some dating back as far as 1985. It may frustrate lovers of vintage champagne, but the qualities of the individual year will always be trumped by the central importance of core non-vintage expressions.

Port

Back-to-back classic vintage port declarations are, for most big producers, rare. But the call to follow 2016 with 2017 (declared this spring) was straightforward, says Dominic Symington, director of Symington Family Estates (Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s, Cockburn’s). ‘Normally [when we declare] the wine is two years old, so we’ve already got the next year in the bank – so we choose the better of the two vintages,’ he says. ‘That’s normally quite an easy decision, but with ’16 and ’17 the wines are so totally different that it was an easy decision to go with both of them. And they’re smaller in volume, so that also helps us a little bit.’ But don’t read too much into this. Neither of the Douro’s biggest players – Symington and The Fladgate Partnership (the company behind Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft) – has any intention of declaring every vintage from now on.

Some do, though – or they come close. Quinta do Noval has long pursued the unusual policy of declaring vintages almost (but not quite) every year, even if it means releasing tiny quantities of wine: 1,000 cases in 2012 and 2014, and 1,200 cases in 2013, none of which were widely declared years. ‘With vines and terroir like this, we don’t always have to run with the crowd,’ says Noval managing director Christian Seely.

Vintage port: A business decision?

If we accept that fruit quality in the Douro has improved over the past few decades, do vintage declarations then become a business decision, based first and foremost on what the market will be able to absorb? ‘It never has been and it never should be, because it’s a quality-driven decision,’ says Adrian Bridge, CEO of The Fladgate Partnership.
To illustrate the point, he cites the declaration of 2007, where producers were selling vintage port in to a world reeling from the global economic crisis in May 2009. ‘We didn’t sell a lot, but we sold enough,’ he says ruefully. Then there was the 2009 declaration (by no means universal), where the wines were released during the depths of Portugal’s fiscal slump. ‘We declared it because we saw the quality was there,’ says Bridge. ‘We understand that. The economic cycle ebbs and flows.’

‘We have an independence and reputation that allows us to be somewhat idiosyncratic.’ He adds: ‘The fundamental principle for us is that if we have a wine that we believe is of the quality and personality required to be bottled as a Quinta do Noval vintage, then we should bottle it and declare it, whether or not we declared a vintage the year before, and even if the quantity of wine involved is very small.’

A bright future for single quintas

While Noval is the product of a single (admittedly large and diverse) vineyard, that’s not the case with big names such as Taylor’s and Graham’s. ‘Taylor’s 2017 is not Vargellas 2017, it’s coming from three different vineyards,’ explains Fladgate CEO Adrian Bridge. ‘That creates levels of complexity that we believe aren’t possible with a single property… Great vintage port is blending together more areas, more levels of terroir.’ Symington agrees. ‘In a declared vintage, the overall region is producing wines from different vineyard properties that are of outstanding quality,’ he says. ‘The sum of the parts is greater than the individual.’

In this context, then, the advances that are made in vineyard and winery may raise the overall quality of all port wine, but classic vintages will still only be made in the finest years. ‘There’s a strong argument that consumers want an amount of vintage port in any given year,’ says Bridge. ‘So, if we did make it, I’m sure we could find consumers, but we would have changed the philosophy of what [vintage] is. ‘Instead of diluting classic vintage port, we’d much rather focus on educating more people on how good single quintas are.’

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