Photo Credit: Barbara Balik
Vintage dated and Vintage blended examples of Champagne and Port. From left to right NV Pierre Morlet Grand Réserve, 1998 Dom Perignon, 1972 Grahams Colheita, Sandeman 40-Year Tawny and 2000 Taylor-Fladgate Vintage Port.
The Wine Exchange
Allen R. Balik
Is vintage the final arbiter
As the holidays approach, I often think back to a tasting I attended with several passionate wine-loving friends and industry colleagues a few years ago. As a group we decided to celebrate the season with two favorites that are rarely seen as a pair – Champagne and Port. While at first glance, this may seem a strange pairing, there was a definite plan in mind.
It was the holiday season and nowhere else in the world do vintage dated and vintage blended wines stand side-by-side on the quality spectrum. In their homelands of France’s Champagne Appellation (AOC) and Portugal’s Douro DOC the production of seemingly opposing wine styles merely co-exist with neither claiming superiority.
When vintages are blended as in non-vintage (NV) Champagne or a range of Tawny and other Ports the resulting wines are designed to emulate a “house style” rather than the intrinsic qualities of a specific vintage’s individual expression. The intricate blending techniques employed represent generations of expertise with an historic perspective of the final blend’s desired personality, flavor and aromatic profiles.
Dozens (and often several hundred) reserve components may be used and the vintage selections may date back through a decade or far more. And, as with vintage offerings, the reserves used in NV bottlings can also encompass various vineyards, varieties and specific blocks.
Vintage dated wines must contain at least 95 percent of the fruit from the labeled vintage, though 100 percent examples are also common. Here, blending is often (but not always) done with multiple varieties and vineyards to add complexity and lend an intended stylistic profile. As climatic conditions vary from year to year, vintage bottlings demonstrate the house or vineyard character but are tempered by the unique quirks of a particular growing season.
Great and age-worthy wines are produced in both vintage and NV styles and there is always a place at the table for each. Quite often vintage dated wines are held in an elevated level of esteem to NV bottlings, but that is not necessarily the case, and the genesis of this view remains unclear.
In Champagne, it’s the NV selections that support the house and may represent up to 80 percent of sales. The same may be said for the Port houses where Vintage Port accounts for less than 5 percent of sales. Non-vintage dated Champagne, Port and other wines pose the greatest challenge to the winemaker while also offering the greatest triumph as they must always convey the house style to balance the vagaries of the vintages composing the blend.
I’ve never liked or understood the concept of the non-vintage moniker as it says nothing about the wine and is quite confusing when describing what’s in the bottle. It’s an empty phrase with no real meaning, because all wines come from a vintage or vintages, so how can they be called “non-vintage?”
I’ve always preferred using the term “multi-vintage” rather than non-vintage when referring to wines made from the blending of various vintages for a more understandable definition. The term non-vintage seems hollow whereas multi-vintage carries a simple and direct message.
Long ago, the Champenoise adopted the idea of blending reserve wines from multiple vintages to overcome the radical climatic differences from one year to the next in the quest for the consistency of a house style, and the NV term took hold. More recently, several of Champagne’s prestigious houses have, over the last decade or so, come to realize the clarity in concept of the term multi-vintage over non-vintage for a new category within their portfolios. But this comes with a little twist.
The new MV category is somewhat of a cross between NV and vintage as the wines carrying this designation continue as a blend of various reserve vintages. However, the resulting wines are intended to emphasize “diversity” over “consistency” by reliance on a single reserve vintage as the foundation (usually more than 70 percent) of the blend.
To emphasize the MV point, Champagne Louis Roederer Chef de Cave Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon has been quoted as saying, “This is the end of the era for brut sans année [the commonly used term in Champagne for non-vintage]…this is the new era of the multi-vintage.” This statement may be a bit premature but does reflect a direction being pursued in Champagne.
Neither NV or MV is an official designation by the appellation of Champagne or France’s INAO that serves as the regulatory agency to oversee the use of noteworthy names. At this time, the terms may be seen more as a marketing tool with non-vintage based on an historical perspective and multi-vintage as a newer term devised to better describe the blend and gravitate away from the former.
In Portugal, the term non-vintage or NV is not used, but the wines emanating from the blending of vintages are well understood. The official title of “Vintage Port” is highly respected with wines only produced in a vintage declared by the producer and the IVDP (Port regulatory body).
Beyond Vintage Port, we should also look at the many other styles of Port (the official name for the fortified wines of the Douro DOC) as some are vintage dated while others are specifically regulated blends. These bottlings include the categories of Ruby, Ruby Reserve, Late Bottled Vintage (LBV), White, Tawny, Reserve Tawny, Aged Tawny, Colheita, etc.
As complicated as this may sound, all Ports really break down into two groups – bottle aged and cask aged. And that’s the easy part as Vintage Port is bottle aged, while all the others (whether vintage dated on the label or not) are cask aged.
Vintage Ports are bottled two years after harvest and carry the specific vintage date on the label. Further aging and development takes place over decades in the bottle. All the rest are held in cask for a specified length of time that may or may not appear on the label. These wines are aged in cask and are effectively at their peak drinkability when bottled and released. An LBV is essentially a vintage dated Ruby and a Colheita is a vintage dated Tawny.
In general, quality dry table wines and non-fortified sweet dessert wines are traditionally vintage dated. This is important as all vintages and all growing areas are not the same. What may be a great vintage in Napa Valley does not necessarily translate to neighboring Sonoma or Paso Robles to the south, let alone the multitude of other growing areas around the globe.
Vintage dated wines should mirror the character of the season’s growing conditions while multi-vintage blends are intended to moderate the vintage influence and present more of the producer’s consistent stylistic expression.
While the debate may continue on vintage vs. non-vintage, the reality remains a matter of taste, style and personal preference. One is not intended as being better or worse than the other, and thankfully there are outstanding examples in both camps to expand our own vinous horizons.
Share your experiences with other readers by commenting on this article with an e-mail to me at email@example.com.
Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 40 years.