Non-Vintage. Brut Sans Année. Entry-level. There are few ways of describing the largest category of wines in Champagne without sounding a little…nonplussed, without focusing on what isn’t there. It’s a shame, as ‘NV’ production is at the very heart of what makes Champagne so unique.
It’s rare to see the letters ‘NV’ on a bottle of Champagne any more, with most producers (large and small) opting for something along the lines of ‘Brut Réserve’, ‘Brut Classic’, or just ‘Brut’. All but the very smallest (and a handful of specialist) producers make at least one, distinct from Vintage or ‘Millésime’ bottlings that showcase the harvest of only one year. But rather than talking about what isn’t there – the non and the sans – let’s start by talking about what is.
Back to Base
Firstly, there is a base vintage in the blend. This is something you’ll hear Champagne aficionados talking about – “Ah, this non-vintage is base 2018!”. A little confusing? Possibly. The base vintage is the year which the main body of the wine comes from, the rest being made up of reserves from previous years (more on this later). Most producers use between 50% and 80% of a single base year in their Non-Vintage wines, meaning that the specific qualities of the harvest can still loom large.
The question is, does the producer really want us to know that, or would they prefer us not to worry about it. It is almost impossible to find the base year of NV champagnes from producers Moët or Laurent-Perrier, yet others, such as Charles Heidsieck, print this (or year of ‘tirage’ – the one following the harvest) on the back label. Some, such as Lanson, appear to have rowed back on their initial attempts to provide more information, whilst others such as Taittinger print QR codes on the bottle that can (in theory) fetch you the information.
Is there a reason for this opacity? One winemaker told me that customers in some newer markets had thought that the printed base vintage was a ‘Use By Date’, and that the champagne had gone off! Too much information can clearly cause confusion. So do we really need to know?
Sometimes. 2018-based NVs tend to be a little rounder and sunnier in character than 2019s, which have a little more intensity and elegance. 2017s can – but don’t always – show some of the slightly musty, rot-affected characters of that tricky year, especially when heavy with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, whereas 2015s can be quite grippy and broad. The idea that NVs are blended to be absolutely consistent in taste one year to the next is widely debunked, but what a good producer should offer is a consistency of style, if not absolute substance.
In terms of style, the vintage base also gives us a clue as to how long the champagne has aged for and, therefore, whether the style is likely to be youthful and fruit-forward or a little more textured and complex. Recent tastings of some 2020-based champagnes (barely fifteen months in the cellar), revealed wines so fresh they were more reminiscent of still wine with bubbles, rather than something coloured by the richer flavours of lees-ageing.
Call In The Reserves
When it comes to age, more does not equal better, though. Young NVs can be absolutely delicious, especially with sunny base years such as 2018 and 2019. The secret is often the missing part of the puzzle – the reserves. Reserve wine is just as powerful a tool for top NV production as time on lees, and sometimes those ‘rich’ flavours and textures – pastry, honey, cream and nuts – are kicked off just as much by the reserves as they are from the time on lees.
Most of the reserve wine at larger houses is kept in large stainless steel tanks that allow the wine to age very, very slowly, maintaining its freshness. Adding recent vintages of this sort of reserve wine keeps the style light and bright – part of the picture for houses such as Perrier-Jouét, Taittinger and Moët – whilst producers such as Louis Roederer and Bollinger have much more complex reserve wine systems that incorporate oak, which brings a little more complexity and depth to the picture.
There is one particular kind of reserve favoured by small and medium-sized Champagne producers that you may well come across – a perpetual reserve. Often (although technically incorrectly) called a Solera system, a perpetual reserve is a single wine which is both added to, and drawn from, year after year. In effect it is a massive multi-vintage cuvée of its own, an intense shot of concentrated character that adds depth and complexity when blended with the fresh wines of a new base year.
Perpetual reserves can go back decades, yet the amount of wine inside from each year decreases as you go back in time, keeping a balance between aged and youthful characteristics. Houses such as Louis Roederer, Bollinger and Billecart-Salmon have complex perpetual systems stored in multiple foudres (large oak casks that don’t transmit too much oaky character to the wine). Smaller producers (with much smaller cellars) may just have one or two, giving maximum impact with minimum footprint.
The Multi Story
Some producers love their perpetual cuvées so much that they even bottle some champagnes made from them alone. At this point, when the base vintage is not really the ‘base’ anymore but just one ingredient in a blend, we are into another thought-process: Multi-Vintage. There is an increasingly large band of wines in champagne that are not vintages, but don’t want to be lumped in with Non-Vintage, either; their way of sidestepping the slightly apologetic language of non- and sans- is to fully abandon the pretence that the wine will remain consistent year to year and simply give each different blend a new name. These are the ‘editions’, or the ‘iterations’.
This concept might be familiar if you’ve ever tried some of Champagne’s ‘Prestige’ wines such as Krug’s Grande Cuvée and Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle. Of the two, Krug is more like an old-fashioned Non-Vintage blend elevated through formidable reserve wine usage, whereas Grand Siècle is a blend of just three vintages. Both though, prove that single-vintage wines are not inherently better than blends of multiple years – an idea taken to heart by a number of smaller growers who produce multi-vintage wines that sit near the very top of their portfolio.
The Badge of Honour
Whatever you call it, the Non-Vintage is the wine any producer stakes their reputation on. One Chef de Cave at a very large house told me he spends 90% of his time on his, even if the other wines in the portfolio grab 90% of the headlines. Why? For most people it is the first meeting with the house, and first impressions count. In any case, finding a terrific NV is just as exciting a discovery as any vintage or prestige wine, not only because of the price, but because of the skill and imagination it takes to work with multiple vintages, vineyards and reserve wines on the blending table.
When you do find one, you can be sure that what comes next will be just as rewarding.
Author of this article, Tom Hewson, writes about Champagne and Sparkling Wine for Tim Atkin MW and at https://sixatmospheres.
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