The Art of Non-Vintage Champagne

“Champagne! In success you deserve it; in defeat you need it” ~ Winston Churchill.

There is no doubt in my mind that there’s magic in a glass of Champagne.  My belief was strengthened recently at a dinner hosted by Jacquart Champagne where we delved into the intricacies of creating the ‘house-style’ Non-Vintage blend.

Each year the Champagne houses will each produce their ‘non-vintage blend’.  This is a crucial part of their annual production as it expresses the signature style of wine they produce and is the standard upon which the rest of their range is based.

The Non-Vintage blend consists largely of grapes from the most recent vintage, along with a portion of ‘reserve wines’ that have been kept from previous years – this is why it’s called a ‘non-vintage’ – because not all the grapes are from the same year.

The most important aspect of this blend is that it must remain consistent from year to year, regardless of how good or bad the recent vintage has been, so that no matter when or where you open a bottle, it will always taste the same.

Before Champagne becomes the wonderful bubbly wine we know it to be, it goes through two fermentations – one in the tank, the other in the bottle (where the bubbles are born).  The first fermentation produces still (non-sparkling) wines – called ‘base wines’ or ‘Vins Clairs’. This is the critical stage when the decisions must be made of which wines to use to create the final blend.

Within a vineyard individual plots can be vinified separately, which means there can be hundreds of base wines to evaluate and choose between to find those that qualify for the NV blend.

Not only is it difficult to try to match the consistent style of wine due to the sheer number of wines available to use, but it’s made even harder by the fact that the base wines are extremely acidic and therefore very hard to taste (imagine tasting hundreds of different glasses of diluted freshly squeezed lemon juice).

I recently got a much better understanding of exactly how big a challenge creating a ‘house-style, non-vintage blend’ is when I attended a dinner hosted by Jacquart Champagne.  Winemaker Floriane Eznack had brought over several Vins Clairs for us to taste to give us a first-hand understanding of the skill and level of difficulty involved.

The tasting of the base wines is usually only done in the winery itself by the winemaker and her team of Cellar Masters (Floriane works with 3 of them), so it’s a rare occasion to taste these wines at all – especially in London!

We tasted two Chardonnays, two Pinot Meuniers and a Pinot Noir. The very first sip was a stinger – sharp and tart – but after going through them all once and then again, it became possible to look beyond the acidity and recognize the fruit and savoury flavours that would make each of them an important element in the final blend.

We only tasted five wines and my palate was already exhausted and dying for a glass of the finished product! I can only imagine what it’s like for Floriane to cull through over 400 different Vins Clairs! Incredibly it only took 3 months to create the Jacquart Non-Vintage blend for 2012.

After the enlightening tasting, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Kettners in Soho – each of the four courses carefully paired with different cuvees and vintages of Jacquart. I always enjoy being reminded that Champagne is not just a delightful aperitif, but that it can be a serious food wine and how well it goes with an array of dishes.

Much thanks to Florianne, Jacquart Champagne and Westbury Communications for a super evening!

(Apologies about the lack of photos, but disappointingly all the files were corrupted upon downloading).

Here’s to trying something new, learning something new and enjoying every glass a whole lot more!

Tara – Wine Passionista

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