A Champagne house’s Non Vintage blend is their shopfront, accounting for 80% or more of their sales. Its job is to reflect the house style, consistently, year in, year out.
Veuve Clicquot, for example, is known for the high proportion of Pinot Noir in its Brut Non Vintage (the iconic Yellow Label), usually accounting for just over half of the blend, followed by Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Other grande marque Champagnes with a similar emphasis on Pinot Noir include Bollinger Special Cuvée and Lanson Black Label Brut NV.
But if you try these three Champagnes, you’ll find big differences in style between them. Lanson is incredibly fresh, with lasting, lemony acidity. Bollinger, by contrast, is full flavoured, rich and spicy. Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label lies perhaps somewhere between the two, with a mix of fruit and brioche aromas, combined with structure and length on the palate.
There is clearly much more to Champagne house styles that just the blend of grapes involved. Things that also have a key role to play are where in Champagne those grapes come from: Chardonnay from the heart of the chalk-rich Côte des Blancs will usually be much more linear, austere even, than Chardonnay from the more southerly but still chalk-rich area of Montgueux, for example. The amount and age of the reserve wines, wines from previous harvests used to smooth out vintage variations and to preserve house style, are also key considerations. How long the wine ages in the cellar (on its lees) before release is considered an important element for quality. Finally, the winemaking itself puts its stamp on the final wine.
One of the key winemaking decisions is whether to use oak for fermentation and/or ageing. Bollinger, again, is perhaps the most well-known Champagne where the use of oak is key to its rich flavour. Moët et Chandon’s Brut Imperial NV has no oak ageing, in keeping with its fresh, supple style.
Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow Label Brut NV, has, for the past few years, contained a very small proportion (as little as 1-2%) of oaked wines. This development has been driven by their cellar master, Dominique Demarville, who has pioneered the use of oak in Veuve’s vintage Champagnes since his first vintage in 2008.
Vintage Champagnes, by definition, must only contain wines from a single year of production. Dominique’s thinking was to give Veuve’s Vintage Champagnes some of the spice and complexity that their Non Vintage Champagnes gain from the addition of older reserve wines. The amount of oak used, even in the Vintage, is small – only 5% in the newly released 2008.
Can you tell it’s there? Ultimately, it’s impossible to say, as Veuve Clicquot do not release an oaked and an unoaked version of their wines, to allow us to compare them directly. However, sampling oak aged and tank aged samples of wines from the 2015 vintage, the effect on the individual wines is pronounced, changing not only the flavours in the wine, but also its texture: how it feels in the mouth.
Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008, the finished article, has aromas of rich, creamy spice and baked apple. It is a full flavoured wine with lovely depth and fruity, savoury notes. The oak aged element obviously contributes to the overall picture, but I would be hard pressed to detect any actual oakiness. I’d be delighted to drink it now, but like all Vintage Champagnes, it is designed to age and develop further depth and complexity over the coming decade or more. The Vintage Rosé 2008 is, if anything, even more delicious, with added depth from the addition of still red Pinot Noir, the traditional way to make rosé Champagne.
So, while Champagne can seem like the most frivolous and easy to enjoy of wines, the work that goes into crafting it is intricate and always evolving. Something to ponder next time you pop the cork on a bottle.
Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label – RRP £38 (but usually on offer somewhere – shop around)
Veuve Clicquot Vintage 2008 – £54.99
Veuve Clicquot Rosé Vintage 2008 – £59.99