Styles of NV Champagne

Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy were back at the SWE Conference this year and unfortunately their seminar occurred over lunch.  Last year, with about 50 attendees at their seminar, they covered Prestige Cuvées, but with several hundred of us at lunch, we were relegated to sipping NV Champagne.

Late for lunch=obstructed view seat.

These two love Champagne, and it shows.  They went through some things I knew:

  • Non-Vintage Champagne is a misnomer; the wine is a blend from several vintages
  • Since the climate is so marginal, the producers historically haven’t had suitable weather to produce Vintage Champagnes each year
  • Each year, the Champagne houses must keep reserve wines in their cellars to blend into future Non-Vintage Champagnes (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to make Champagne in years with crappy weather)
  • Non-Vintage Champagnes are the heart of the bubbly business, accounting for 85-90% of all Champagne produced
  • Most retail for $30-$50
  • You won’t see “Non-Vintage” on the label; you just won’t find a vintage year.  You may also see terms like Brut Imperial, Brut Réserve, Cordon Rouge, Brut Premier, Brut Classic and so on
  • 3 other types of Non-Vintage Champagne include: Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay), Rosé (usually a blend of 2 or 3 varieties), and Blanc de Noirs (1 or 2 black varieties – Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier).  You’ll also find these 3 styles made as Vintage Champagnes

Some things I didn’t:

  • Non-Vintage Champagnes were the only style available for the first 150 years of Champagne’s history
  • Vintage Champagne did not become commercially available until the late 19th century
  • While it’s difficult to tell how long a Non-Vintage Champagne has been out in the marketplace, one trick is to check out the cork.  A more compressed cork = older Champagne
  • The quantity of residual sugar allowed in Brut Champagne has changed from 6-15 g to 6-12 g.  Extra dry used to start at 12 g, so there was some overlap

At one point, they covered 6 differentiating factors between house styles.

  1. Terroir.  Yes, it really does make a difference.
  2. Grapes.  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier each bring unique qualities to the blend.
  3. Reserve wines.  These are what really creates the house style.  The questions then become what are the age of the reserve wines and how many are there?  This will vary from house to house.  2 or 3 wines, minimum will be added to the base, while the average is 5 or 6.  Krug uses 10-13.  Reserve wines can make up 12-40% of the blend.
  4. Amount of time prior to disgorging.  The minimum is now 18 months (it used to be 15 months).  Most houses age the wines for 2-3 years, while some will go even longer. 
  5. Dosage.  This will determine the sweetness of the Champagne.
  6. Quality of the base vintage.  This is not a stylistic issue, but rather what Mother Nature doles out.

They also shared with us how they categorize different styles of Champagne.

  1. Light-bodied, elegant style.  These are best as an aperitif.  Examples include: Ruinart, Jacquesson, Pommery, Billecart-Salmon, Nicolas Feuillate, Laurent-Perrier.
  2. Light to medium style.  These are a bit richer and would pair nicely with a first course.  Examples include: Deutz, Mumm, Taittinger, Guy Charlemagne, Moet & Chandon.
  3. Medium to full style.  These often have more Pinot Noir in the mix.  Examples include: Pol Roger, Philiponnat.
  4. Full to powerful.  These will have more reserve wines blended in.  Examples include: Gosset, Egly-Ouriet, H. Billiot, Pierre Peters.

Now, for what we tasted, with average retail price listed.

  1. Ayala Brut Majeur NV ($36-$39).  Lighter style, with bracing acidity.  45% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Meunier.  80% from 2004, with 20% reserve wines.  Aged 2 1/2 years on the lees.  Dosage is 8.5 g.
  2. Henriot Blanc Souverain NV ($49).  This was a Blanc de Blancs.  It spent 3 years on the lees and had a dosage of 10 g.
  3. G.H. Mumm Cordon Rouge NV ($30-$34).  45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 25% Pinot Meunier.  2 1/2 years on the lees.  This was one of the tastiest “big house” Champagnes I’ve had in some time, with a great price.
  4. Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV ($35-$40).  40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, 20% Pinot Meunier.  60% from 2005, 40% reserve wines.  Richer, “dinner” style.
  5. Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV ($37-$38).  2/3 Pinots and 1/3 Chardonnay.  3 years aging on the lees.  
  6. Gosset Grande Reserve NV ($60-$65).  Only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Premier and Grand Cru vineyards.  Aged 5 years on the lees, with 8 g. dosage.  Some perceptible oak.  My favorite of the tasting.   

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