Tim Atkin | Master of Wine

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16th Mar 2011

The trouble with non-vintage Champagne

by Tim Atkin

 

It’s a while since I’ve tasted a line-up of more than 60 non-vintages Champagnes in a single sitting. Well, standing actually. But the annual event in the sumptuous surroundings of London’s Banqueting Hall (from a window of which Charles I walked to the scaffold) was my chance.

It’s probably a little unfair to judge a whole region on such a small number of wines, but the average quality was disappointing. Rawness (lack of bottle age?) and a tendency to resort to dosage as a way of “balancing” thin, possibly over-cropped wines was an all-too-consistent feature of the tasting. Some of the wines must be very close to the limit for Brut Champagnes of 12 grams per litre of sugar.

The other thing the tasting made me question is whether the legal minimum ageing requirements (15 months, of which 12 months must be on lees) is long enough for the Non-Vintage category. Upping it to 18, or preferably 24 months, would have a beneficial effect on the quality of many of these wines.

Remember that we are talking about medium-priced and expensive Non-Vintage Champagnes here, not supermarket own-labels or “premier prix” fizzes. When someone is paying £25 or more a bottle, he should expect a more consistent level of quality from the world’s premier sparkling wine region.

The tasting was missing a few major brands – no Billecart-Salmon, no Krug and (because the wine had run out) no Henriot – but it featured many of the Champagne industry’s most celebrated names. I’d like to have seen a few more top growers’ Champagnes in the line-up, but you can’t have everything.

There were, to be fair, some stand out wines (see link to my notes below). In no particular order, I was impressed by Thiénot, Soutiran, Ruinart, Pol Roger, Philipponnat, Heidsieck-Monopole, Louis Roederer, Le Mesnil, Lanson, Jacquesson, Gosset, Alfred Gratien, Gardet, Michel Furdyna, Charles Heidsieck, Piper-Heidsieck, Bollinger and Pierre Gimmonet.

Brands that could try harder – and that’s being polite in some cases – include Pommery, Perrier-Jouët, Moët & Chandon, Pannier, Jacquart, Mumm, GH Martel, De Castelnau, Bruno Paillard, De Castellane, Boizel and Canard Duchêne.

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