Commercial wine production would not exist in the Champagne region of northeast France without Non-Vintage Champagnes. Historically, the region has been too cold to produce large quantities of “Vintage” Champagne every year. It is true that in the last 20 years, global warming has enabled the production of more vintage Champagnes than before, but still not enough for the entire world to enjoy.
Actually, non-vintage Champagne is a misnomer; “multi-vintage” would be more accurate. NV Champagne, as it is called, is largely a blended wine--of several vintages and many different vineyards. One vintage will predominate as the “base” wine in the blend, let’s say this year it is 2013, with smaller reserves of older vintages (typically 3 or 4) added. Every year Champagne producers are required to put aside at least 20 percent of the current vintage for future use in NV Champagnes, although most producers put aside much more than 20 percent. The various different vintages, however, are almost never listed on the labels of NV Champagnes.
Most Champagne is not vintage-designated; at least 85 percent of the Champagnes produced annually are NV. Of the three major types, non-vintage is by far the least expensive, retailing in the $35 to $55 range; vintage Champagnes typically retail in the $55 to $80 range, while Prestige Cuvées (mainly top vintage Champagnes, such as Dom Pérignon and Cristal), retail well over $100, sometimes over $200.
Most people buy Champagne based on three factors: Name recognition, price, and availability. Quality, I believe, is seldom a factor. And so, it is for this reason that Veuve Clicquot’s NV Yellow Label (why it it isn’t called Orange Label remains a mystery), with loads of name recognition and availability, is clearly the largest-selling Champagne in the U.S., and 2nd largest in the world after Moët & Chandon (2nd largest in the U.S.). Nicolas Feuillatte NV Brut, made by a wine cooperative, and often the least expensive Champagne in wine shops (at $30 to $35), is the 3rd largest-selling Champagne in the U.S, (and now 3rd largest in the world, recently passing G.H. Mumm, which slipped back to 4th). Nicolas Feuillatte clearly sells mainly on price (plus its name recognition and availability).
But what about the Quality Factor in NV Champagnes? I list here my opinion of the best NV Champagnes available, mainly taking into account their quality, but also considering their price and general availability. And so Krug NV Grande Cuvée, which retails for around $150, doesn’t make my list because of its price (the Krug people say that every Champagne they make is a prestige cuvée, and I will not argue with that).
The Champagnes appear in no particular order:
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve: Ironically, almost every Champagne writer and connoisseur places Charles Heidsieck’s NV Brut at the top or near the top of his or her list of recommended NVs, but that impression has not penetrated to the general public yet. Charles Heidsieck, an old firm, is not among the top-ten selling Champagnes. It contains 40 percent older reserve wines (a very high percentage, accounting for its deep gold color), and up to eight reserve vintages are used, from about 120 different vineyards. It shows a nutty, rich, biscuity taste and has a medium to-full bodied, firm structure. Normally, Charles Heidsieck’s NV Brut contains 75 percent Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with 25 percent Chardonnay. It’s more suitable as a dinner wine than as an apéritif. It retails in the $50 to $58 range.
Henriot Brut Souverain: Always one of my favorite houses, Henriot has a great line of Champagnes, with a delightful NV Blanc de Blancs and a NV Rosé. Henriot’s NV Brut is special, in that it obtains its Chardonnay from outstanding Côte des Blancs Vineyards with its Pinot Noir coming from Montagne de Reims. Souverain is generally a blend of 50 percent Chardonnay and nearly 50 percent Pinot Noir, with a touch of Pinot Meunier. LIts low dosage checks in at 7 grams per liter. The result is a lively, light to-medium-bodied NV Souverain, perfect as an apéritif, always fresh. A great value, at $40 to $44.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier: Financially, Louis Roederer is the most successful Champagne House in the region, due to the fact that it owns about 70 percent of the vineyards whose grapes it uses, plus it has been remarkably run by Jean-Claude Rouzaud, and now by his son, Frédéric. Certainly one of their best achievements has been the improvement of the NV Brut Premier, a merely average Champagne 20 years ago, but now one of the best NVs in Champagne. Today, thanks to Jean-Baptiste LeCaillon, Roederer’s great winemaker, the Brut Premier is a standout: Fresh, dryer than before, but still firm and powerful, one of Champagne’s full-bodied NV Bruts. It is rich, and its taste remains long on the palate. It’s in the $40 to $49 price range.
Jacquesson Cuvée 739 NV Extra Brut: Unless you are a Champagne connoisseur, Jacquesson might be the best Champagne you have never heard of. Jacquesson is a small, traditional house known for its fairly light-bodied, elegant, complex Champagnes. It is located in the village of Dizy, just north of Epernay. Owned and run by the Chiquet brothers, Laurent and Jean-Hervé, Jacquesson specializes in making “different” NV Champagnes each year, numbering each year’s blend uniquely. The current NV is Cuvée 739 (numbers go up by one each year). The Chiquet brothers insist that each year its NV is a different Champagne because of the differences in the vintages that make up the blend; they do not pretend that they try for a consistent style each year. All of their Champagnes are very dry and elegant. They own 60 percent of the vineyards they use, including many in the Grand Cru village of Avize in the Côte des Blancs, which accounts for their truly excellent Vintage Blanc de Blancs. I highly recommend a personal visit to Jacquesson. A talk with Jean-Hervé Chiquet teaches one so much about Champagne. The current NV, Cuvée 739, retails in the $60 to $65 range.
Philipponnat Royale Réserve NV Brut: Philipponnat is another small house. It was quite unknown until recently, when it achieved worldwide fame because of the magnificence of its prestige cuvée, Clos des Goisses, now regarded as one of the world’s greatest Champagnes. Its NV Brut, Royale Réserve, is fresh, elegant, and medium-bodied, with floral aromas and a hint of fresh hay. It has toasty, yeasty flavors, with a long finish for a NV Brut. The excellent Royale Réserve was once a great value, but the fame of its Clos des Goisses has spilled over to the other Philipponnat Champagnes, and is now $55 to $60, but it is a fine Champagne.
Gosset Grande Réserve NV Brut: Gosset makes two NV Champagnes. Its standard Brut Excellence (made from purchased grapes) is very average; however its premium NV, made from half Premier Cru and half Grand Cru grapes, is very special indeed and has always been one of my favorite Champagnes. The Grande Réserve is full-bodied and complex in flavor. From my experience, it ages very well, even in half-bottles. It’s composed of 46 percent Chardonnay, 38 percent Pinot Noir, and 16 percent pinot Meunier. Powerful, rich, and biscuity, serve with an entrée such as chicken with mushrooms and gravy. A great value at $60 or less.
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs NV Brut: Ruinart is the oldest Champagne house; it was founded in 1729. I hesitated to list Ruinart because it is a luxury Champagne, and priced accordingly: Its NV Blanc de Blancs is priced like a Vintage Champagne. But it is so good, and so rich in flavor, that I could not leave it out. It comes in a beautiful, clear bottle, as does its half-bottle. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is a cut above most NV Bruts, with its mainly Premier Cru grapes adding an extra richness, hinting of white peaches and lemon. Its big brother, Dom Ruinart Vintage Blanc de Blancs, is made from 100 percent Grand Cru grapes. Both are outstanding, delicious Champagnes, Chardonnay at its best. The Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs retails in the $70 range, the half-bottle about $35. When I want to splurge and make a perfect mimosa, I buy a half-bottle of Ruinart NV Blanc de Blancs as the base for the mimosa.
I highlighted these seven Non-Vintage Champagnes above because I believe that they are among the best NV Champagnes being made today. None of them are among the top ten selling Champagnes in the world, but they all are available , certainly in most cities or in good wine shops anywhere.
This is not to say that the large Champagne houses do not make decent NV Brut Champagnes. I have noticed a distinct improvement in the NV Champagnes of many of the big guys, including Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, and Piper-Heidsieck, because of excellent winemakers and technology advances.
And certainly you will find very good NV Bruts among Grower Champagnes. One NV Grower Brut I have been enjoying lately is Chartogne-Taillet NV Brut, Cuvée St. Anne. I hesitate to recommend Grower Champagnes in a national column, however, because their small quantities limit the markets in which they are available.
But please do try the seven NV Bruts I have discussed above. You will not be disappointed!