As Champagne houses concentrate on prestige cuvées, what is the future for the vintage stuff?
In December 2014, sparkling wine expert Tom Stevenson pronounced prestige cuvées “dirt cheap when compared to the crème de la crème of Bordeaux and Burgundy”.
Indeed, while $350-plus dollars for a bottle of 2002 Krug may hardly seem “cheap”, a similar search for the 2002 vintage of Petrus (a difficult year in Bordeaux, unlike Champagne) puts things nicely into perspective.
But if prestige Champagne continues to represent good value when compared to top-end Bordeaux, then Pol Roger’s 2008 vintage must surely be the bargain of the century. For less than $85 you’re getting a hell of a lot wine for your money. “It offers an intoxicating combination of purity, richness and complexity,” gushed one excited critic.
Moreover, unlike some cru classé Bordeaux, Pol’s latest vintage offers both immediate pleasure and the capacity to improve with age, so depending on your patience and inclination, it’s the epitome of a win-win situation.
The inimitable writer Hugh Johnson has been making this point for decades. “Vintage Champagne offers some of the best value in the region,” noted Johnson in his Pocket Wine Book. “The quality is often only slightly below the deluxe cuvées, but the price is nowhere near.”
This was confirmed by a recent visit to Reims, where the best of LVMH’s enviable portfolio was laid bare for a prolonged session of sipping, sluicing, slurping and spitting. Naturally, our group loved the 1990 Krug – who wouldn’t? – while 1985 Dom Pérignon was utterly exquisite; toasty, rich and decadently concentrated.
However, what continues to resonate in my mind is the incredible pleasure-to-price ratio of the Moët vintages. Often disregarded and maligned by hipster sommeliers in equal measure, the four vintages we sampled were uniformly excellent, and represented excellent value for money.
Yet according to the UK wine trade consumers are increasingly turning their backs on the vintage category, while sales of prestige cuvées are booming. “Sales of vintage Champagne at Hakkasan could hardly be described as great,” says London-based wine buyer Christine Parkinson.
“I don’t think vintage Champagne even sits in the middle any more: most consumers are happy with NV, and many could make the leap from NV to prestige if they had a really special occasion. If someone wants to spend a little more, it’s much easier to offer them a blanc de blancs, or something similar.”
Meanwhile, leading retailers are no less pessimistic. “At The Vineyard Cellars, we have not ordered vintage Champagne in the past 12 months,” says owner James Hocking.
“We have ordered plenty of rosé, non-vintage and prestige Champagnes, but the market is really flat for vintage; we used to carry Ruinart and sold masses of blanc de blancs NV for example, but hardly any vintage.”
Which, in turn, raises the pertinent question: why are consumers so indifferent to the vintage category and what can be done to lure them back?
Wine buyer Alex Hunt MW suggests that despite the clear value vintages represent, price is still the main issue. “A lot of care goes into vintage Champagnes, they age well, and they arguably offer the best value in the category – but a bottle still represents a big outlay, and among this consumer group they will be competing with still fine wines,” argues Hunt MW.
“How many will spend £60 [$78] on Champagne rather than Burgundy, say? That’s the nub of it, I suspect.”
Lack of consumer understanding is another reason frequently touted.
“The market for vintage is mainly consumers who know something about Champagne, and understand what a vintage Champagne is – that’s why it’s easier to sell the well-known prestige Champagnes than to sell vintage,” says Parkinson.
Cedric Nicaise, wine director at Eleven Madison Park in New York, advances the discussion.
“Vintage Champagne is sort of a middle ground that I think a lot of people don’t fully understand. Dom Pérignon is clearly a hugely marketed prestige brand, but the regular Moët vintage is something that is not as well marketed and could be misunderstood,” says Nicaise.
“Further, as houses introduce more varied wines, it becomes harder to market those. Also, defining what is a prestige, and what is not, can be tricky. The definition of prestige and ‘vintage’ is more blurry than it is clear.”
Nicaise also underlines the point that many Champagne houses treat vintages as their difficult “middle child” – instead of trying to find a marketing solution, they hope buyers/sommeliers will do all the work for them.
“Houses could do massively better with the marketing of vintages,” agrees Parkinson.
“It’s a pity, because there was a time when ‘vintage’ Champagne was a glamorous concept, yet I can’t remember the last time I heard vintage portrayed as special. The problem, of course, is that it’s tricky to make vintage sound good, without making NV seem less appealing. In the past, vintage Champagne was effectively the prestige offering for many houses, but that’s no longer true.”
So are we about to witness the slow demise of vintage Champagnes in favor of bling?
“I doubt the vintage category will completely disappear, but I wonder whether more houses might reposition vintage closer to prestige, and possibly even move up the price point of their current prestige offering,” suggests Parkinson.
At least one house, Perrier-Jouët, has already made that commercially lucrative decision.
“The last Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut Millésime was created in 1998. The decision to rationalize the portfolio and to produce only Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque vintages was taken from a quality perspective, ensuring that Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, the heir to the house style, has access to the best quality fruit,” says chef de caves Herve Deschamps.
“The three vintage cuvées – Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque, Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Rosé and Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs – are rare and exceptional Champagnes, created only when the harvest conditions are near perfect. So even if we had enough fruit of the right quality in a specific year to produce a new limited edition vintage expression, I would prefer to reserve this fruit for the classic collection to ensure outstanding quality and consistency.”
However, several key houses, including Veuve Clicquot, Moët et Chandon and Louis Roederer have stated their intention to continue releasing their excellent vintages alongside the prestige cuvée, which raises the question of what brands can do to reinvigorate consumer interest.
“For me it is all about teaching what the difference is. There is an obvious attraction to prestige cuvées. But, the difference between vintage and non-vintage should not necessarily be price. Teaching people about lees aging and the idea of reserve wine is more important than the price difference,” says Nicaise.
“I think brand dilution is the problem and the solution is to eliminate some bottlings. In the last 10 years, large houses have expanded their offerings in an attempt to capture more of the market. You see traditional non-oak fermentation houses creating oak fermentation cuvées, and the opposite. Producers are trying to capture as much of the market as possible, and that is what businesses do.”
But regardless of what approach the marketeers adopt, the silver lining (for Champagne buffs at least) remains access to superlative Champagnes at prices often marginally higher than NV level.
Of course, these wines come with less bragging rights than say Armand de Brignac, but then Champagne connoisseurs have never been interested in making a scene in a nightclub.
An article from Wine Searcher by James Lawrence