The Diverse Styles of NV Champagne
Contributed the article about the NV Champagne to the Guild Somm website. Hope this helps to understand and appreciate the diverse styles of NV Champagne!
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Non-vintage (NV) Champagne is the flagship wine for Champagne houses. As the most widely available and accessible products in terms of both quantity and price point, wines like Yellow Label of Veuve Clicquot, Brut Premier of Louis Roederer, and La Cuvée of Laurent Perrier represent the producer’s image and the pinnacle of talent required by the cellar master, or chef des caves. They also account for the majority of total production and approximately 85% by volume of overall Champagne sales.
Each maison has its own vision in creating NV Champagne, built on history, traditions, ideas, and philosophy. Blending, or assemblage, is a key process in making Champagne, and it is particularly important for non-vintage Champagne. At top Champagne houses, base wines, or vins clairs, are vinified separately from grapes harvested plot-by-plot, providing more blending options for the chef de caves, who might work with a few hundred base wines, as is typical, for instance, at Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot. In the final blend, the chef de caves seeks harmony and balance.
The category of non-vintage Champagne is thus an essential one, reaching a broad audience, exemplifying house style, and demanding thoughtful choices by producers.
The key Champagne grapes are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier. Pinot Noir gives red fruit, body, and weight to the blend, while Chardonnay adds citrus and green fruits, freshness, and acidity. Both give longevity to the wine. Meunier adds fruitiness and roundness, making the wine more approachable when young; it is generally blended in lower quantities than the other two grapes but is useful, especially in the NV Champagne intended to be consumed relatively early.
The proportion of each grape contributes to the style. Yellow Label of Veuve Clicquot, Carte d’Or of Drappier, and Bollinger Special Cuvée are Pinot Noir-dominant, with approximately 50 to 55%, 75%, and 60% in the blend, respectively. These Champagnes are fuller bodied, with more prominent red-fruit flavors. An example of a Chardonnay-driven house is Laurent Perrier La Cuvée (55%), which boasts a fresher and more vibrant style. Similarly, Henriot Brut Souverain blends 50% of Chardonnay with 45% Pinot Noir and 5% Meunier. Blending one-third of each grape yields a classic or “balanced” style exemplified by Pol Roger’s Brut Réserve.
Reserve wines from previous years play an important role in NV Champagne. Using a higher proportion of reserve wines significantly contributes to the final taste and style. It is a unique idea to blend wines made in multiple years, but it was prompted by practical reasons—in the cool and severe climate in Champagne, grapes do not necessarily ripen easily. Also, in some years, insufficient crops are harvested, but reserve wines can address shortages.
Further, using reserve wines evens out vintage variation, allowing producers to make sufficient amounts of each wine in a consistent style even in lean years. Reserve wines also give complexity, softness, and some tertiary flavors to the final blend.
Each producer has its own philosophy regarding the reserve wines, from how to store them in the cellar to their use in the blend. If a smaller proportion of relatively young reserve wines is used, the wine will be more youthful and fresh. Many houses, including Moët & Chandon, Perrier Jouët, and Taittinger, use younger reserve wines of one to three years of age for their standard NV Champagne. When older reserve wines are used, or the reserve wines are used in higher proportion, richer and fuller bodied wines result. Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve is one example, blending as much as 40% of reserve wines with an average of 10 years of age. Veuve Clicquot is also driven by a higher proportion of reserve wines, with 30 to 45% in the blend.
The type and size of vessel used to store reserve wines, such as stainless tanks, cement tanks, or casks, also make a difference. Reserve wines are separately stored by vintage, vineyard, and/or grape variety, or are in some cases cumulatively stored by adding wines every year to one tank, known as a perpetual reserve system.
Stainless steel tanks are neutral in flavor and limit oxidation. Perrier Jouët keeps its reserve wines in stainless tanks, preserving a freshness in the wines. Veuve Clicquot stores 444 different reserve wines in stainless steel—from as far back as 1988—but keeps them on the fine lees, yielding fresh wines with a rich and creamy mouthfeel.
Louis Roederer keeps its reserve wines in 160 oak foudres in the cellar, separated by vintage, vineyard, and grape variety. These wines are becoming rounder and softer with time through gentle oxidation. Bollinger keeps reserve wines in magnums (currently over 750,000 of them), aged up to 12 years. The Bollinger Special Cuvée NV has 50 to 60% of reserve wines, which add vinous and matured notes. AR Lenoble also stores its reserve wines in magnum bottles.
An early choice in winemaking is the vessel for vinification. For NV Champagne, stainless steel is common not just for the purposes of cost and ease of care but also for the style that results, which is more reductive and fresher. Moët et Chandon, Pol Roger, and Ayala vinify all of their wines in stainless tanks.
Some producers use oak to ferment and/or age base wines. Most avoid new oak and prefer neutral casks. Krug ferments base wines in neutral small barrels and then racks them to stainless tanks before blending. Bollinger ferments its base wines in 3,500 228-liter barrels that range from 5 to 50 years old, then ages them for eight to nine months before bottling for a second fermentation in the spring following the harvest. Oak softens the wine through gentle oxidation and adds layers of complexity and creamy mouthfeel, as well as a hint of tannin. Larger oak casks lower the oxidation effect.
Louis Roederer employs precise winemaking by using 450 stainless and oak vats of varying size (most around 10,000 liters) to vinify grapes from their own vineyards, depending on the size of the plots and characters of the grapes.
Most wines in Champagne go through full malolactic fermentation to round out high, sharp malic acid. But some producers avoid it. Gosset and Lanson have a non-malolactic style to maintain freshness for a longer period.
Louis Roederer does not control the process and leaves it to the natural character of each wine, typically resulting in partial malolactic fermentation. In its NV Brut Premier, the proportion of malolactic fermentation varies each year, but an average of 30% of the wine completes malolactic fermentation.
NV Champagne must be aged on the lees for the minimum of 12 months, and wines may be released for sale 15 months after the date of tirage. However, most top houses age their NV Champagne for a longer period. Some producers disgorge and release quarterly, others disgorge based on taste, and still others base these decisions on financial needs. With time on the lees, wine becomes mellower, with yeasty, toast, and brioche notes, and heavier in body, with more power and concentration. Longer lees aging also softens texture and rounds out acidity.
Dosage is a critical process that determines the final taste and balance of Champagne. NV Champagne is often Brut in style, defined as up to 12 grams per liter of total sugar by volume, but over time, the range of sugar content in NV Champagne has diversified. Many producers cite warmer climates as a reason for lowering dosage, as fruit can achieve higher ripeness. Others continue to make this decision based on house style. Today, around 9 grams per liter is a common dosage for NV Champagne. Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve is an example that goes higher, with 11 grams per liter.
For the liqueur d’expedition, it is common to use cane or beet sugars mixed with wine, a special liqueur, or other proprietary ingredients—for many houses, this is a secret recipe. A newer form of dosage is MCR, a concentrated grape must. Despite their small proportion in the finished wine, the liquid and type of sugar used can have a significant impact. Drappier uses reserve wines that have matured in oak casks for over 10 years, giving a slight complexity and mellow texture to the wine. Louis Roederer uses Cristal reserve wines stored in oak foudres for dosage in all of its bottlings, including NV Brut Premier, lending a hint of Cristal along with complexity and mature flavors.
These factors result in varied house styles for NV Champagne, including the following representative examples, all retailing in the US from about $45 to $65.
Brut Premier of Louis Roederer is pure, open, and elegant, with floral, ripe fruits of apple, pear, and peach, some chocolate aromas, and a round texture. It is vibrant and fresh due to the partial malolactic fermentation and the smaller proportion of reserve wines in the blend (15% of wine from the previous year stored in tanks and 10% from 4- to 12-year-old wine stored in oak foudres). Slight oak usage yields a creamy texture and complexity. It walks the line between aperitif and accompaniment to the full meal, and the finish is saline and fresh, says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, Chef de Caves. The blend is 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Meunier, with a dosage of nine grams per liter and three years of lees aging.
Perrier Jouët Grand Brut is fresh and harmonious in style. It is a blend of three vintages, all vinified in stainless tanks, with reserve wines making up 12 to 20% of the blend. The wine has floral and fruity notes of linden flower, honeysuckle, lemon, apricot, and mango, as well as buttery brioche and a hint of vanilla, with 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Meunier, and 20% Chardonnay, according to Giacomo Fanzio, Brand Education Ambassador. Lees aging is three years, the wine goes through full malolactic fermentation, and the dosage is seven to nine grams per liter.
The largest production for NV Champagne is Moët & Chandon's Brut Impérial. A higher proportion of Meunier (30 to 40% each Meunier and Pinot Noir, with 20 to 30% Chardonnay) and full malolactic fermentation yield an approachable, clean, fresh wine, and a shorter time on the lees (two years) leads to a more fruit-forward style that appeals to a wide range of customers. Reserve wines of one to three years of age are 20 to 30% of the blend, and the dosage is nine grams per liter.
Pol Roger Brut Réserve is a balanced NV Champagne composed of one-third each of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Menuier vinified in stainless tanks, with full malolactic fermentation. It is harmonious with notes of pear, apricot, honeysuckle, and brioche, with a hint of spices. Reserve wines are 25% in the blend, and lees aging is four years.
Laurent Perrier La Cuvée is Chardonnay-driven (55% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, and 10% Meunier), with white flower, citrus, and green fruit notes. It was rebranded in 2017 with lower dosage and a longer lees-aging period (four years). The reserve wines are relatively young (up to three years) and in a smaller proportion (20 to 30%). The resulting style is pure, elegant, and fresh and matches with creamy dishes, according to Philippe Sauzedde, Brand Ambassador. The dosage is nine grams per liter, and the wine goes through full malolactic fermentation.
Yellow Label of Veuve Clicquot is rich and structured, with some smoky, fruity, and brioche notes. It is black fruit dominant and fuller bodied, with a high proportion of Pinot Noir (50 to 55%) and Meunier (15 to 20%). A higher proportion of reserve wines (30 to 45%) kept on their fine lees adds creaminess, depth, and complexity. Its style is a balance between power, intensity, freshness, and silky texture with notes of citrus, fresh fruits, and toast, according to Dominique Demarville, Chef de Caves. Since 2008, a small proportion of oaked wine vinified in foudres (1 to 2%) has been included. Lees aging is three years in bottles and the dosage is nine grams per liter. The wine goes through full malolactic fermentation.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve is a rich and full-bodied NV Champagne. A significant amount of old reserve wines (40%, 5 to 15 years old) and a long period of lees aging (at least 5 years) result in a complex and dense style, with notes of confit apricot, prune, sweet spice, cream pastry, and toasted nuts. Wines are vinified primarily in stainless tanks. They recently began to use barriques for a small proportion. The wine is a third each of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier, and dosage is 11 grams per liter.
Though Bollinger is famous for its oak use, oak is limited to 30% in the Bollinger Special Cuvée. A high proportion of reserve wines (50 to 60%, 5 to 15 years old) stored in tanks and magnum bottles gives stewed and dried fruit flavors as well as creamy effervescence. “The very back-vintage wines present in the blend, as well as self-produced, strong grand cru Pinot Noir, give its distinctive creamy structure and a spicy touch, abundant second and third aromas,” according to Nikita Audeon-Dmitriev, Brand Ambassador. The wine is fuller bodied and structured, with notes of apple, stone fruits, lemon curd, and buttered toast. The blend is 60% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, and 15% Meunier, with a dosage of eight to nine grams per liter and lees aging of three to four years.
This article focuses on NV Champagne from large-scale Négociant Manipulant producers but only scratches the surface. Grower-producers also make quality NV Champagne in varied styles, including those from Vilmart & Cie, Maison Bérêche, Geoffroy, and Pierre Péters.
Though it has historically been based on producers’ history and traditions, NV Champagne continues evolving according to market trends, an ever-shifting industry, and environmental factors.
But whatever the future might bring, diversity will remain the beauty of Champagne, offering sommeliers and consumers a broad spectrum of choices based on the preferences, pairing, and the occasion.
Peter Liem, Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region (2017).
Essi Avellen, Study materials for the Champagne master class of the Wine Scholar Guild and “Champagne: A guide for champagne lovers and gourmet travelers” (2017).