In contrast to champagnes without a vintage year, vintage champagne is made exclusively from the base wines of a specific year. The corresponding year is noted on the label of the bottle.
Vintage champagnes are theoretically created only in those years where the grape quality is generally such that, on its own (without blending with wines from other years), it can promise a superb champagne with the particular identity of that year. Is this Champagne now 'better' than a Champagne without a vintage? Sometimes yes, but hardly always. It is, however, predictably 'different' from its 'multi-vintage' brethren from the same Champagne house. It insists on its own individuality of taste, shaped by nature in the grapes that year. It is just this certain individuality of a vintage champagne whose study inspires many connoisseurs.
Each year produces grapes that are simply always unique due to the interaction of unpredictable factors such as sun, rain, frost, hail, pests and fungus. It is erroneous to think that because few or no houses declared a vintage Champagne, it should ultimately be bad wine in any given year. The true art of Champagne making has been hidden in vintageless Champagnes in particular for centuries. Each year provides a unique 'grape identity' which, when skillfully blended with wines from other years, will be just right and important to the traditional flavors of the house in future Champagnes. Champagnes without a marked vintage are thus not actually to be understood as 'vintageless', but rather as 'multi-vintage Champagnes', which most closely embody the traditional soul of Champagne.
Champagne is also a complex mosaic of different microclimates. Different sites and grape varieties combined with different soil conditions result in a wide range of grape qualities each year. While the majority of winegrowers may decide not to make a vintage Champagne after harvesting their vines, there may also be winegrowers in other areas of Champagne whose grapes justify the production of a vintage Champagne. Thus, there can be a vintage Champagne from a certain house which is simply outstanding, even though this vintage is generally not considered to be particularly remarkable, even in the specialist literature. Here and there, of course, there are also vintners who sometimes turn a blind eye and declare vintage champagnes with rather unsuitable grapes. The reason for this is clear: vintage champagnes are generally (significantly) more expensive in the trade than champagnes without vintage.
There is also no fixed formula that could calculate the quality of the harvest in advance. In spring 1985, for example, frost had destroyed 2,000 hectares of vines. This was followed by an unusually cool early summer. Then, unexpectedly, there was a heat wave in September and October. The result was a small harvest, but excellent in terms of quality. The 1982/83 harvests, in turn, produced results for two consecutive years that offered both abundant yields and superior quality. 2002 was also an exciting year, as the sun made itself known late in the season, but still in time and abundantly. Claude Taittinger of Taittinger is convinced that 2002 may even have produced one of the best vintages of the last decade.
The year 2003 also represents an interesting study: In April of that year, a nasty frost set in, which wreaked havoc on the early budding Chardonnay vines. Half of the hoped-for Chardonnay yield was destroyed. This was followed by an extremely hot summer, which resulted in the earliest harvest since 1822. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier were exceptionally healthy and sweet (high alcohol potential), but generally lacked much of the typical acidity. The Chardonnay vines, after the nasty frost at the beginning of the season, survived, but at the end were generally considered to be of rather inferior quality in terms of varietal elegance. The yield of the harvest was relatively small, but the winegrowers were generally very satisfied with the quality of the grapes. Considering the special circumstances in the Champagne region, the EU allowed the winegrowers to add acidity (1.5g/l). In order to counteract the rather poor harvest, the C.I.V.C. association allowed the addition of surplus wines in stock from the high-yield years 1998, 1999, 2000. In 2006, the first non-vintage champagnes will be released with wine from the year 2003. In 2007 at the earliest, the first 2003 vintage champagnes will appear. However, many houses will not present a vintage champagne 2003.
Each vintage Champagne must be aged for at least three years after the second fermentation before it may be delivered. A maximum of 80% of the harvest of such a designated vintage may be used to create the vintage Champagne. At least 20% must be reserved for (future) blending (assemblage) to create non-vintage Champagnes.
In addition, some vintage champagnes can be stored longer, in contrast to most champagnes without a vintage. Some of these vintage champagnes also don't mind getting a little better through storage. Thus, successful cellaring of 5 to 10 years is not uncommon (certain 30+ year old vintages are still highly sought after today). Several houses also distribute vintage champagnes from much earlier years. But even with vintage champagnes, there comes a time -earlier and later- when they 'show their age' taste-wise. It is therefore important, especially for connoisseurs, to stay informed about how certain vintages develop over years of storage. Among the many vintage Champagnes of the last 30 years, the following vintages are generally particularly appreciated: 1996*, 1995*, 1990*, 1989, 1988*, 1985*, 1982, 1981, 1979, 1976, 1975, 1973, 1971*, 1970 ('*' = particularly popular).