There seems to be a recent rumble about more information on NV Champagne labels from the big numbers wine community. At least one member of the fraternity has finally started to talk about lot numbers and disgorgement dates. This is seemingly being presented as if it is something new. I even understand that this person has gone so far as to say that any NV Champagnes that do not have this information will not be reviewed in his subscription publication. Apparently there are several reasons, but one is supposedly to make sure the consumer is buying the same wine that this person has reviewed. OMG! Less big number reviews – how will we ever survive? Is civilization as we know it doomed? Is it time for wine consumers who pay for this stuff to commit harikari? Geez, I don’t know for sure, but it seems that we might some how be able to muddle through.
Some people reading these proclamations might think that what they are reading is something new. Not! The real story is how long it took for this member of the big numbers fraternity to reach the conclusion that label identification of all NV Champagne is necessary for the consumer to know the identity of different NV bottlings. I’d like to say better late than never. But, I won’t. Why? That’s simple. Because I think this is yet another plague on the big numbers guys who have ignored many consumer wine issues for as long as I can remember. (And, at least as of today, that’s about 45 years!) Where were they on the fraud issue, how many were drinking the kool aid, and where are they today? (Click here to read more about this). Where are they today in clarity and disclosure about how wine is tasted? (Click here  to find out more about this). And where are they today on the issue of what is wine and how it is being made? (Click here  to read more about this). (And for an interesting follow on to this last subject click here ).
The Underground position on these issues is very clear and has been for a very long time. So now we have this statement on NV Champagne that is directionally aimed at the consumer. Hah! So even though the concept has validity, it is a long time in coming and arrives with self serving strings attach. Contrast this with the Underground view on this subject from many years ago. The Underground was a pioneer in this country doing major Champagne reviews. Beginning in December 1979, the Underground started regular comprehensive Champagne reviews. Our goal each year was to try to taste every Champagne that was sold here. And, after 10 reviews over 10 years on the merits of Champagne and the problems that we encountered as consumers after tasting, drinking, and reviewing a few thousand different bottles of Champagne, we believed it was time for change. Please consider this One Winedrinker’s Opinion editorial from the Underground December, 1989 (Volume XI, Number 5) and you decide and contrast the merits of what we were saying way back then.
One Winedrinker’s Opinion
“It’s time to bring non-vintage Champagne out of the closet!”
For years we’ve lamented the fact that so much non-vintage Champagne on the market has been improperly shipped and/or stored and is oxidized and past its’ time or worse yet completely over the hill by the time it reaches the unsuspecting consumer, However, as we mentioned in the introduction to this years comprehensive Champagne review, the situation does seem to be getting some what better. This we attribute to increased Champagne sales which seemingly has resulted in a faster turn-over of inventories and a greater concern on the part of importers to assure temperature controlled shipment and storage. Nonetheless, the latter is still by no means widespread in the industry. And, what temperature controlled shipment and storage that has been done has been led by a few small importers in small quantities of Champagne (often from small, rather obscure houses) and the national sales and distribution arms set up by some of the major Champagne producers. But, even in the latter instance, often times the wines can be subjected to heat or improper care in the distribution channel.
So, having said all that, what can be done? Unfortunately, nothing can be done to prevent wines from being spoiled. For so long as consumers are willing to buy oxidized wines (often at “sale” prices), there will be uncaring people in the wine trade who will refuse to spend even the relatively small amount necessary to assure proper temperature and storage conditions as wines move through the distribution channel from producer to consumer.
But, in the long run, greater consumer awareness can serve to inflict financial pain on the careless members of the wine trade. In the meantime, something can be done to help assure consumer satisfaction with non-vintage Champagnes. The solution is simple. Vintage dated wines are easy to identify. And, if an older vintage suddenly appears on the market (often in relatively large quantities and at a “sale” price), the consumer knows to be suspect and to check thoroughly as to the history of the wine and if there’s any doubt try a bottle before plunging for a case or cases.
With non-vintage Champagne, however, it’s not so easy. How can the consumer tell whether the Champagne being offered is recently disgorged or wine that was disgorged years ago and has been stored (often under less than ideal conditions) for years before being offered for sale? The answer is, of course, that short of buying a bottle and pulling a cork there’s simply no way. And, what if “old” stocks have been mixed with “new” stock? Even tasting a bottle won’t help here, because the next purchase may be different. But what if each bottle of non-vintage Champagne had a strip label on the back (or better yet imprinted on the front label) stating the date it was disgorged? This way, at a glance, a consumer could tell not only the age of the Champagne, but also distinguish between one cuvée and another. Also helpful would be information (here probably best printed on the back label) as to the composition of the cuvée, i.e. vintages blended, grapes used, etc. Thus, when there’s a change from one cuvée to another the consumer could note this fact from the label. And, just in case you have doubt as to how much confusion exists here go back and review our write ups on Henri Abele and Piper-Heidsieck. To get the correct information on the non-vintage wines from these producers took some detective work that would have made Perry Mason proud!
Certainly, non-vintage Champagne has a strong position in the Champagne market. The best Champagne houses take great pride in the blending and consistency of their non-vintage Champagnes. But what about different cuvées (e.g. the special bottlings “Maurice Chevalier”, “Beverly Hills“, etc. that we mentioned earlier)? How is the consumer to know how these cuvées differ from other non-vintage cuvées? It’s all very confusing. And, so long as consumers cannot readily obtain the information to make a buying decision, the trade suffers.
So Champagne producers take note. Please consider disclosing the disgorgement date (or any other information that would enable the consumer to determine the wines age at a glance) as well as information as to the composition of non-vintage cuvées either on the label or on a separate back label. It’s time to bring non-vintage Champagne out of the closet!
John Tilson, Editor
But, despite the Underground statement calling for more information on non-vintage Champagne, it did not get the attention and following it deserved. So did we whine, cry boo-hoo, and threaten to stop tasting NV Champagne? No! Why? Because, at the end of the day, we are wine consumers, nothing more, nothing less. And, the Underground is first and foremost a voice of the wine consumer. We were from the beginning and we are today. We do not make our living by doing this and we owe no homage to anyone except ourselves and other wine consumers. So how many others can make this statement? You decide.
With regard to NV Champagne, over time, some more small producers did appear on the scene with a lot of information on their labels. Today a very large percentage of the small producers include a lot of information on their labels such as the Pierre Paillard example shown below. For the large houses only a few such as Charles Heidsieck and Krug have added information to the labels of their NV Champagnes. So that list is hardly growing. But, with the advent of electronic technology it seems likely that more large Champagne houses will embrace change. This technology not only provides information, but can also be used to identify the bottle and help stop the spread of fraudulent bottles. Here is an example of the Underground view of what should be provided by every NV Champagne producer:
This is the back label from a bottle of Pierre Paillard NV Rosé. It has all the information a consumer should need including an electronic code. Pierre Paillard is amongst the first in Champagne (or anywhere else for that matter) to put a code on the back label which can be accessed by a mobile device and give you even more information such as a description of the wine, recommended foods to have with the wine, etc. This is a great new feature that all wineries should adapt. (To read the article featuring a review of this Champagne click here ).
So where are we today? My wife and I, as well as our long time wine drinking friends (and, I might add, many Champagne converts over the years who got on board by following the Underground), continue to be great advocates and drinkers of Champagne. The Underground has a record of nearly 35 years in being in the forefront of information on Champagne in this country. So where were the guys who just got to the party? Do I wish that there was more information on the labels of NV Champagne? Yes! But, because there is not all the information there that I wish for, will I stop buying it? No! Will I stop drinking it? No! And, do I need to be concerned that a big numbers type will boycott NV Champagne that is not coded. No! Why? Because Champagne (be it vintage or non-vintage) continues to be one of the best, most delicious, and food friendly beverages in the world.
Moreover, unlike many other wines that have seemingly gone on steroids and are setting new records for intensity and extract, Champagne has maintained its historic profile with great balance and appeal. Besides, should I also dare mention that Champagne has also maintained its relative value? And, yes I know that there has been a long standing trend to price some Champagne like perfume (a trend that has continued in recent years as a result of industry consolidation and the world wide proliferation of wealth and new consumers). But, the fact remains that there is an abundance of really great Champagne that represents tremendous value.
The bottom line, The Underground view on NV Champagne is the same as it has been for decades. Simply put, the consumer has the right to know when the wine is disgorged and released for sale. That way the different bottlings can be identified. This provides clarity as to the age of the wines to monitor their evolution and prevent them from being kept too long. (Yet, having said that there is no evidence that NV Champagnes do not keep for a very long time. In fact, it is often just the opposite. More on that later.)
I have been buying, drinking, and cellaring NV Champagnes for a very long time. It has nothing to do with whether you buy the same wine that is anointed by some big numbers critic. But, it does have everything to do with buying NV Champagne that represents one of the greatest bargains in the world of fine wine. And, this certainly includes the enjoyment of a wide variety of NV Champagnes that do not have disgorgement dates on the label.
So let’s cut to the chase on this issue. The easy and best thing to do is just drink and enjoy your Champagne be it NV (with or without disgorgement dates or a code or other information on the label) or vintage. It is fun to try different Champagnes. There are literally thousands of them and it is very unusual to find a bad Champagne. The Underground view has long held that Champagne is the most consistent wine in the world, and the number of offerings of top quality Champagnes is almost endless. So, if you miss some of the big numbers reviews in the zillions of reviews that are offered, so be it. Don’t join these types in jousting at windmills. Use the money you save from paying for dubious information and buy and enjoy your Champagne be it NV or vintage. And, if you are looking for the best time to drink Champagne, please heed the long standing advice of Madame Lilly Bollinger which is heartily endorsed and followed by the Underground. “I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” And, another Underground view. Please note that she made no mention of NV or otherwise. Champagne is Champagne. End of story.
In Vino Veritas,