As volumes dip and values rise, Giles Fallowfield looks at the potential for prestige and vintage Champagne
For the Champenois, faced with massively rising costs – from grapes to dry goods – selling more premium products is an essential part of staying profitable, and even staying in business.
Many producers have also been working on their multi-vintage blends to produce one or more premium non-vintage style that may be aged longer, have more reserve wine in the assemblage, perhaps employ some oak ageing, or highlight the virtues of a single grape variety in a specific cru. These wines are a stepping-stone to vintage and prestige lines, both in terms of the style and price.
Good examples include Billecart-Salmon’s Rendez-vous Meunier, three of which have now been released, and Bollinger’s PN releases which are a tribute to its Pinot Noir vineyards. These are a snapshot of an up-and-coming vintage and are now in their fourth edition, PNAYC18 (Pinot Noir, mainly from the grand cru of Aÿ and mostly from the 2018 harvest).
“Premium multi-vintage goes well but we’ve not seen a particular spike in sales of these. I suspect they’ve largely cannibalised sales of the same brand and we seem to still have good sales across nearly all the categories,” says Alistair Viner, head buyer at Hedonism Wines in central London.
UK Champagne shipments reached 28.1 million bottles in 2022, which was 5.4% down on the 2021 total in volume terms, a fall of some 1.6 million bottles, but the value of shipments was up 9.5% to €549 million according to the Comité Champagne. The average price in euros of a bottle of Champagne shipped to the UK rose from €16.86 in 2021 to €19.60 in 2022. Prestige cuvée shipments to the UK accounted for 3.9% of volume in 2022 compared to 2.9% in 2021, rising from just over 882,000 bottles to just shy of 1.1 million.
Larger volume brands such as Lanson and Piper-Heidsieck have launched impressive multi-vintage cuvées of more complexity, vinosity and length that you won’t see in supermarkets. Lanson’s Le Black Reserve has a larger percentage of reserve wines in the blend and more bottle age, while its Le Blanc de Blancs (currently 2017 harvest-based) is sourced from top Chardonnay vineyards. Piper’s Essentiel Cuvée Réservée Extra Brut and Essentiel Blanc de Blancs are also richer and rounder styles of Champagne with dining very much in mind, and a Blanc de Noirs version has just been added to the range.
Even brand leader Moët & Chandon has recently released such a cuvée – aimed initially at the small independent retailer – in the shape of Réserve Impériale. It is a different blend to the Brut Impériale stocked in the grocery sector, with more vinosity thanks to a larger percentage of Pinot Noir and longer ageing.
PRESTIGE AND VINTAGE CUVÉES
Champagne has been blessed with many more consistently fine harvests since the Millennium than the three or four a decade norm of the previous 40 years. Vintage highlights of the noughties were 2002 and the trilogy of 2007-2009, while many beautiful, long-lasting wines were made in the originally underrated 2004 vintage, which was also large in volume.
Lanson’s prestige line Noble 2004, made in brut and blanc de blancs styles, is still exhilaratingly fresh with a long future ahead. Chardonnay was special in 2007, to which several great prestige blanc de blancs styles bear witness, including Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne, Dom Ruinart, Deutz Amour de Deutz and BillecartSalmon’s Cuvée Louis, the latter being one of three prestige cuvées Billecart makes in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
Billecart-Salmon has also recently released the 2008 vintage of its prestige line Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart, some years after most other houses released this fine vintage. The wine has benefited greatly from that extra time on lees and the cork, developing more richness of texture while retaining the freshness that is 2008’s trademark. It’s a 60/40 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay blend with 17% of the blend undergoing barrel vinification.
In the past decade we are spoilt for vintage options, with the trilogy of 2012-2014 impressing, attractive 2016s already launched – Pol Roger 2016 is a beautifully balanced example – and 2018, 2019 and 2020 promising some star wines. The small 2012 vintage was heralded as the next great all-rounder after 2008.
Charles Heidseick Rosé 2012 is a stunning, if still youthful, pink from the vintage – but the fresher 2013s have emerged from its shadow recently.
In the prestige cuvée world, two very fine 2013s launched this summer are the under-the-radar Ayala’s La Perle and Piper-Hiedsieck’s Rare, formerly its prestige line but now a separate brand. La Perle is made up of 80% Chardonnay drawn from Chouilly, Cramant and Le Mesnil, while the Pinot comes from the house’s home territory of Aÿ. Long, complex and layered, this is a prestige line that doesn’t get the attention it clearly merits.
Rare 2013, which by chance is the 13th such cuvée Piper-Hiedsieck has released, is only just starting to show the colours of this later-picked vintage – the only harvest recently that has run into October, while in many picking has nearly finished in August. It has a refined saline quality.
Asked if prestige sales are being hit by all the economic gloom, Viner says: “In regard to the very top end, I certainly do not think that our customers are in any way immune to what is currently going on in the world, but I would say that the spread of customers buying these [lines] has narrowed.
“We are still seeing very strong performances from the likes of Ruinart and Bollinger, as well as Bruno Paillard [the house Champagne at Hedonism’s sister restaurant Hide] and then some of the grower Champagnes such as Egly Ouriet, Eric Rodez, Pierre Péters, Bérêche, Roger Coulon and Dhondt-Grellet, to name a few. The problem with these growers’ wines is that the quantities available are so small, it is difficult to know how much we would be able to sell if given a more commercial quantity.”
If you can’t get hold of Pierre Péters Cuvée Spéciale Les Chétillons 2015 (only a handful of retailers get any allocation) then the two multi-vintage cuvées Rodolphe Péters makes – Cuvée de Reserve and Grande Réserve – very much fit into the new premium NV category, which bridges the gap to vintage Champagne, and they are fabulous wines too.