Sparkling wine is getting more and more popular, and a lot of wine lovers are aware that champagne-style sparkling wine can be produced in other wine regions, but it just cannot be called champagne. Cava from Spain, Cap Classique from South Africa and Winzersekt from Germany are all sparkling wines. Other wine regions do not have specific terms and state simply “made in the traditional method”, “made in the champagne method” or “bottle-fermented sparkling wine” on the bottles.
However, there is confusion between non-vintage (NV) and vintage styles of sparkling wine. Let’s first recap how champagne is made and explain these two styles.
Champagne is sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, where winemakers add sugar and yeast to the base wine in the bottle. The bottle is then capped, and a second alcoholic fermentation takes place inside the bottle. The yeast dies when all the sugar has been consumed. The dead yeast cells break down in the bottle and create the signature champagne aromas of bread dough, biscuit and brioche. This process is called lees autolysis. The more time the lees spend in the bottle, the more intense these aromas become.
There are two styles of champagne. Non-vintage occurs when the base wine is a blend of different vintages, with a minimum lees autolysis of 12 months, while vintage happens when the base wine is only made from one vintage, with a minimum lees autolysis of 36 months. Generally speaking, NV champagne is more fruity, with a hint of lees autolysis. Vintage champagne, on the other hand, has great depth and pronounced notes of bread dough, biscuit and brioche.
The majority of champagne is NV style, and the objective is to achieve a consistent house style every year. Vintage champagne is only made in the best years, very often with at least 60 months of lees autolysis. Big champagne houses have large collections of reserve wine in order to produce NV champagne.
In other wine regions, partly because the weather is more consistent and partly because the wineries there do not have a lot of reserve wine, there is more vintage sparkling wine than non-vintage sparkling wine. However, most vintage sparkling wine is not the same as vintage champagne with its intense, yeasty characteristics. This is because the lees autolysis is much shorter than 36 months.
When buying traditional-method sparkling wine, always check the vintage. If a wine is younger than three years old (2019 or later vintage), it will be NV style, with more fruity than biscuity characteristics. If it is five years old or older (2017 or older), it will be vintage style, with more bread dough than fruity aromas. You can also check the back label; most New World sparkling wines describe the taste and state the time spent on lees. In this case, you will not be disappointed that a 2019 vintage sparkling wine doesn’t have the intensity of a vintage champagne.
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