During the holidays, one of my tasting groups decided to enjoy two traditional favorites of the season, Champagne and Port. While delighting in the wines the conversation gravitated to a discussion about the difference between vintage and non-vintage (now more appropriately referred to as multi-vintage) wines.
While still table wines are typically produced in a vintage dated style, Champagne and Port stand out because both are available in vintage and multi-vintage offerings. We savored numerous examples giving us the opportunity to compare various vintages of each as well as a host of multi-vintage wines. On the Port side, we focused on Vintage and Tawney for their outstanding character even though Ruby, Colheita, Late Bottled Vintage and other classifications are available in the market.
Unfortunately, multi-vintage wines often are not held in equal esteem as vintage dated wines, although both have great attributes and should be enjoyed for the style each represents. A vintage wine must contain fruit from at least 95 percent of the vintage stated on the label. It is intended to convey both the character of the house (producer) as well as the vintage. A multi-vintage wine is a blend of various vintages intended to represent the consistent character of the house without relation to any individual vintage.
Multi-vintage Champagne, Port and other wines pose the greatest challenge to the winemaker while also offering the greatest triumph as they must always convey the house style regardless of the vagaries of the vintages. In Champagne, as many as 200 individual still wines from various vintages and vineyards may be used in the final blend before the secondary fermentation begins in the bottle.
Port, Sherry, Madeira and other highly regarded multi-vintage wines are produced in the complex Solera method. This process of “fractional blending” was developed by the Spanish (Sherry) and Portuguese (Port) to provide wines of a constant average age and homogeneity.
In the Solera barrels are stacked in rows with the youngest wines on the top row. As the finished wine is drawn off from the bottom row the head space is filled by the row above and so on up the stack. Or in the case of Tawney Port, the wines are aged in large neutral oak containers. Wine is drawn off from the cask for bottling and young wine is then added to the remaining “mother wine” to continue the blend.
Tawnies are usually available in 10-, 20-, 30- and 40-year old bottlings representing the average age of the blend. With aging in cask they become browner in color and more concentrated due to continuing oxidation and greater evaporation before bottling. More than any other Port style, the tawnies represent the house style.
Vintage Port is 100 percent from a specific vintage and considered prestigious while accounting for less than 2 percent of the winery’s production. Only vintages “declared” by the house — usually in conjunction with others in the Port trade from extraordinary years — are considered worthy of being classified as Vintage Port.
But what about the age ability of the wines we were enjoying? Our tasting confirmed what we had all experienced through the years. Both vintage and multi-vintage Champagne age beautifully when stored properly, but the vintage dated examples seem to enjoy a longer and more exciting life cycle. Vintage Port is bottled two years after the vintage and is intended to develop over the years in the bottle. Tawnies, on the other hand, complete their aging cycle in barrel and do not improve with bottle age.
While the debate may continue on vintage vs. non-vintage, the reality remains a matter of taste, style and personal preference.
Questions and comments
The Dec. 30 “Is there beauty with age?” column elicited some interesting comments.
Pablo — I, too, enjoy properly stored and often spectacularly rewarding great aged wine, but my fears go beyond the “vinegar syndrome” to the proper removal of a deteriorated (often mushy) or stuck cork. Any suggestions?
When opening an older wine, I tend to stay away from the leverage handle openers such as Screwpull or Rabbit and go with the two prong Ah-So or the traditional waiter’s cork pull. Either way you must apply the pressure slowly and carefully extract the cork. But sometimes, all fails and the cork breaks or crumbles. In that case, I may cheat a bit and suppress the remaining part into the bottle and separate it from the wine while decanting. A touch of good luck is always appreciated.
Arpad — Can wine age in the bottle? My knowledge of wine is very limited and I’ve heard from unreliable sources that wine cannot age once bottled. I’ve had a few bottles of 1999 Tokaji on the shelf for four years and wonder what I can expect from them.
Wine, in contrast to spirits, which do not age in the bottle, is a living thing undergoing many integral chemical changes in the bottle. Proper aging of wine necessitates proper storage — consistent temperature (55 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended) in a dark place free from vibration and preferably with good humidity. I’m not sure what you mean by “on the shelf.” The high sugar level of your Tokaji will enhance its aging potential if stored properly. Improper storage will either hasten the process or destroy the wine.