Most Champagne is Non Vintage, also called NV, which means that the wine in the bottle is produced from grapes grown from a number of different years. The goal with NV is to produce a consistent wine every year. For example, Moet and Chandon Brut Imperial tastes the same every year as does Louis Roederer Brut Premier. Consistency is key. A Vintage Champagne in contrast is produced from the grapes from one vintage, meaning one growing season, and shows characteristics of that growing season or vintage.
The terms Vintage and Non Vintage also apply to other types of sparkling and non sparkling wines as well.
Vintage Champagnes are not made every year. Most Champagne houses only make them in above average to exceptional years to produce exceptional wines, and prices reflect this. NV Champagnes account for the majority of Champagne produced, perhaps up to 90%. There is no law or regulation that determines which years are vintage years, and each producer decides for themselves.
How does a Champagne house decide which years to make a Vintage Champagne? Several considerations come into play.
First, is the year an exceptional growing year for grapes or at least an above average year?
Another consideration is if the characteristics if the vintage are a good match to the producer’s style. Even though different vintages of the same Vintage Champagne will taste different, they should still taste like that Champagne. For example, Dom Perignon 1990 tastes much different from the 1998, the 1990 being a bigger, creamier, and more complex wine and the 1998 being a simpler yet very open and giving wine, representing the respective vintages, but they both definitely distinctly taste like Dom Perignon.
A third and often forgotten consideration is how much of the grapes from that vintage are needed for the NV wines. The NV is where most of the money is made and needs to be the priority, while Vintage Champagnes are nice to have but not an economic necessity for most Champagne producers.
Sometimes Champagne producers may make vintage wine during rather mediocre years for various reasons. Many made a 1992 vintage, which is pretty poor, and a 1993 vintage, better but not great, so that there would be plenty available for the Millennium celebrations. Quite honestly I think La Grande Dame 1993 and Dom Perignon 1992 is quite poor, and Dom Perignon 1993 isn’t much better. There were some decent wines made, for example the Deutz Blanc de blancs 1993 is very very nice!
Although Champagne can be produced from three different grapes varieties (plus some rare “ancient” grapes no longer planted and rarely used), most are produced from only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier, the third allowed grape variety, is typically only used for NV wines and is a simpler and more ready to drink grape.
Vintage Champagne is also aged longer before being released than NV, at
least two or three years longer although some like Salon are aged much
longer. This adds more complexity to the wine.
Often, a NV Champagne will taste as good or even better than its vintage brethren initially, but the Vintage one will be much better after a few years of aging.
There are actually two types of Vintage Champagnes. Many producers make both a regular vintage, and a Prestige Cuvee (sometimes called a Tête de Cuvee). These are made of the finest grapes, typically have smaller and finer bubbles, have flavors that are more intense and longer yet more elegant as well, and they age longer developing even more complexity. Examples of Prestige Cuvees include my favorites of Salon Le Mesnil, Roederer Cristal and Cristal Rose, Krug Vintage, Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, and Veuve Cliquet La Grand Dame and La Grand Dame Rose.