Top New Non-Vintage Champagnes

Vintage-dated Champagne gets the lion's share of attention from most wine collectors and commands higher prices to boot, but my annual tastings made clear, once again, that the best non-vintage Champagnes are often the equal of their fancier brethren.  Most Champagne producers maintain that the key to greatness for these wines is astute blending, and no other wine depends so heavily on blending expertise as Champagne does.

Champagne and other sparkling wines are unique for the fact that the wines can be made from different vintages, and they are usually blends of red and white grapes.  Growers in this sprawling region, which spans almost 80,000 acres, have enjoyed a pretty good run of luck in recent years, with a number of vintages widely considered to be excellent to outstanding (2002, 2004, 2006 and 2008), so winemakers have good stocks of high-quality wine on hand to make topnotch non-vintage wines.  Lighter vintages, like 2007, make valuable components as their bright acidity contributes vibrancy to the deeper, richer years.  Conversely, hot years like 2003 produce ripe, powerful wines that add heft to blends.  Since most producers use three or more different years in their non-vintage bottlings the weaker aspects of lesser harvests are ameliorated by the quality vintages, a fact that explains the relative consistency of style and quality of most houses over the years.

Champagne shipments this year are up 15% from 2010 and on track to break the record that was set in 2007:  327 million bottles.  And because even cheap Champagne is never actually "cheap," this amounts to almost six billion dollars worth of wine.  Prices have mostly leveled off this year and in many cases have come down as importers, wholesalers and retailers have begun to face the reality of a tough market and opt for the quick nickel over the slow dime, which is to the obvious benefit of consumers.  Since this is the season in which as much as half of all Champagne sales are realized and competition is intense, prices are at their best right now.  I've seen a number of NV Champagnes selling for up to a third off their suggested retail prices recently so now's the time to lay in stock for the coming months.