Gilles Dumangin, head of this small champagne house, can sound convincingly English or French in either language. That’s quite a feat. But this accomplished champagne producer admits he had little idea how to make champagne when in 2001 he returned to France after quite some time in England, where he left a job as export director to a software company. But he jumped at the chance. At arm’s length he had been developing exports to the UK and fondly remembered helping in the vineyard and winery as a boy.
Since then, after an apprenticeship working alongside his father Jacky, who eventually retired in 2008, Gilles has put these wines on the map in various countries. Not least the UK, where they graced Sir Paul McCartney’s 2011 wedding to Nancy Shevell, have been listed by Gordon Ramsey’s eponymous (Michelin 3*) restaurant in London and declared ‘one of my favourite non-vintage champagnes’ by Jancis Robinson.
But there is deep thinking behind the winemaking here and a strategic evolution. Champagne clichés about a monolithic house style are rarely completely true even at the big houses. Things evolve. Terroir and winemaking are constantly in tension in Champagne, not least at Dumangin where there’s a restless striving after a style still emerging from its chrysalis. But the wines here are lovely.
Home in Champagne for this producer is the premier cru village of Chigny-les-Roses, sitting in a trio of premiers crus between Rilly-la-Montagne and Ludes on the northern scarp of the Montagne de Reims, 60% of which is planted to Pinot Meunier along with 24% Pinot Noir and 16% Chardonnay. The major presence of Meunier here is a surprise to many who think the Montagne is all about Pinot Noir. But these three premiers crus have more clay and sand in parts over the chalk which suits Meunier. It is also conveniently late budding which helps against local frost dangers.
Gilles came back to France because his younger brother, whom the family assumed would take the reins, decided not to. Rather than make champagne and then distribute the returns to dormant family stakeholders, Gilles decided on a small-scale négociant (NM) operation. The result is an ingenious supply network, mainly from some 24 parcels around Chigny. About half the grapes come from about 6ha of family vineyards and the rest are purchased, including a little from Sézanne and the Aube. A ‘house’ it may be, with a modest 100k bottles annual production, but things are hands on here and it’s run as a family domaine.
Gilles Dumangin leaves you in no doubt that his preference is very fresh, racy champagnes which also express their singing fruit flavours. There’s a lusciousness to the wines but a depth and complexity and an incisive cut too. This might be a tall order to achieve in a district with such a high proportion of relatively quick maturing and fruity Pinot Meunier. At Dumangin however, it is done with a coherent wine making strategy but which is still a work in progress. The quest for purity is embedded in practical steps, not rhetoric.
A Champagne tenet is gentle pressing. To keep finesse and fragrance in a white wine from black grapes which can age, you need to strictly limit colour and oxidizable compounds pulled out of the grapes at pressing. At Dumangin two Coquard PAM presses, one for 4000kilos and a baby brother for 2000kilos are highly prized because they do this job so well, even though this press model is discontinued. The enclosed load of grapes is pressed by horizontal plates but the pressed cake is rotated 90° by the slatted base tray in each cycle so, as Gilles explains: ‘the process…presses all the grapes evenly…The fact the (tray) is turning completely creates a perfect retrousse’ – the release of pressure and break up of the ‘cake’ prior to pressing again.
There are no additives here except modest use of SO2, at any stage. This for example includes no pectolytic enzymes for breaking up grape pulp solids in cold settling before the first fermentation. Gilles believes enzymes take some flavours away which he’d rather keep, so does one more time-consuming racking to complete the débourbage. No enzymes means a slightly slower hand remuage or riddling to coax the gummy deposits into the bottle necks after ageing, but in any case he says he hasn’t the space at present for gyropalettes. Rather than stainless steel he prefers compact enamelled steel tanks, for parcel by parcel fermentation. With a slow racking from them he says, nothing sticks, they keep the Dumangin flavours better, even if they are harder to clean between fermentations. And the desire for flavour, freshness and race is consistent to the end, with a recent decision to use Mytik Diamant corks (now over 15% of champagne closures) which elminate almost all risk of cork taint.
There are two further strategic policies for style and quality at Dumangin. Purity and freshness is complemented by complexity with a strikingly high proportion of reserve wines, between 45-70% on the non-vintage cuvées, including even the entry level ’17 Brut’. The Grande Reserve NV has the highest levels, but the Le Rosé NV (now so popular it is 50% of the whole production), seems all the more subtle for the contribution from reserves. These high fractions temper any tendency for the frank fruit here to seem exotic.
Secondly, a recent new move, from the 2012 harvest, malolactic has been blocked to keep the wines showing a fresh attack, especially as warmer harvests seem to be increasing. Gilles would much rather retain natural acid by this than resort to acidification. The impact on style and taste will be gradual given the high level of reserves which of course have been put through malolactic before the change. The only wine released showing this shift so far is the base 2009 Grande Reserve.
So there is excitement and promise here and intriguing and impressive champagne. Altogether, the thought-out and painstaking direction Champagne Dumangin is now moving in has a clear goal and model - to make bracing champagnes with fresh and piercing fruit but with the added subtlety of older reserves to underpin this primary appeal. The finished picture is emerging; but it is wonderful to taste these wines and begin to understand what they will become.
Cuve 17 Brut NV About a one third blend of the varieties. Tasted London 03/13 Very fresh, real bite but bursting with fruit. Certainly modern and zippy.
Grande Réserve 1er cru NV 50PM 25PN 25CH Base 09. 49% of reserve wines. Three years on lees. Disgorged 05/13. Tasted Chigny 10/13. Impressive depth and length. Assertive fruit but a deal of underlying interest, vinosity and complexity from the older wines. Very attractive. About 50% without malolactic.
Blanc de Blancs 1er cru 2006. All the fruit from a single vineyard called Dessous Le Mont in Chigny and dosed at 5g/L/ Tasted Chigny 10/13. Impressive, with honeysuckle and singing fruit notes but a creamy rich undertow too. Very keen finesse. Well made.
Vintage 2003. Tasted Chigny 10/13. Disgorged 2012, dosed at 4g/L. Quite mature but a tension that will see it through some time yet. Some early smoky biscuit flavours but a good structure and texture too. By no means a soft caricature of this warm year.
Rosé Saignée 2008. Tasted Chigny 10/13. 50PM 25PN 25PN Lovely raspberry cream but a balancing slightly bitter cut to it which makes it seem sophisticated and grown up. A convincing modern take on rosé.
Le Rosé NV 1er cru 2008. Tasted London 03/13 and Chigny 10/13. Blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, about equal. Bursting with fruit but quite a dry and linear impression from the high Chardonnay. Sappy and very moreish, Very fruity but not cloying by any means.
Vinotheque 1er cru Brut 1996. Tasted London 03/13 Pretty advanced and slightly toffeed but a deal of nutty interest and an attractive soft mousse.
Vinotheque 1er cru Brut 1994. Tasted Chigny 10/13 Again a toffeed oxidative note setting in. This and the previous wine date of course from a period prior to the changes brought in by Gilles Dumangain since.
Trio des Ancêtres - Three cuvées sold together, from the 2000 harvest. These are each made from a single variety: Firmin from Chardonnay, Hippolyte from Pinot Noir and Achille from Pinot Meunier. The only wines made with oak, one year of ageing in used burgundy barriques. Presently based on 2000 and disgorged in 2010 and all therefore with a long time on lees. 0g/L. All three showed power and structure and really deep complexity, the oak still evident but a successful style given the overall complexity and freshness from zero dosage, the Pinot Noir especially.
Champagne J Dumangin Fils
F51500 Chigny Les Roses
3 rue de Rilly
Champagne used to be very sweet. Very sweet indeed. You could ask Czar Alexander of Russia if he was still here. Over 200g/L of sweetness in the 18th and much of the 19th centuries. The Brits are probably to blame for it getting drier; it was certainly the fashion to drink champagne with food in the London fleshpots of the 1870s and they wanted it a lot drier than it was. Since then dryish champagne is more or less the norm. The French have always had a tradition of drinking champagne with puddings and cakes but it’s not such a big deal in other countries.
I wonder though if the gradual increase in champagne sales to Asia and the BRIC countries, with their famed sweet teeth and spicy food, has increased demand for sweet champagne. And if you have never had sweet fizz with fois gras, if you are not ethically challenged by the stuff(ing) of ducks, then hurry up. You owe it to civilisation to do it by age 21.
If sweet fizz gets a bigger rep, the the house of Louis Roederer is well placed. Not many people seem to know that the house has a long specialism in sweet fizz and makes a range called Carte Blanche (white label) in three versions. There’s Extra Dry (about 18g/L), and Sec (about 32g/L), although there’s nothing very Sec (the French for dry) about 32g/L. But let’s not carp about terms; there’s one more – Demi-Sec. You might think this means half the sweetness but no it doesn’t. It means even sweeter, about 45g/L. Roederer also make a style called Doux and fair enough, that does mean ‘sweet’. That;’s over 50g/L and made only for special orders. I’m told the Queen Mother used to place an order.
My previous tasting of this sweet style was back in 2006 when I had a fairly old bottle (but NV as all the Roederer sweet wines are, so impossible to say how old) of a wine marked ‘Rich’. I’ve been told this description is now discontinued by Roederer and the wine would nowadays be called ‘Sec’. My note was:
Roederer Rich NV (sec) 09.06 Very pale with soft mousse. Curiously restrained and closed at first and then lovely impression and concentrated flavours. Slight creamy nuttiness. This made from a blend of 4 years, 66% black and 34% CH with 3 yrs of reserve wines too.
Then the other day I had a Carte Blanche NV demi-sec, apparently some 42g/L, but it didn’t feel like it. The wine was sweet for sure, but the lean complexity of the fruit went well as an aperitif with duck liver pâté. These sweet Louis Roederer wines are not simply their Brut NVs tarted up with sweeter dosages. The fruit is pre-selected for making these styles for its intensity and leanness, so as to balance the sugar. The 40% Chardonnay, 40 Pinot Noir and 20 Pinot Meunier blend will lend freshness with quite a high fraction of white grapes, emphasised even more by the partial malolactic. This is no syrup bomb. And of course, there is the trade mark Roederer addition of foudre-aged reserve wines to give an undertow of complexity.
With the right foods, these styles are sensational. But the food doesn’t have to be the rich savoury fois gras sort. Recently I also tasted a Laurent-Perrier NV demi-sec served with a pudding described on the menu at London’s Greenhouse restaurant as ‘Orange, Saffron/ Date/Filo Pastry’. The match was sensational, a tightrope of precisely calibrated levels of sweetness. And here’s a secret – sweet champagne, pretty sweet champagne and chocolate, preferably dark. Go on, you’re worth it.
Wouldn’t it be funny if the cool yen for zero dosage these days, suddenly turned into new interest in sweet champagne?
I love Blanc de Blancs champagne; elegant, high tension stuff from the great grands crus and premier crus Vertus and Cuis on the Côte des Blancs. And it can age very well to a hazlenut and multi-faceted complexity from great producers. From elsewhere its clean cut jib and a lighter sense of purity and poise can be charming, even if not quite so intense and thrilling as from Chardonnay central, the grands crus of the Côte.
Champagne can be thought of as ‘before the fizz’ and ‘after the fizz’. The first period to 1700-odd prized still wine above all, even if annoyingly it often started to ferment and fizz again in the spring. After that, when a fashion broke out for the fizzy stuff with the Paris and London aristocracies, sparkling champagne developed in parallel with still champagne. It would not be until about 1845 that organised sparkling champagne production overtook the still stuff.
Before fizz took off, Chardonnay from the Côte was looked down on – thin, acidic and rasping. But once fizz triumphed Chardonnay became highly prized. Its high acidity and lower sugars meant it fermented more slowly and produced a gentler mousse in the spring which could be captured in the bottle. The great wines from Pinot Noir, on the Montagne de Reims and the Epernay area of the Marne, and especially Aÿ, tended to ferment fast and furiously and be too still when it came to the spring. The answer was to make champagne by blending black and white grapes. Chardonnay was on its way.
Eventually Blanc de Blancs emerged as a special style apart from the grape blends. André Simon wrote in 1962 it was ‘always very pale in colour, and it is usually also lighter in body, but not necessarily in alcoholic strength…Dry and elegant, it is an ideal wine to serve before a meal, or as the first wine of the day in the forenoon after a late night.’ Bless.
Now it’s a major style it’s made from all over Champagne. I recently had the chance to taste 17 examples, care of a great tasting run by Richard Dudley Craig of The Wine Scholar in London. Here are the tasting notes. We were asked to rate them out of 20 for quality and 5 for value on price, as in 20/5. I have omitted repeating ‘Blanc de Blancs’ for each wine.
Amyot Brut NV. An RM domaine from Loches-sur-Ource in the Aube Bar-Séquanais. A warm honied nose; pleasant lemony-bread and light biscuit tones. Roundish texture. Lots of sweet ripness; pleasant and poised, if not very thrilling. 14/4
Pierre Moncuit NV. (Moncuit-Delos) RM Domaine in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger on the Côte. This is grand cru, all from Le Mesnil. A very focused peachstone and lily nose. Ripe but racy and streaky minerality. Lemony detail and crystalline with a chalky-earthy undertow. Rather good in a very Mesnil mold. Finer than their other Blanc de Blancs made from Sézanne grapes. 16.5/4
Jean Velut Brut NV Montgueux, RM domaine. This tiny satellite district is a single south-east facing scarp west of Troyes. Ripe and full with a chocolatey complexity. Bready, umami, with a touch of caramel. Has power and expression but short of finesse, with quite a hard mousse. A ripe exotic note and just a touch rustic. 14/3.5
Saint-Chamant Brut NV, Epernay RM domaine. Greeny gold, charming, ripe and bready; quite autolytic, full and assertive. Round and slightly ponderous. 14/3.5
Pierre Gimonnet Cuvée 1er cru Cuis NV Precise, pointed with a lovely focus and chalky minerality. Intense and linear with a good deal of finesse and a balancing undertow of quite forcing white chocolate and bread. Stylish and resonant if not the longest finish. 16.5/4.5 They have some 28ha, a very big holding for an RM. 16.5/4.5
Andre Jacquart 1er cru Brut NV Expérience A blend of Le Mesnil and Vertus (60%) where this domaine (RM) is based. Dosage 4g/L – so in fact an Extra Brut. Malolactic blocked. Lovely race and tight structure and powerful enough to meet the concentrated oak (30%). A particularly fine texture, creamy and seeming pure. A real array of lily, coffee, citrus and umami flavours. A stunning wine for the entry level cuvée of this producer. 17/4
Legras Grand Cru Chouilly Brut NV A small house (NM) based in Chouilly, but with a very good reputation. Typical Chouilly charming fruit, light, racy and less chalky than further down the Côte. A rather assertive mousse. Warm and roundish in the end but slightly brutal texture. 14/3
Legras Grand Cru Présidence 2004 Floral, peachstone and smoke. Ripe but some biscuit development and autolytic too. Complex and satisfying. Compact but intense reflection of the medium term but concentrated 2004 character. 17/4
Larmandier-Bernier NV Extra Brut 1er cru This cuvée is now called Latitude in its latest version. This is about 65% Vertus and the rest Mainly Avize and Cramant fruit with a little from Oger and Chouilly. Very persistent, long nose. Density and interest, Concentrated, oak-influenced with a racy palate. Rock and dust, peach and spice. So many layers of interest. Marvellous linear intensity. About 4/5g/L dosage. 18/4
Larmandier-Bernier Terre de Vertus ’08 1er cru This is zero dosage. A single parcel on the Vertus mid-slope. Bread and rock; such complexity. Honied and ripe but with cut and intensity. Finesse and chewy substance. Really challenging, in a good way. Far from the mainstream flavours of champagne. 18.5/4
Larmandier-Bernier ’06 Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes de Cramant Extra Brut How disappointing! Caramel oxidation and reduction. An odd bottle. Quite gold with coffee, toffee and premature development; decaying. There’s a honey and steel reminder of the quality behind it perhaps but this has to be an off bottle. 13/1
Saint-Chamant Brut ’02 Cuvée Chardonnay, Epernay A rounder style of Blanc de Blancs than the Côte. Floral and full, earthy but still quite gathereed and well-structured impression. Bready in a light way, fresh, early complexity and well done. A domaine (RM).
Ruinart Brut NV Real fragrance on the nose. Fresh, enticing and floral and an array of dark chocolate and spice and mothball/menthol. A green, smoky note. A touch exotic and a touch sweet. 10g/L dosage? 15/2
Jean-Paul Deville NV A fresh acacia nose, fullness and mild biscuit. But quite a short and conventional champagne taste with a Turkish Delight almost botrytic note. A touch confected and well-behaved, although refreshing. Slightly brazen, superficial stuff. 14/4
Philipponnat Grand Blanc 2004, Mareuil-sur-Ay Ripe, smoky and biscuit, classic with a full and fine balance of assertive components. Very ripe but a good mineral streak runs through. Any Clos des Goisses in this? Disgorged 02/10. 5g/L 17.5/3.5
Pol Roger Brut 2002 Bready classic aromas and that pressing, forceful, powerful 2002 presence. Touch of mothballs. A little lush, rich and easy-peasy. Impressive just stylishly a bit well-mannered; cookie-cutter champagne. 16.5/3.5
Francis Boulard et Fille Les Rachais 2005 Brut Nature Very woodland sous bois nose. Earth, dough, stone and putty. Aldehydic from barrels. Pure and crystalline detail. Very dry and needing food. 0g/L Disgorged 29/01/2011. Complex and demanding original champagne from a single parcel. 17.5/3.5 Domaine champagne (RM)
Bruno Paillard was in town this week showing The Old Disgorgement Collection, a special line of wines his house launched in 2009 aimed at champagne connoisseurs.
I wrote a piece describing what ‘disgorgement’ is in the champagne making process here, so you may want to check that first if you are a bit hazy. For an earlier profile of Champagne Bruno Paillard, see here.
I wish there was a racier term than ‘Post-Disgorgement Ageing’ – surely three words which strike torpor into the blithest spirit. I’ll try to explain why it’s important.
We’re used to the idea that champagne is ready to drink when you buy it. And an awful lot is bought with a consumption date in mind and rushing towards you. It’s called a wedding. And we often forget that a vast amount of champagne is drunk ‘free’, that is, consumed by people who are being entertained and have no say in how long it might have been kept and probably do not mind in the slightest!
Wine geeks generally glory in the fact that a small but distinguished group of the world’s wines improve to show amazing complexity and interest with age. That’s why there’s all the fuss about vintages to keep and having a cellar to keep them in. The fact most champagne has always been touted as good to go runs counter to this. But more and more, there is a growing and genuine interest by enthusiasts for ageing champagne.
There are more formidable obstacles to face if you plan to do this than with still fine wine. Admittedly some issues are no different than keeping good claret, burgundy, Barolo, top German white wine, top Napa Cabernet or Port, the select group of classics most chosen for longevity. You do need to know the good producers who do age-worthy and you do need to know the vintages which are keepers. But you really want to be in this game, so you apply yourself; you find out.
Then you hit the champagne wall. The facts are distressing. Most champagne is non-vintage (NV) so does it pay to keep it long? The answer is an awful lot of basic NV if kept still, in the dark and cool, will improve for two years or so. And the best, such as Krug Grande Cuvee can be kept for up to 20 years or more and gets more complex still.
When it comes to vintage champagne we expect the wine to be a better candidate than NV for ageing, because vintage champagnes in general are made from the better lieux-dits in better years. So which are the best recent vintages of champagne? Answer: 1996 (though some are now falling apart), 2002, 2004 and 2008 although the best 2008s have not yet been released. From very good producers there are wines which are good to age from these intermediate years too: 1995, 1998, 1999 and 2006. But blending and time on lees vary so much between producers that it helps to know in particular a house’s track record and how long a vintage wine has had on lees before release.
Now the champagne waters get distinctly choppy. You may want to hold on to your NV a bit but 99% of it does not tell you how old it is on the back label. You neither know when it was made, how long it has been aged on its second lees in Champagne’s cellars, nor how long since it was disgorged and put on the market. And the same NV cuvée may be disgorged in batches many times over. Some producers if you contact them will find some esoteric code on the bottle or cork that tells you when it was disgorged but most people can’t be faffed. And why should we have to go to all that length?
Similarly, the best vintage champagnes rarely tell on the back label how long they were aged on lees before disgorgement or when that event took place. Most vintage champagne is disgorged en tranche ie in batches just like NV, so a champagne with the same vintage on the label may have had any variation of time on lees and time since. In may say 1990 on the label but it could have been given 4, 6 or 7 years on lees and disgorged anything from 18 years ago to 10, 7 or 3 years. You are none the wiser. If it is a great producer or a de luxe cuvée you may have paid well over £200 for the bottle. But you are not allowed the most basic information that would help you decide when to drink it.
Bruno Paillard is the pioneer of putting disgorgement dates on back labels, since 1983, and proud of it. His Old Disgorgement Collection range contains the same Paillard cuvée aged for varying times since disgorgement. The cuvée was NV Brut Première (styled as ‘multi-vintage’ to emphasise the high fraction of reserve wines) and all the bottles had been kept in ideal conditions. The blend was 45% Pinot Noir, 22% Pinot Meunier and 33% Chardonnay and all dosed at 6g/L with a six month rest period after. The wines all had three years lees ageing before disgorgement. We can show disgorgement dates and overall post-disgorgement ageing.
1 – March 2013 – 7 months
2 – December 2009 – 3 years 9 months,
3 – September 2005 – 8 years and 1 month
4 – February 2002 – 11 years and 8 months
Apart from the two bottles of the third wine, which by bad luck showed varying degrees of reduction and oxidation, the wines were a triumph. The first was lemony fresh but with butter and warm amber notes of light autolysis. The second seemed drier with more precision and detail, more distinct and elegant than the one before. Autolytic butter, brioche and smoke apparent; beautifully complex and long. As I said, the third bottles were faulty. But the final champagne really sang the riches to be had from long ageing after disgorgement. It had elegance but a nuttiness and savoury note, licorice and cream.
The verdict needs to be measured. One of the wines did not show well and would have been an expensive disappointment to a collector or on a special occasion. The others were very impressive but also point up some advice. It’s true that these were NV wines with only three years on lees before disgorgment – not that much different than the time on lees for the leading big brands of entry level champagne – the NV Brut of every producer.
But I think it would be wrong to conclude all NV Brut with three years on lees can repeat the Bruno Paillard magic. Bruno Paillard’s Brut Première Multi Vintage has had some 20% of oak ageing of the vins clairs which will stabilise the wine to a degree against future oxidation. These wines have also been kept in Reims in ideal conditions before this tasting. And finally, the wines are high quality with only the first cuvée pressing juice used and no doubt with the deliberate retention of some malic acidity. Champagnes on their lees develop far more slowly if they have low pH and almost certainly these do because of the very high quality musts used to make the wine. At disgorgement these wines will have developed less than most and will be capable of ageing better post-disgorgement. It’s also claimed that a low fraction of Pinot Meunier slows development on the lees. I would not recommend ageing most Brut NVs more than two years after disgorgement simply on this evidence of Bruno Paillard wines. His wines are too good for a fair comparison.
Several expert champagne commentators repeat what seems to be a mantra of champagne ageing: the longer a champagne is kept on lees before disgorgement, the quicker it will develop after disgorgement. This is the logic of wines such as Bollinger’s Récemment Dégorgé (RD) and Jacquesson’s Dégorgement Tardive (DT). These wines are intended for fairly quick consumption after release but have been kept on lees a very long time. The Paillard wines here have had a shortish time on lees and have aged well after, so seem to prove the rule.
But it is not so plain to me that this is a rigid rule. I’ve seen expert tasting notes that report RD tasting very good four years after disgorgement and 9/10 years on lees before that. Being made in magnum seems to have an effect too. Not so long ago I tasted six vintages of Perrier-Jöuet Belle Epoque in magnum, all with six years on lees but all showing brilliantly. The 1995 had 11 years post-disgorgement, the 1990 15, the 1989 16 and 1985 20 years. The magnum effect is probably to do with the oxygen ingress at disgorgement being less per volume of wine compared to a smaller format and the rate of ingress after being as limited as in a a standard format as the neck and cork dimensions are very similar. A further factor is that decent times on lees make for tinier bubbles and greater creaminess and finesse of mousse texture. But there seems little reported on whether we can generalise about how long the time on lees might need to be before champagne is fragile after disgorgement and should be drunk promptly.
Finally, there seems to be a good deal of confusion about the aromas and flavours of wines with varying time on lees and since disgorgement. What should we expect? Storage conditions and quality of producer and vintage being equal, it would help us decide when to open a bottle of aged champagne if we had much clue as to what kind of tasting ball park we are likely to be in.
Tom Stevenson, still the author of the greatest book on champagne (but published in 1986 and way out of date now) has claimed for a long time that the flavours most experts call autolytic are not so, but are produced during post-disgorgement ageing when autolysis has stopped. I do believe this is confusing. Quite quickly after settling from disgorgement and dosage, many champagnes show autolytic flavours of brioche, yeastiness, bread, baking, biscuit and smouldering smoke degrees of intensity. They may begin mild but develop depth. And they tend to produce these characteristic flavours of complexity long before the more oxidative effects of post-disgorgement ageing which then add a caramelising, toffeed oxidative note with nuttiness and often a spice and putty complexity, which overlays the autolytic flavours. To claim that long lees-aged champagne has no complexity from autolysis immediately after disgorgement is, I suspect, inaccurate. It’s clear to me that degrees of autolysis and its flavours are the hallmarks of good champagne and does not depend necessarily on substantial ageing post-disgorgement. At the same time, further ageing can of course produce even more complex champagnes, as Bruno Paillard’s collection range shows.
Where does this leave the consumer, the would be collector and cellarer of good champagne who has to decide how long to keep it before popping the cork? It is a much more difficult issue than ageing other still fine wine. But at the very least, we need more information from producers. Obviously the date of disgorgement on the bottle. But actually, commonsensically, we need more. We need to know how long the wine was on lees before disgorgement too. Because how long on lees will give us some clue as to what the wine will do after disgorgement. We only knew the Paillard wines had three years on lees because we were told. Similarly a disgorgement date on vintage champagne does not tell you how long on lees because it is usually disgorged at intervals.
But it would be easier if we could simply read the label. I look forward to this basic information on all champagne: ’Cellared on lees in our cellars from….to….’
What’s stopping them?
Now what is going on in this picture? Stay with me – all will be revealed. But just to get introductions out of the way, that is Richard Devignes looking tiny in that big hole in the ground.
OK, it’s not going to be a swimming pool. They are building a winery, to make champagne.
Richard is one half of Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon, part of the future of domaine champagne, called ‘grower champagne’ by many. His wife is Géraldine Lacourte, whose family have been winemakers in champagne for generations. I’m telling this part of the story because right now there’s a lot going on at Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon; and anyway I admire what they do.
This small producer has 8ha of vines, nearly all of it within the premier cru village of Ecueil on the Petite Montagne de Reims. About 20 minutes drive south from the city. I wrote a profile of their domaine here some time ago. They grow mostly Pinot Noir in Eceuil and some of the big houses admire the Pinot Noir from here for its intensity and lean minerality. So many local producers sell grapes to the houses or the négoce as its called. And most of the producers in Ecueil belong to their local cooperative which is noted for its good winemaking and well-organised. This means that at least the first pressing and early stages of winemaking are performed at the coop winery in the village. Géraldine’s father was its president before he retired.
But Géraldine and Richard are set on becoming truly independent and are in the throes of converting from being a récoltant-coopérateur (RC) to becoming a récoltant-manipulent (RM), that is, a truly independent domaine which makes its own wine only from grapes it has grown in its own vineyards. Their wines are already good, but by having complete control themselves they can push quality even higher and also reflect the precise terroir of their own vineyards.
And that’s why there’s this hole in the ground, It’s going to be new winery, where for the first time they will make their own champagne from the harvest of 2014 next year. The excavation for the cellar and foundations shows the geology of Ecueil brilliantly. Notice the relatively thick layer (over 1m) of sandy and calcareous clay soil over the solid chalk, a much thicker layer than on much of the Grande Montagne to the east and giving wines that show power, and an elegant, penetrating persistence.
This year, having left the coop, they are making their champagne in the winery of another independent producer and good friend in the same village. Next year, and beyond…the stars.
I can’t wait. And you do not need to. If you’re in Champagne or passing through, phone them, they will be delighted to show you the new winery rising like a phoenix from the hole in the ground. Right now they are harvesting, then winemaking, and all the while overseeing the new build. But not so busy they won’t show you around with pride. Their lovely wines are already in the UK and can be bought here too:
Cozzi & Boffa Wines
Tel: 01223 265589
16 rue des Aillys, 51500
Tel: 0033 3 26 49 74 75
A lot of wine people, trade experts, journalists and champagne connoisseurs, are sceptical about champagne having ‘terroir’. What terroir might be we can discuss, but a problem for the sceptics is that most of them admit that a northerly climate with some continental features and a chalky geology and soil gives Champagne a special character: crisp acidity and a mineral core. But then they go on to attack the idea of terroir by saying the champenois mostly blend it away. The vast majority of champagne is a multi-district blend of often far-flung vineyards and vintages. They are left trying to square a circle – there is terroir and there isn’t.
I think what such arguments boil down to is the idea there are degrees of terroir. The ultimate holy grail is the tiny patch of a single vineyard whose wines taste unique. The wine will be rare and probably expensive. At the other extreme is a regional terroir, which although it might make blended wines, still tastes distinctive from the wines of other regions. And there is no question that, on the whole, trained tasters can spot regionally blended champagne blind against most all comers’ fizz from around the world.
But major obstacles then rear up for the terroir argument. Rare and expensive single tiny vineyard champagne is not tasted often by experts and very few connoisseurs can afford it. Krug Clos d’Ambonnay or Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises cost a lot to say the least. Few know what they taste like. That can only be gleaned conclusively by several verticals of said bottles, preferably blind against likely competitors. Only then could it be said what is the terroir taste of these wines, let alone if they are unique or not.
Putting price to one side, there are many single vineyard and village wines from good quality domaines in Champagne. If you taste often enough it might be possible to discern the special character of Egly-Ouriet’s Vignes de Vrigny, the Brisifer of Champagne Jerôme Dehours or Champagne Agrapart’s exclusively Cramant Minéral compared to his L’Avizoise from Avize. But the number of people in the world who know these wines and could describe their individual precise character, their terroir taste, you could count on one hand. Most champagne lovers have not even heard of the names of these producers, or even of Anselme Selosse, the domaine champagne daddy of them all.
Yet there are are commentators on champagne and Champagne who constantly refer to ‘terroir champagnes’ or call them ‘terroir-driven’. What is often being done here is the assertion that because a champagne might come from an identified piece of land, a single village cru, a single lieu-dit or even a single parcel within a lieu-dit vineyard, then it has ‘terroir’ automatically. Terroir is seen as a physical, geographic identifier, not a taste that consistently corresponds with a specific patch of land. In fact, there is some semantic backing for this. People refer to a vineyard, a site, a cru, as a ‘terroir’. But it needs emphasising that this is no automatic carry over into the taste of a wine or its overall quality. Wines show terroir not because of where they come from but because where they come from informs them with the specific and consistently proven taste of the place.
The common sleight of hand here is to ascribe terroir to a wine simply because you can point to the land its grapes came from. And the smaller the address, the more terroir is assumed on a type of ‘small is beautiful’, but not always demonstrated, basis.
Blending grapes from different origins is at the heart of what most champagne producers do, even the most terroir obsessed growers or single domaines. All good champagne producers vinify grape varieties and grapes from different origins separately before they blend. It is impossible to blend well in champagne without understanding what each terroir has produced and how they might combine. Reserve wines are kept in the same way and even ‘solera’ type reserves, partly drained and refreshed each year, are a combination of specific terroirs. Most champagne deals in multiple terroirs but doing so demands intimate understanding of the likely blend results and therefore of each terroir. If you get it wrong bye-bye to the whole cuvée.
Over 90% of champagne is blended by variety, vineyard and vintage. In itself blending is not original sin. Probably 90% of all the world’s still wine is blended to a degree. Wines 100% from a single parcel, one variety and one year are rare. In the EC, 15% of what is in the bottle of all wines which carry a vintage date, can come from other years and often does. From outside the EC the % can be even higher. Except curiously in Champagne, where vintage wines must be 100% of one harvest year, although they may of course blend grapes from anywhere in Champagne.
The Domaine (Grower) Champagne Movement
However, it is equally true that in the last ten years or so there has been a new interest in the idea of terroir in Champagne and amongst champagne aficionados and wine critics. Many writers welcome this and champion what they see as a new generation of ‘grower producers’ who now carry the flag for new pretty much organic approaches and with an aim to express the tastes of their local vineyards and produce wine with riper grapes, greater concentration and ‘sense of place’ than the more industrial methods of the big brands. It is as much a matter of viticulture as winemaking or specific local origins.
Anselme Selosse, hugely influential and a mentor to other good young producers such as Jerôme Prévost, Alexandre Chartogne-Taillet and Ulysse Collin is often seen as a watershed figure. In fact the impression is given that the idea of terroir time in Champagne can be construed as pre-Selosse and post-Selosse. In some cases, the near deification of ‘grower champagne’ has reached cult status and is certainly a hipster trend in the USA and Japan, less so in other important champagne markets. Knowledge and enthusiasm for domaine (grower) champagne in the UK for instance may have its coterie but is distinctly lukewarm and is mostly unknown even by those who profess themselves to be champagne fans.
In fact the position is not so simple. What has happened is that some wine critics have just woken up to domaine (‘grower’) champagne and ‘discovered’ what has been going on some time. Anselme Selosse in fact took over his family estate in 1974 on returning from training in Burgundy, nearly 40 years ago. Apart from the brilliant Selosse, you can list the elite of today’s small champagne domaines (‘growers’) making local ‘cru’ wines and the dates they began doing so or when the current drivers of the domaine took over: Champagnes Paul Bara (1962), Agrapart (1984), Vilmart (an RM since 1890), Tarlant (1928), Diebolt-Vallois (early 1900s), Pierre Péters (1919), Chartogne-Taillet (1978), Doyard (1927), Egly-Ouriet (1982), Eric Rodez (1983), Larmandier-Bernier (1988), Dehours (1996).
The so-called ‘grower revolution’ and focus on terroir now comprises a rather bigger list than this of course. But a word of caution against generalising about ‘grower champagne’ as if it has ousted sliced bread. Of the 4748 growers (2011 figs) who sell champagne under their own label, 57% (and rising right now) are selling a wine soup blend made by the local coop from all the members’ grapes. They are RCs or ‘récoltants-coopérateurs’. It’s possible to visit 20 growers or more in a village all selling their own brand, but which is in fact identical wine, an amalgum of everyone’s grapes. Of course, that still leaves about 2000 growers who are truly RM (récoltants-manipulants). In my experience I would hazard less than 250 of these are making a serious attempt to make their wine express the local terroir.
Sub-Regional Terroirs and Crus
I have already referred to the distinctive taste of regional terroir which nearly all champagne displays. But, as is well-known, this can be broken down to show the typical differences of champagnes that come from the sub-districts of the region. Generalising, the Marne vineyards west of Epernay have more clay and sand over the chalk and the north and south bank of the river is important too for differences in ripening. Vineyards close to the river in the Marne make what growers call ‘vins de rivière’ making ample but intense wines from sandy/ clay soils helped by the warm air ripening convection from proximity to the river. As you go west towards Paris along the Marne the soil cover over chalk is heavier and thicker, making broader and less mineral textured wines. The south-facing Marne vineyards going east to Epernay are dominated by their summer sun-bathed warmth, the same river effect and steepness, all features of Damery, Hautvillers, Cumières and Dizy.
The soils on the south slopes of the Montagne de Reims are thinner, the chalk thicker and the blunt exposure to the sun due south is more pronouned at premier cru Mareuil-sur-Aÿ and the grand grands crus amphitheatres of Bouzy and Ambonnay. The Chardonnay dominated villages of Vaudemanges, Trépail and Villers-Marmery on the eastern horseshoe of the Montagne have a very specific exposure too.
The thin topsoils and extreme chalk of the Côte des Blancs make Chardonnay with extreme minerality as is well-known. But blenders and producers of cru wine are familiar with the often stark differences between the grands crus of Cramant (mineral, power and coffee-cream), Avize (varied but with huge focus and chalkiness) and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (the most mineral and intrense). One would need to discuss Oiry, Oger and Vertus too.
A generally agreed breakdown of the main regions and sub-regions in Champagne is as follows but it can vary depending on the source:
Montagne de Reims – the Grande Montagne, The Petite Montagne, Massif de St Thierry, Vallées de Vesle and Ardre, Les Monts de Berru
Vallée de la Marne - La Grande Vallée, Vallée de la Marne Ouest, Marne Rive Gauche, Marne Rive Droite, Sud d’Epernay, Condé
Côte des Blancs & Sézannais - Côte des Blancs, Val du Petit Morin, Sézannais, Le Vitrayat, Montgueux
Aube - Bar-sur-Aubois, Le Barséquanais
There is an important sense in which the generic terroir of Champagne is physically unique and incorporates a vital human component. This is the excavation and construction of its chalk cellars underneath Reims and Epernay in particular. These cellars are there because chalk is relatively easily excavable. They would not be there and champagne would not have its unique character if the base rock was hard. They provide ideal 10-14C and high humidity for autolytic processes vital to champagne’s complexity and mousse texture. The physical separation of grape growing from wine-making is historically dramatic for the bigger houses in Champagne, underpinned by the same separation of dual chalk environments: vineyard and cellars, which can be over 100 kilometres apart. The fact that many RMs outside the two major towns have shallower cellars is an important contributor to terroir differences within Champagne.
Perhaps more than most wines, and similar to sherry and port in important ways, champagne is heavily dependent on and marked by human intervention and technique. It often seems appropriate to reserve for it the current definition of terroir from the OIV (International Organisation of Vine and Wine) in 2010:
“Vitivinicultural ‘terroir’ is a concept that refers to an area where the collective knowledge amassed from, on the one hand, the interactions between the identifiable physical and biological environment, and on the other hand, applied vitivinicultural practices, imparts distinctive characteristics on the products originating from that area”
In other words, terroir includes the culture of grape growing and winemaking in a region, not just its physical setting. This seems commonsensical when you realise how marked the taste of all wines is by human actions such as grape choice, wine making techniques such as malolactic, stainless steel and oak, and the choice of how and how long to age a wine before drinking it. This applies to all wines but perhaps more so with champagne’s character so influenced by blending, sur lie ageing after two fermentations, disgorgement and dosage. You can add to the mix yeast culture too, a limited range for all champagne bar a tiny number who use wild yeasts for the first fermentation and two I know of using natural yeast populations for the second fermentation in experimental cuvées. Even Selosse has a high tech lab-made culture registered and in use, a lovely telling combination of human manipulation and local terroirs.
While all and sundry, including myself, crave more expressions of terroir from Champagne, we have to admit the work is still at a pretty primitive stage. the CIVC ‘Zonage’ project is on course to describe 275,000 parcels in 320 crus from many thousands of lieux-dits. But even when it is finished, on analytic grounds, to claim a champagne tastes of its specific local terroir, you have to spell out how that comes to be. Otherwise what you taste may not be terroir. And to claim a wine’s taste corresponds to its unique terroir you logically entail knowing the tastes of all other terroirs so that you can claim this one is distinctive or at least one of its limited kind. Vine chemistry at present does not understand this process even though one constantly meets people in and out of Champagne who claim mineral particles from the rock below the vines get into the wine and that is what we taste and call ‘terroir’. This realist correspondence theory of terroir is pretty discredited, although a chemical mechanism of some sorts may eventually be uncovered. In the meantime journalists and commentators use romantic but often unconvincing metaphors for terroir tastes, such as ‘wines that speak loudly of the commune or vineyards in which they were grown.’ (Robert Walters, World of Fine Wine, 36, 2012).
Really? How do you know?
Posted in Champagne
The world’s most loved champagne. That’s what Moët say. There’s certainly more of it than any other made, well over 20m bottles, maybe over 25m by some professional guesses. But it’s not always been the most loved by those curmudgeonly sorts called wine critics and experts.
And it can be demonised by the new wave of hipster critics that seem only to approve of champagne if it is a) grower b) can be called ‘terroir champagne’.
And I too champion the best growers (although I call them ‘domaine champagnes’) and those becoming the best, but I also recognise they do not have a monopoly on quality in Champagne.
But it is true that in general, wine experts tend to give big brands short shrift. And this flagship behemoth from Moët is certainly the biggest selling champagne brand worldwide. It has graced more engagements, more weddings and christenings, more excuses to celebrate, than any other champagne.
Until quite recently it was the whipping boy used to focus on everything doubters disliked about champagne. It’s industrial levels of production for certain versions. Its sheer popularity, which of course means poor taste to some. But above all it’s quality was always worth a put down The polite version was the charge of inconsistency; nothing made in such sluice-gate quantity could always deliver, every bottle, in every country, in every bar. I even knew someone in the wine trade who organised tastings who would always put this blind into any line-up of champagne, just to prove how nasty it was. I can report that on a number of occasions the punters used to like it a lot but did not dare say. In other words, this was the devil’s juice and if you quite like dallying with the devil, best to keep quiet.
Perhaps Moët have taken this all to heart. And done something about it. Because I don’t want to damn this wine with faint praise, let alone join in the hip chorus of naysayers. I think it is much improved and actually right now a good champagne and on form. I have carefully kept notes on it over the last two and a bit years.
What it has gained is ripeness and that may have something to do with more sun in Champagne than was there before. But it’s taken on more intensity and a creamier texture too. It’s fresh, bright and feels quite classy. There’s some mealy substance now that wasn’t always there. And there is at least a good filip of what champagne classically does which other sparklers do not: complexity. That white chocolate, coffee and bready note is delicious but not predominant in what is a tense, racy style. And the greenness has almost gone, just a pleasant whiff of fresh meadow and warm citrus. And at 9g/litre sugar dosage, it’s now drier than a good deal of Brut NV out there.
You don’t believe me? Put it properly blind into any line-up of Brut NV champagne. Get your friends round. Discuss. And if you were planning on filling the bath-tub with it on ice for that party, do it. You don’t have to live in Essex.
Champagne’s still wines, called Coteaux Champenois are definitely worth a look. But they remain a curiosity even for champagne enthusiasts. And the quality is distinctly ho hum apart from a few specialists. It’s strange to know that until about 1850 the majority of wine made in Champagne was not fizz but still. It is the only world wine region to have made a wholesale shift from one style of wine to specialise completely in another. It took its time, but with what amazing success!
The rarest still wines being made today are white, mostly 100% Chardonnay. In such a marginal climate for ripening you need to be brave to fashion a still white from such acidic juice. Perhaps climate change and riper fruit in the last ten years has made people braver. By far the best to come my way recently, apart from a tasting of still reserve wines from Champagne Veuve-Clicquot – but they don’t count, destined to sparkle – was a Coteaux Champenois Blanc 2005 made by Jerôme Dehours in the Marne. This was barrique fermented and spent 18 months on lees and was harvested from two lieux-dits in Mareuil-le-Port, Brisefer and Dessous le Bois des Châtaigniers. The oak was beautifully integrated and the wine showed a honeysuckle intensity and pithy mineral edge but with some weight and true vinosity. It is excellent and sets the pace for pure Chardonnay still wines in Champagne.
Much less successful I feel is the wine shown here, a Blanc 2008 from the normally very impressive house of Champagne Henri Giraud in Aÿ. There’s no question the fruit is very ripe. This is both 100% fruit from Aÿ, the south-facing amphitheatre Grand Cru and also from the wonderful 2008 vintage. There is exotic, almost tropical fruit. But the wine tastes as though it’s been subjected to a brutal Burgundian formula recipe of barrel fermentation in completely new small oak with all the lees-contact and stirring you can muster. The result is overblown, oily, reeking of intense vanilla notes, as if it is straining to be like burgundy but better. In fact to me, it is more reminiscent of the Napa Valley’s early styles of Chardonnay.
I do feel this style is the wrong way to go for white still wine in Champagne. A shame, because the champagnes from this house are currently tip top. But between the two extremes of the wines highlighted here, surely we will see more of these still white wines in the near future; I hope so.
I’m not one of those people who normally finds discussion about serving wines interesting or cool. Equally wine and food matching, though it has passing interest, is not something I get too fussed about, even though I care passionately about food as much as wine. Those bits of wine books that tell you how to use a corkscrew or wash glasses, are the best sleeping pill surely. Especially when written in that deathless condescending prose used by the wine bore who feels superior. I’ll nod off before the end of the first paragraph.
Serve reds coolish, whites very coolish. Practice makes perfect with a corkscrew. Don’t point fizz bottles at people’s faces. Don’t overfill glasses. Don’t use much detergent washing glasses. That denture powder stuff really does clean decanters. There, that’s it more or less. Painless.
But recently a couple of champagne tastings made me muse a bit longer on what might be the best temperature to serve fizz. These were trade tastings when there might be 40 people in the room in serried ranks, and you sit in front of up to ten tasting samples. On both occasions the wines were poured before everyone came into the room. Then there is always a delay for some reason before the head honcho or wine genius presenting (it might even be the producer) begins to speak. And then most of them speak for ages before you taste anything. By the time you taste the last half of the samples, possibly 45 minutes after they were poured, they are at room temperature. Most people do not like champagne at room temperature.
You would think the organisers, since they are promoting these wines, might have given this problem some thought. Most champagne, if served over 10C, begins to taste flat after 15 minutes, that is the fizz dies. As sparklers get warmer, the gas comes out of solution faster. This can be disastrous for the mouthfeel of average to lower end champagne. These wines will have higher levels of slightly astringent phenolics in them, because they have got more wine in them from the end of pressing. When champagne is fridge cold (4C-8C) the combination of sudden fresh chilled liquid and the ‘burn’ of the mousse as it bursts in the mouth and comes out of solution, tends to flatter and hide harsh phenolics. Often, the sweetening of the dosage helps too. Lesson – serve fizz ordinaire very cold and the sweetness does the rest.
But that was not the problem at the tastings I was at. The wines were all petty high quality champagne.The problem was the mousse had died too soon, when in fact a fundamental component of champagne’s taste is the texture of the mousse. The very subtle and gentle caress of minuscule bubbles, creamy and near microscopic, not Coca Cola big and burning, is part of what gives, or should give, good champagne elegance and finesse.
The interesting thing is, the speaker in the first tasting admitted the wines were too warm and not tasting as well as they should. But in the second, the speaker said the low to disappearing mousse was a good thing because it made the wines show more of themselves, show they were fine wine. We were being told that you judge champagne in the same way as you judge still wine, as though the mousse is irrelevant.
Similarly, a lot of people bang on right now about how champagnes from very ripe grapes with powerful varietal flavours or other flavours (which are always called ‘terroir’ of course) are like ‘fine wine’, as if champagne, in order to be fine wine, has to drop most of its fizz. And you get the drift, in no time at all you are urged to serve them warmer, go for big glasses not flutes or even decant them. Just like great claret or burgundy.
I do like to experiment with different glasses, or decanting or even trying champagne warmer. But it is not a rigid rule of all good champagne service. The baby can go out with the bathwater. And the baby might be the mousse.
Champagne geeks argue about disgorgement dates. Excuse me, you might say, I suggest they get out more. Hello, it’s a drink. In case you do not know and are not near a geek to ask, I’d better say what it is. Sorry to the geeks if they are bored.
Champagne has two fermentations. The second is in the bottle and creates the fizz. The bottle is then cellared to give time for the second fermentation to finish. Stored for a long period, complex flavours develop. But then there is a slight problem. There’s a brown worm of yeast deposit lying on the bottom of the bottle. Leave it there and your champagne will be cloudy when you pour it. So they riddle the bottles until the yeast is coaxed into the necks, now upside down. They are dipped in super-cold glycol and the sediment is frozen into a wine-yeast plug. The bottle is flipped up, the crown cap popped off and the sediment plug explodes neatly out. It gets a top up to replace the 2% of lost wine. The cork goes in. Champagne. This removal of the yeast deposit is called disgorgement.
So that was easy; what’s all the fuss about? Quite, you can still enjoy champagne even if you never dreamt all this had gone on. However, champagne freaks at this point want to tell us something that is critical for the taste and quality of the champagne in question.
When champagne is going through its first period of ageing in bottle, pre-disgorgement, the yeasts which have done their work of provoking a second minor fermentation in the bottle, die. These dead yeast cells then slowly break down and this process of autolysis, if extended from 20 months up to 10 or more years, creates the crucial complex savoury, bready complexity of good champagne. The yeast hulls also absorb any oxygen and so protect the freshness and finesse of the champagne. Once disgorgement has taken place, a different type of ageing begins, there is no more autolysis but the in-rush of oxygen before the cork goes in, and often the addition of a little sweetening to balance the wine, provokes the second period of ageing in bottle. If it goes on for more than two years, say up to 15, 20 years, then complex nutty, smoke and biscuit-intense flavours can develop. How long it goes on is usually in the hands of you and me, the consumer, because by now the champagne will have been sold, soon after disgorgement. And without the protection of the yeast cells in the bottle, ageing accelerates during this second period.
So a bottle of champagne’s ageing permutations are endless. The time variables are: Period 1 (ageing on yeast lees – how long?), disgorgement (when?) and Period 2 (ageing without lees – how long?). For instance, Period 1 might be five years and Period 2 nine years. Or Period 1 might be two years and Period 2 less than one year. These are obviously going to be very different bottles of fizz to drink.
The problem for the consumer is that very few bottles of champagne give us any clue as to how much time has been spent on lees and when disgorgement was. For 90% of champagne, made by the big houses in a recognisable style, perhaps this is not a problem. Most buyers do not wait long before opening the bottle and popular champagnes have from 24 to 36 months ageing before disgorgement.
But the enthusiast, especially with special and expensive bottles of champagne, deserves to know more. And bear in mind that vintage champagnes are usually disgorged par tranche or in batches. Two bottles of the same brand may have 2002 as the vintage, but one may have been disgorged in 2007 and one in 2012. They will taste rather different from each other.
Most big producers are reluctant to put the disgorgement date on the bottle. This may be because they do not want the consumer put off if the date was a long time ago, perhaps making the buyer beware of very old flavours and aromas. I’ve even heard it said that a date on the back or neck label of a non-vintage champagne might confuse and make the consumer think it was a vintage wine. Several houses reveal the information through esoteric codes on labels corks or websites, which pleases the geeks even more. To its credit, Champagne Bruno Paillard has long pioneered putting the date on the back label, Champagne Philipponnat too, and Champagne Charles Heidsieck is beginning to do this again after starting and then stopping for some years. The top domaine (grower) champagnes also provide this critical information on the back label – see Champagne Egly-Ouriet in the picture, although ‘disgorgement’ is mispelt. In general, most wine critics are demanding all champagnes tell the consumer about disgorgement. Peter Liem, check. Jancis Robinson, check. Pierre Rovani even refused to review champagnes that did not.
But let’s face it, there is a communication issue here. Disgorgement is an ugly word, especially in relation to champagne. It hints of some terrible episode of emetic induced vomiting or some sinister form of cosmetic surgery. I often do not mind technical terms but Champagne has a bum deal with ‘disgorgement’. It even has a depressing legal second meaning – the relinquishing of ill-gotten profits.
And in truth, the disgorgement date is not quite the whole story. We need to know how long the wine spent on the second lees in the first place, not just how long since it was disgorged.
Here’s my solution. Dump the word ‘disgorgement’ on labels, no need to use it. Keep it in a box for geeks. Try this, back label, filling in the numbers in each case.
‘Cellared on lees for 3 years and 2 months, from 04/2009 to 06/2012′