A question of time in a bottle

The science behind Champagne ageing might be lost on the consumer but producers are striving to strike the right balance.

Champagne ageingA programme on Channel 4 earlier this year called Inside Rolls-Royce offered a compelling peek into the making and marketing of a luxury car brand. Not only did it illustrate the skill required to craft such a machine, but also the techniques used to convince the company’s richest clients to pay extra sums for existing models by releasing limited edition vehicles, including one outrageous example containing 446 diamonds set into its interior.

Describing the traits necessary to work at such a manufacturer, one employee commented that you need to be “a little bit OCD”. But what if the same camera team went “Inside Champagne”? Should it visit any ambitious grower or grand marque, it would undoubtedly reveal a similar level of dedication and a scrupulous attention to detail, particularly among the region’s top chef de caves.

Nevertheless, one suspects Channel 4’s production team would struggle to clearly capture the cellar processes that justify the high price tags being asked for today’s most expensive releases. And that’s because, presently, Champagne’s top tier, prestige cuvée, is increasingly promoting pricier expressions of the same products based on the complex concept of extended ageing on lees.

The idea that something might cost more because the production is tiny, the packaging is pretty, and the object has been genuinely hand crafted is easily communicated.

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Bollinger RD 2002

Furthermore, most consumers in wine and spirits are happy to incur an added expense for something older, especially if it is directly sourced from the producer.

But telling consumers they are paying more for the interaction of a wine and its sediment, including the by-products of a secondary fermentation in bottle, is harder, and especially when the science of this relationship is little understood.

Despite such a challenge, it seems that the Champenois, who a few years ago seemed to be championing single vineyard expressions for their rarity, are now promoting lees-aged blends for their complexity.

For example, at the start of this year, during a discussion with the drinks business, president of Champagne Bollinger Jérôme Philipon declared that 2014 “is the year of RD”. He was referring to the brand’s most expensive expression (save for the ultra-rare Vieilles Vignes Francaises), which is called RD after the term récemment dégorgé, or recently disgorged.

Unlike Bollinger’s Grand Année, which spends around 7-8 years in Bollinger’s cellars, the RD vintage Champagne spends 10-11 years ageing in contact with its lees, before being disgorged and spending a further six months maturing without the influence of any yeast cells. Consequently, Bollinger released its Grand Année 2002 in 2010, but its RD 2002 last month – with a significantly higher price tag.

Not long after db was told of Bollinger’s plans, Roederer’s joint MD and head winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon revealed that he would be releasing a new expression of Cristal which sees the Champagne undergo extended ageing both before and after disgorgement.

It would be a “small release” of the prestige cuvee’s 1995 vintage in 2015, or possibly 2016 according to Lecaillon. While Cristal is currently selling the 2006 vintage, which sees just under seven years ageing on its lees, the upcoming 1995 will have spent 10 years on its lees, as well as 10 years ageing post-disgorgement.

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