Champagne maturation ‘a mystery’

6th June, 2014 by Patrick Schmitt

The majority of Dom Pérignon consumers have no understanding of the Champagne maturation process, according to the prestige cuvée’s winemaker Vincent Chaperon.

champagne bottle in cellar

The maturation of Champagne remains a mystery for the consumer, according to Dom Pérignon’s winemaker

Speaking yesterday at the first UK showing of P2-1998 ­– the new name for Dom Pérignon’s late-release Champagne – Chaperon said that 95% of people who buy the brand don’t have any idea about the way the fizz is made and matured, with, in particular, no appreciation of the benefit of extended contact with the by-products of secondary fermentation in the bottle, otherwise known as the lees.

While he stressed that the maturation on lees was “the essence of Champagne”, there has been little communication on this key aspect to the character of traditional method sparkling, and consequently, little awareness of how the product achieves its distinctive bready taste, as well as creamy texture.

“We are talking to consumers all over the world and nobody understands about the maturation on the lees for Champagne; they don’t understand that it matures in the bottle – the maturation of Champagne remains a mystery for the consumer,” he said.

As a result of this realisation, Dom Pérignon is no longer using the term oenothèque for its late-release Champagnes, but, as previously reported by the drinks business, the word plenitude.

In essence, Dom Pérignon, when left in contact with its lees, does not evolve in a linear fashion, but ages in a series of stages, producing “windows of opportunity, or plenitudes” when the Champagne can be disgorged and released to bring consumers a different expression of the same vintage.

DP P2 1998

Dom Pérignon’s P2-1998

There are three plenitudes in the life of a given vintage: the first plenitude comes between seven to eight years after the vintage, which is when Dom Pérignon Vintage is released, while the second one arrives between 12 and 15 years – which was previously the first oenothèque release, but from now will be know as P2.

Eventually there is a third window, after around 30 years, when the Champagne has spent more than 20 years on its lees, which will now be labelled P3.

“The ageing is a unique process which sees the Champagne go through a metamorphosis,” explained Chaperon.

“It is not like a Bordeaux or Burgundy which reaches one peak and then begins degrading; instead, Dom Pérignon is transforming itself through three different windows of maturity,” he said.

“But few understand and know that, and we are finding a way to make them understand,” he said, adding that he hoped that the notion of different plenitudes for Dom Pérignon would also help the brand “build a relationship” with its consumers.

Speaking specifically about P2-1998, which has spent 12 years ageing on its lees, with a further two years resting post disgorgement in the Dom Pérignon cellars, he said this release was “about energy”, while describing the Champagne as “a teenager” – it is between youth and maturity”.

Debunking the belief that a Champagne aged for an extended period on its lees is more susceptible to oxidation after disgorgement, Chaperon said that the oldest examples in Dom Pérignon’s cellars were the most stable.

“When I arrived at Dom Pérignon nine years ago I was amazed to see that the oldest Champagnes in the oenothèque were the most stable and resistant to oxygen: for example, P3-1970 was so resistant to oxygen in the glass,” he recalled.

Although he could not provide a scientific reason for this observation, he suggested that, over time, the Champagne aged on its lees “builts resistence to oxygen as it is exposed to oxygen slowly and in a smooth way.”

Chaperon also made the point that Dom Pérignon was made and blended from the outset specifically for extended ageing on the lees.

“Dom Perignon is built from the beginning for ageing on the lees,” he stated.

However, there is one difference in the handling of Dom Pérignon destined for initial vintage release, or P1, and the later releases of P2 and P3 – and that is the choice of closure.

The second and third plenitudes of Dom Pérignon are sealed with a cork during ageing on their lees, while P1 is closed with a crown cap during this period, and then stoppered with a cork after disgorgement.

“There is no perfect stopper but we put P2 and P3 under cork from the beginning, and all the Champagne for the first plenitude under crown cap,” he recorded.

Vincent Chaperon

Dom Pérignon winemaker Vincent Chaperon

Explaining this decision he said, “The crown seal is good for consistency and better for avoiding any off-flavours, but the advantage of the cork stopper is that we have observed that after 10 years the cork is better at preserving the freshness and vibrancy of the wine, so we take the risk of greater variability.”

Nevertheless, Chaperon assured that no bottle of Plenitude 2 or 3 would be released that had suffered from random oxidation or any cork-derived taints during aging under cork in the Dom Pérignon cellars.

That’s because every bottle of P2 or P3 is disgorged by hand and then tasted.

“If there is too much oxidation, or some taint, we get rid of it [the bottle],” stated Chaperon.

Finally, a further different between P2-1998 and the initial 1998 vintage release is the dosage.

While P1-1998 had a dosage of 9 g/l when it was release in 2005, this year’s release of P2-1998 comes with a dosage of 6.5 g/l.

“Generally the older the Champagne the lower the dosage, for example, P3-1976 has zero dosage and 1969 around 3-4 g/l,” exaplained Chaperon.

P2-1998 will retail for £260 in the UK.

Click here to read a full analysis of the benefits of extended ageing on lees and techniques to communicate the concept.

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