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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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 11.44.44
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.

Prestige name

Then, just before we went to press, Dom Pérignon’s cellar master Richard Geoffroy agreed to tell db ahead of any other drinks publication about his planned relaunch of the prestige cuvee’s Oenothèque – the name used for its late-release and recently-disgorged Champagne.

In an attempt to better highlight the benefits of extended ageing on the lees for this particular product, he will use the word plénitude, with P1 (Plénitude 1) for the initial launch of a vintage after around seven years on the lees, P2 for a further release of the Champagne from the same harvest after around 12-15 years on the lees, and then P3 for the same product after 20 years on the lees, and a total of 30 years ageing.

DP P2 1998
Dom Pérignon’s P2-1998

“Dom Pérignon has developed through plenitudes since day one, so there is nothing new, but we felt that instead of referring to oenothèque, which is the site holding the inventory, it was better to refer to plenitude,” Geoffroy explained.

Continuing, he said, “We thought it was more relevant to come up with something evoking the phenomenon of active maturation on the yeast, which is so salient and singular to Dom Pérignon.”

Further explaining his decision to rebrand Dom Pérignon’s late-release expressions of a single vintage, he pointed out that while there is “one ideal moment” to bottle a still wine, for DP, there are “no less than three moments”.

And, importantly, the Champagne does not evolve in a linear fashion, but ages in a series of stages, producing “windows of opportunity, or plenitudes” according to Geoffroy.

There are of course other examples of Champagne that demand higher prices due to extended lees contact in the cool of their houses’ cellars.

For instance, both Krug and Moët have their vintage “collections,” and Veuve Clicquot its Cave Privée, which was launched in 2010 with the 1980 vintage.

Then, in 2012, Laurent Perrier unveiled a recently-disgorged, late-release multi-vintage Champagne when it launched Grand Siècle Les Reserves to mark its bicentenary.

Containing a blend of ‘95, ’93 and ‘90 vintages kept on their lees in Laurent-Perrier’s cellars, the house suggested this may mark the start of an oenothèque equivalent from the company.

Before this though, Lanson had introduced its Extra Age Brut and Extra Age Rosé styles: multi-vintage blends aged on the lees for a minimum of five years (followed by a disgorged-to-order service for its older vintages, such as 1976, an approach now also offered by Philipponnat for its Clos des Goisses).

However, while there is undoubtedly greater emphasis on extended lees ageing for yet more rarefied and expensive prestige cuvée Champagne, these late-release expressions are encouraging professionals to ask a number of questions. In particular, bearing in mind the extra cost, what are the benefits compared to buying the product on its initial release and ageing it oneself? Furthermore, is there an optimum time Champagne should spend on its lees? Finally, what is the impact of extended lees ageing on Champagne’s life post-disgorgement?

The first question is well answered by Moët & Chandon’s chief winemaker Benoît Gouez. For him, extended lees contact brings “an extra layer of reductive aromas from the extra years on the yeast – which I often describe as brown flavours such as toast, coffee and grilled nuts”. He says: “On the palate it tends to extend the wine, give it more weight, and the longer on the yeast, the finer the bead.”

Signs of ageing

But how long is necessary? Under two years there is little effect on Champagne’s flavour or texture from autolysis (the term used to describe the interaction of the wine with its lees), according to James Simpson MW, sales director for Pol Roger UK. Continuing, he says not until four years do you clearly detect the characteristic bready aromas from the process, while he says that for the brand’s top expression, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill, after around 10 years lees contact “we think it is ready”.

The ten-year figure is mentioned by others, including Roederer’s Lécaillon, who says that a decade is an ideal period. He records that an extra three years ageing compared to the current norm of around seven years lees contact for Cristal “does not make a big difference, but brings extra textural complexity” to the prestige cuvée. Continuing, he says that an added richness from the longer lees contact has allowed him to drop the dosage on the planned late-release Cristal to around 7 g/l from 9-9.5g/l for the standard expression. He explains: “We find there is an extra roundness and sweetness on the mid-palate with an extra three years on the lees, so the dosage is 2 grams lower.”

Added flavour

Moet Grand Vintage Collection
Moet Grand Vintage Collection

For Veuve Clicquot cellar master Dominique Demarville, the flavour benefits from ageing on the lees are also greatest within a ten year period. “The maximum benefit of autolysis is obtained during the first 8-10 years on the lees… during this time the yeast give 90-95% of what they can to the wine.” Nevertheless, that’s not to suggest there’s no benefit after this period. Hence, he adds, “Afterwards, further ageing on the lees helps the flavours and gives complexity to the wine.”

Indeed, Dom Pérignon’s Geoffroy’s says that he sees a benefit even after P3, which sees the prestige cuvée spend at least 20 years on its lees, and around 10 years ageing post-disgorgement. “The lifespan of Dom Pérignon is far more than 30-40 years, and from the third plentitude, the wine will keep improving,” he says.

Referring to experiments at Moët & Chandon, he even points out that the Champagne producer has found enzymatic activity in Champagne yeast cells after 80 years.

For Lécaillon however, more than 10 years lees contact is too much, for Cristal at least. Comparing the effect of lees to that of maturing wines in oak, Lécaillon argues: “There’s a point where the lees becomes too much and you lose the flavours of the wine. It’s a question of balance.”

But what about the impact of extended lees ageing on a Champagne’s life post-disgorgement? With this, there is some division.

For some, such as Roederer’s Lécaillon, very extended ageing on the lees can leave the Champagne susceptible to oxidation after disgorgement, even though the process of autolysis consumes oxygen in the wine.

“It is on reduction when it is on the lees, but the more time you spend on the lees, the less you can age after,” he says. “The more you keep it on the lees, the more sensitive it is to oxidation when you disgorge.”

Handle with care

Moët’s Gouez sees it slightly differently, pointing out that Champagne which has spent an extended period on its lees requires more careful handling at disgorgement, and a longer time resting post-disgorgement to assimilate the oxidative shock. “The longer the Champagne has spent on its lees the more sensitive it is to disgorgement, which is an oxidative trauma for the wine, so I might give a higher dosage for older wines and be very protective,” he says.

This means that Gouez employs a 7g/l dosage on Moët Grand Vintage Collection compared to 5g/l on the first release of the Grand Vintage. He also says, “An older wine will need more time to recover after disgorgement, so Moët Imperial will have three months rest, vintage six months minimum and vintage collection one year minimum.”

He draws an analogy. “When I was in my 20s I could party all night long and I was able to recover easily, but now I’m in my 40s each time I go out a bit late it becomes harder to recover.”

Bruno Paillard, president of the Champagne house by the same name, makes a similar observation. He remarks: “No wine is released before a minimum six months rest after disgorgement for the younger wines and up to two years for the more mature wines. Experience tells us that young wines recover faster from this operation than more mature wines… exactly like humans faced with surgery: they will need more recovery rest if they are older.”

But Gouez stresses that a Champagne which has spent a long time on its lees, and then been disgorged with great care, “has even more ageing potential than a younger one.”

He adds, “If you spend a good time on the lees and you are careful at disgorgement, and you allow the Champagne to rest after disgorgement, you can keep it for a very long time.” This is because the lees ageing process ensures the Champagne is “nourished and protected by the yeast”, unlike post-disgorgement ageing, which he describes as “an oxidation process”.

veuve clicquot cave privee 1980
Veuve Clicquot Cave Privée 1980

He adds that he can’t fully explain the reason why extended lees ageing should prolong Champagne’s life post-disgorgement, but makes a suggestion. “With a long time on the lees, there is some micro-oxygenation, but most of the oxygen is captured by the yeast, so only a little is given to the wine, and the little drop after drop of oxygen acts like a vaccine, so perhaps that’s why it’s more stable afterwards.”

Another theory he posits is that a late-disgorged Champagne is so rich in reductive flavours that it takes more time for the oxidative characters to be noticed.

Geoffroy is also a strong advocate of the benefit of lees ageing for extending the life of a Champagne after disgorgement, and expresses surprise at Lécaillon’s belief that extended lees ageing can shorten a Champagne’s potential to age post-disgorgement.

“I am a strong believer in the virtue of yeast maturation”, he says, noting that this summer’s release of “P2 – 1998” is “neither oxidative nor tired” after 14 years ageing on its lees, with a further two years resting post-disgorgement in the Dom Pérignon cellars.

“The wine is already 16 years from the vintage, and you could well expect the maturity of the wine to be based on weight and power, paradoxically it is not. It is packed with energy, so lifted, so penetrating, energetic and dancing, nothing weighty,” he says.

Age appropriate

Of course, those consumers looking for oxidative post-disgorgement flavour development, as opposed to just the characters from extended autolysis, may be disappointed. That’s because even very old Champagnes, if recently disgorged, can taste surprisingly youthful.

Lécaillon, who is advocating 10 years on the lees followed by 10 years off, is no doubt seeking the benefit of both types of flavour development.

In other words, he is seeking an optimium level of autolysis from a decade on the lees, and a measure of oxidative characters from maturing off the lees, including the important and complex flavour development due to the gradual breakdown of sugars added at disgorgement, otherwise known as the Maillard reaction.

But there are further complicating factors to the issue of lees ageing in Champagne. These include the pressing and settling techniques, the varietal blend, source villages and of course overall quality of the wine – which is particularly dependent on the cleanliness of the grapes at harvest.

For instance, not every vintage release at Veuve Clicquot is good enough for extended ageing on its lees, admits Demarville. “Not all our vintages will be Cave Privée, only the ones with a perfect ageing, with a freshness that will keep them after 20 to 30 years… I love Bordeaux that is 20-30 years old, but only when the vintage is exceptional, and it’s exactly the same in Champagne.”

For this reason, he says that there won’t be a 1993 Cave Privée, even though Veuve Clicquot released a vintage in that year. Currently, Veuve is offering customers a 1990 Cave Privée blanc and a 1989 rosé, but in September this year, Demarville tells db the house will release a new set of vintages.

Meanwhile at Dom Pérignon, Geoffroy says that every vintage released must be good enough to go into the brand’s cellars for extended ageing on the lees. “We would not consider making a vintage which we wouldn’t be able to re-release through a second or third plenitude,” he says, adding, “The capacity to go to a second or third plenitude is a criteria of declaration.”

And at Moët, Gouez says that one reason the house decided not to release a 2005, when many other brands did, was because he felt the vintage would not have the ageing potential to be re-released as a Moët Grand Vintage Collection. “All the vintages might finish in the collection and one of the reasons why I didn’t declare 2005 was because, while the Chardonnay was fine, the Pinot Noir and Meunier lacked a bit of maturity and were too affected by botrytis.”

As pointed out in db‘s June issue, which includes a feature on the factors necessary to create a great vintage in Champagne, because botrytis in grapes accelerates oxidation in the resulting wine, it can severely reduce the ageing potential of a Champagne. “Due to the development of botrytis there was not the ageing potential for classic vintage and even less so for the Collection,” says Gouez.

But he also stresses that ageing potential is “only one parameter”.

“The other is personality: the vintage must have something special to present, uniqueness, originality – it is not about consistency any more; consistency, that is for non-vintage.”

The closure choice during lees ageing is a further factor affecting the Champagne style and maturation rate. Dom Pérignon, for example, seals its vintage Champagnes destined for extended lees ageing under cork rather than crown cap, because the former material provides a better seal over the longer term, with less oxygen ingress.

Cyril Brun, winemaker at Veuve Clicquot points out that there are now different grades of crown caps with a range of permeabilities, allowing winemakers to create an almost hermetic seal as well as one that permits very low levels of oxygen ingress, depending on the style of Champagne desired.

Size matters

However, of greater influence on maturation rate is the bottle size. In particular, a 1.5 litre magnum, slows down ageing because it holds twice the amount of wine as a standard bottle, but has the same neck size – ensuring an equal amount of oxygen is exposed to a much greater volume of liquid. In essence, the bigger the format, the slower the ageing.

Bollinger-Experience RD 2000
Bollinger RD 2000 was released in Jeroboams only

This explains why for instance, last year Bollinger opted to only release the 2000 vintage of its RD in Jeroboam. “Given the forward nature of 2000, bottles and magnums wouldn’t have been right for RD as they would speed up the ageing, but Jeroboams last forever,” explained Philipon when the Champagne was released.

But complicating factors aside, the Champenois know well the benefits of extended maturation on the lees, and are playing with ageing periods for different expressions – as well as bottle sizes and closures.

They are also exploring the ideal combination of pre- and post-disgorgement maturation, depending on the desired style.

The next step, already being undertaken by Dom Pérignon with its plenitude concept, is to draw the consumer’s attention to the benefits of extended lees ageing.

This won’t be easy, not just because such a process can produce a Champagne that belies its age, but also because even the educated drinker knows little about sparkling winemaking and maturation.

• This article first appeared in the June issue of the drinks business.

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