A question of time in a bottle

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.”

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