A question of time in a bottle

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.

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