Drink

Still got the old sparkle

The champagne market may be taking a pounding, but prices of pre-1970s vintages have gone into orbit. Who’d have thought that such venerable fizz could age so gracefully, says John Stimpfig.

November 21 2009
John Stimpfig

As cellarmaster Hervé Deschamps slowly eased the cork from one of the last three remaining bottles of the world’s oldest, rarest and most valuable vintage champagnes, the tension in the Perrier-Jouët’s Avenue de Champagne tasting room was palpably close to popping.

After what seemed an eternity, the black, wizened stopper was finally prized off the Sillery 1825 – albeit with more of whimper than a bang. Even so, this failed to deter the assembled tasters from exploding into applause.

After all, this unique moment was the final culmination of arguably the greatest vertical tasting ever put on by a Grande Marque. Hence the three-line-whip attendance of 20 of the world’s top champagne experts, journalists and authors. Some had flown in from Tokyo, Singapore and Scandinavia for the two-day taste-fest. Others had come from the UK, France, Italy and Switzerland. According to Richard Juhlin, award-winning author of 4000 Champagnes, it was “an unmissable, once-in-a-lifetime event”.

Deschamps apart, no one had tasted such an ancient champagne. Juhlin himself had never drunk any champagne from the 19th century. Nor had Bernard Burtschy of the Revue de Vin de France. The oldest to have passed Sotheby’s international head of wine Serena Sutcliffe’s lips was an 1870.

But it wasn’t just the 1825 that marshalled the great and the good in Epernay in March. That morning, Perrier-Jouët had also uncorked 20 exceptional vintages spanning three centuries. The first flight included the exquisite 1985, 1971 and Belle Epoque’s debut 1964, followed by three golden oldies from the 1950s. In the next session came the legendary 1928, a vivacious 1911 and a superb 1906.

Finally, the tasting delved deep into the 19th century. Alas, the 1892 was fatally corked, but the almost mythical 1874 was still in stunning condition. In comparison, the 1858 and the penultimate 1846 were good, but were undoubtedly showing their considerable age. Then came the turn of the 1825, the year in which the last king of France was crowned in Reims Cathedral.

Carefully, Deschamps poured a tiny measure into his glass, tilted it towards his nose and sniffed. Just to make sure, he took a tiny sip and smiled before breaking into a broad grin. “Clean and in good condition,” he pronounced to even louder and more ecstatic applause than before.

So how did it taste? The French critic Michel Bettane declared it “unbelievable”. According to Sutcliffe’s honed and expert palate, it was still eminently drinkable with some freshness despite the attack of oxidation. “Figs, mushroom and truffle, together with a slight nose of the sea,” she commented before signing it off as “utterly addictive”.

Deschamps was relieved and delighted, no doubt. The main point was to demonstrate that Perrier-Jouët’s Chardonnay-based champagnes can age and improve, not just for decades, but centuries. But proving this so publicly was fraught with risk. For so many wines to have passed with flying colours was truly a remarkable result.

That vintage fizz can survive and prosper over such extended periods of time might astonish many aficionados who thought that only the likes of claret, port and madeira could age so effortlessly. But some collectors weren’t remotely surprised. One of them was US real-estate mogul Rob Rosania who has been on a personal mission to debunk the myth that great champagne doesn’t improve with age.

“Nobody ever really thought that champagne could age for 70, 80 or 100 years. But the fact is that champagne ages beautifully, just like wine,” he argued last year, well before the Perrier-Jouët tasting. “The word simply never got out about the age-worthiness of champagne, although that is starting to change.”

Rosania began collecting almost by accident. A number of years ago, he was organising a wine dinner when a friend suggested beginning with a flight of old champagnes. “I knew very little about vintage champagne and so I tasted three or four of them. At the time, old for me meant 1970s vintages. To my surprise, I instantly loved their taste, finesse and elegance,” he recalls. “This was the beginning of what has become an engulfing preoccupation with finding and buying the best vintage and rare champagnes. For me, what’s compelling about vintage champagne is the sense of total uniqueness. It’s like nothing else.”

Since his epiphany, Rosania has gone on to compile what John Kapon of the US merchant and auction house Acker Merrall & Condit defines as “the world’s greatest champagne collection”. According to Kapon, his friend and client possesses 2,000 cases, including 1846 Moët and 1874 Bollinger.

If 2,000 cases of champagne sounds like a lot, it’s not as much as it was. In Hong Kong last March, Acker Merrall auctioned nearly 1,500 bottles, ranging from Cristal, Salon and Pol Roger to Bollinger, Krug and Dom Pérignon, with vintages dating back to 1914. However, it was a bottle of 1928 Krug that stole the show, smashing the world auction record with a hammer price of £14,800.

Moreover, this latest sale, which raised over $800,000 for Rosania, wasn’t his biggest to date. Last year, Acker Merrall also sold off another 1,300 bottles and 300 magnums. On that occasion, two bottles of 1959 Dom Pérignon Rosé fetched $84,700 – yet another record.

“Really old champagne has always been a minority sport – especially amongst English collectors for whom the phrase ‘Le Goût Anglais’ was first coined,” says Christie’s head of London sales, Chris Munro. “But in the past two or three years prices have gone into orbit. It’s primarily the rarity of these great old wines that is driving things forward. There are just very few pre-1970s vintages around because most of it has been drunk. Once you get into the 1920s and 1930s, you get another quantum leap in prices.”

According to Munro, the apex of the market is now being driven by perhaps no more than five or six major collectors, mostly from the US. “Some of these guys are prepared to pay almost anything for the crème de la crème, despite the turmoil of the economic crisis.”

Consequently, auction prices have spiralled dramatically. For instance, five years ago another bottle of 1928 Krug went for just under £2,000. “Whenever we put out a catalogue with old champagne, we invariably get 10 to 15 bids per lot. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Munro.

Many believe Rosania has been the catalyst for the step change in collector interest and the ramping up of prices. “He is more responsible for the great awakening that has occurred among collectors than anyone else,” says Kapon. Some wonder whether this can be sustained, particularly while the broader champagne market has taken such a pounding – this year shipments have fallen by 20 per cent.

Rosania, though, is in no doubt. “Pardon the pun, but I truly believe there is no bubble in the vintage champagne market. As people learn more about vintage champagnes, there will be more appreciation, more collectors, and more demand. Couple this with a diminishing supply, and it’s obvious that prices will continue to escalate.”

Interestingly, it is not just the high-profile salerooms that have seen stellar performance gains. In recent times, the Liv-ex Champagne Index, which tracks merchant’s list prices of 25 of the top prestige cuvées has, at times, outperformed investment-grade bordeaux. All of which has provided collectors and investors with welcome profits.

But not everyone is convinced of the investment case for champagne. Fine wine fund managers such as Peter Lunzer steer clear of stashing it in their portfolios, despite some appetising returns. “One reason is that, unlike the Bordelais, the Champenois can increase production to meet demand,” Lunzer points out. “Another worry is that its consumers are just too transitory and fashion oriented.”

Elsewhere, fine wine fraud is also a concern for the sector. But it’s not just provenance that can be a problem; condition is just as vital. “Because of the bubbles, great old champagne is much more sensitive to light and temperature than other wines,” says Richard Harvey-Jones, chairman of Seckford Wines. “So collectors do need to know the whole storage history to avoid being bitterly disappointed.”

Occasionally, though, champagnes have been discovered in the most surprisingly benign places, including the bottom of the Baltic. In 1998, the Antique Wine Company partnered with a Swedish salvage team to recover 1,500 bottles of 1907 Heidsieck Monopole from the schooner Jön Köping, which had been holed by a German U-boat in 1916. “When we opened the wine, it still had plenty of sparkle, mainly because the pressure of the water was greater than the pressure of the CO2 in the bottle,” says Stephen Williams, MD of The Antique Wine Company. “Effectively, it had been kept in perfect condition. Originally, the wine was made for the Russian market and probably had an almost sauternes-like sweetness. Eighty years later, it still tasted vibrantly fresh and delicious. In fact, more like a 10-year-old demi-sec.”

Like many in the fine wine trade, Williams likes his champagne to have a bit of extra bottle age to give it more complexity and depth. But for vintage and prestige cuvée champagne he prefers at least a decade or two to have elapsed before he pops the cork. “Wines such as Bollinger R.D., Salon, Dom Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame and Cristal only really come into their own with at least 15 years in the cellar. After that they get better and better.”

Naturally, this hasn’t gone unnoticed by the great champagne houses. What is perhaps surprising is that they’ve only recently hit upon the optimum way of marketing and selling older vintages. “One of champagne’s many mysteries is that it doesn’t age in a linear fashion,” says Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave Richard Geoffroy. “Instead, it tends to develop in plateaus or step changes after a number of years in the bottle.”

Krug was the first to take advantage of this in the 1980s when it noticed that its finest vintages approached a “second life”, often at around 20 years of age. “At this point, they develop an amazing richness, complexity and intriguing flavours, while retaining great freshness and vitality,” says Remi Krug. “They develop more ripeness, more girolles character together with notes of apricot and honey.”

At the time, Krug was constantly receiving requests from aficionados for older vintages, so it took the decision to re-release a small number of its older “library champagnes” under the label Krug Collection. A key point was also the implicit acknowledgment that these bottles and magnums had been kept in Krug’s Reims cellars in pristine condition. And they had the added advantage of perfect provenance.

The first release was the 1979. “We began with the wines my father forgot to sell,” recalls Krug. Now, the house always holds back a small number of outstanding vintages, which are destined to become Krug Collection. “However, there is no chronological formula for deciding when to release them,” he adds. “It is a decision based on taste, time and maturity, when the champagnes have reached a new platform and taste dimension.”

In 2000, Dom Pérignon followed suit by launching its Oenothèque range, going back to the 1959 vintage. “What is so fascinating about tasting these Oenothèque wines is that they all have their own distinct and multifaceted Dom Pérignon personalities,” says Geoffroy. “In my view, they are the ultimate experience of the brand.”

“With older vintages going back 20 to 30 years or more, you find that the Oenothèque characters become much more magnified. You start to get notes of sweet spices, tobacco, truffles, honey and leather. This makes them far too intellectual and complex to be drunk as an apéritif,” he adds. “Personally, I always save them for the dinner table.”

Another small but significant point of difference for Dom Pérignon purists is the way that the Oenothèque vintages have been aged on their lees for much longer before being simultaneously disgorged just prior to release. “So there is an extra freshness to the most recently released Oenothèque 1995, giving it a different style and flavour from the original 1995,” explains Geoffroy.

Seven years ago, Roederer also began to offer its Vinothèque version of library wines going back to the early 1980s. But rather than just showcasing Cristal, it also offers vintages of its Brut Rosé, Blanc de Blancs and Brut.

Naturally, you can expect to pay a premium for the pleasure of drinking these perfectly kept champagnes. But sometimes it is not as much as one might expect. For example, the aforementioned 1995 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque is just £200 at Harvey Nichols (£215 at Harrods). Of course, the further back you go in time, the more prices rise. In contrast, the 1975 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque is more like £1,125.

The same pricing principle applies to Krug Collection. Whereas Berry Bros & Rudd is selling the most recently released 1985 at £600 a bottle, magnums of the 1964 are even thinner on the ground and much more pricey. Nonetheless, the delightfully eclectic Reid Wines near Bristol has a couple of magnums at £2,795 a pop.

Meanwhile, following on from its unique vertical tasting earlier this year, Perrier-Jouët also has plans to drip-feed some of its wine library’s liquid assets into the collector market. However, it goes without saying that the last two priceless bottles of the 1825 will not be for sale, under any circumstances. “There are some things that money cannot buy,” says Deschamps.

See also

Champagnes, Wines