Drink

Popping the question

Champagne connoisseurs have always valued vintage, cuvée and provenance – but now they are thirsty for details of another vital element of their favourite sparkling wine. Jane Parkinson reports.

November 19 2011
Jane Parkinson

Drinking champagne is just as much an inevitable moment at Christmas as the disgorgement of champagne is a defining moment in its production. Granted, disgorgement is not a phrase that trips off the tongue of many champagne lovers, but that looks set to change. The date of disgorgement, the process whereby the post-fermentation yeast deposit is expelled from a bottle of champagne, is being increasingly highlighted as a crucial piece of information for champagne drinkers to take into consideration before they pop open a bottle, because in knowing when the champagne was disgorged, one has a better understanding of the flavour inside the bottle.

Before disgorgement, champagne happily ages away in bottle under the influence of the yeast deposit that has been created by fermentation – the same fermentation that produces the carbon dioxide that gives champagne its bubbles. The longer the champagne is exposed to this yeast deposit, the greater the influence of yeast flavours. After disgorgement, a champagne is thought to age more quickly because it no longer has this layer of yeast deposit guarding it from oxidation. Although this may sound as though the champagne needs to be consumed soon after disgorgement to avoid drinking an oxidised wine, in fact, certain champagne producers are eager for champagnes to be drunk many years after disgorgement has taken place, because champagne is a wine that can age beautifully.

This is particularly relevant if a quality producer has a house style of richness, in which case the champagne could be shown at its best if one waits for a prolonged period after disgorgement, as the faster oxidation process heightens those nutty, toasty, evolved flavours. Moreover, for the disgorged champagne bottles that are topped up with liqueur d’expedition (the blend of sugar and wine that determines the final sweetness level of a champagne), a longer ageing time after disgorgement will give this topping-up solution more time to “marry” with the champagne, creating a more harmonious wine.

Therefore, not only does the disgorgement date help one understand a champagne’s likely flavour better, but it also satisfies our voguish thirst for knowledge of the profile and provenance of wine and food, as more champagne houses are now adding the disgorgement date to their bottles, and more sommeliers are telling us this information on their wine lists. According to master sommelier Xavier Rousset, co-owner of the Michelin-starred London restaurant Texture: “These days we all want to know where our beef comes from, and it’s similar with the disgorgement date of champagne.” Texture is now one of the restaurants that feature the disgorgement dates of champagnes on its wine lists, when they are known. Fortunately for Texture, this added feature to the wine list is becoming more comprehensive, thanks to the rise in the number of champagne houses that now declare the disgorgement date on the bottle. It’s a move that Rousset applauds, adding, “It does the champagne houses a favour because you can understand a champagne so much better if you know this date.”

Equally happy to see this development is the FT’s wine correspondent, Jancis Robinson, who is “thrilled to see champagne producers responding at last to the need to provide more information on their labels now that wine consumers are so much more sophisticated. Those producers that continue to keep us in the dark about the age of each cuvée risk being seen as regarding champagne as a commodity rather than a wine.”

Several famous names, including Grand Marques such as Dom Pérignon and Bollinger, believe in naming the disgorgement dates on labels. Champagne Philipponnat’s president, Charles Philipponnat, is a prolific advocate of declaring the disgorgement date on bottles. “All houses should do it unless they are too ashamed of their short ageing time,” he says. “We feel this information is essential to understand the state of evolution of a wine.”

Nor is printing the disgorgement date on the bottle a practice restricted to the better-known champagne names. It is also a growing trend among the more conscientious of the recoltant-manipulant (own-label grower) tranche of the Champenois, according to Simon Field, wine buyer for Berry Bros & Rudd. “I have noticed that more of the quality-driven growers now include disgorgement dates, albeit fairly discreetly on their back labels. Their view is that this information is essential to the understanding of the product. This philosophy is closely linked to the concept of terroir and the merits of individual vineyard sites,” he says.

Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, exactly the type of grower to which Field refers, started printing disgorgement dates on its bottles four years ago.

“There are several benefits,” says owner Pierre Larmandier. “The first is for us in the cellar; as soon as the bottles are disgorged, the disgorgement date is printed on the bottle, so if we or one of our descendants happen to pick a bottle from the cellar, we instantly know the cuvée, the vintage and the disgorgement date. Second, when coming across a bottle in a restaurant or a wine shop, it benefits our connoisseur customers, as an increasing number of them like to know the disgorgement date.”

However, some champagne houses are concerned that adding the disgorgement date will cause confusion. Marketing director at Champagne Taittinger, Dominique Garreta, speaks up for the houses that don’t declare the disgorgement date by saying, “The disgorgement day in isolation is not the only important thing. This has to be considered as part of a whole picture,along with the length of time on lees and the bottling date. At the same time, the disgorgement date is not a secret, it’s just not a priority in the scheme of things that we try to communicate on our back labels. There is so little space and so much to communicate both legally and from a what’s-useful-for-the-consumer perspective. But if an individual did want to know it, we would be happy to share the information.”

Berry Bros & Rudd’s Field goes further: “All but a small minority may find it confusing and may lose sight of the distinction between disgorgement date and the actual vintage of production.” But there is a compromise: “Perhaps to avoid confusion, one can include this information in relatively small lettering on the back label, to ensure that the information is actually there for the cognoscenti,” he adds.

Of course, there is a greater risk of confusion when an additional date to that of the vintage appears on a label. But according to the pro-disgorgement-declaring houses, this risk is far outweighed by the benefits, which are that the consumer can make a better informed decision about when to open the bottle and will have a better idea what the champagne will taste like.

It’s all very heart-warming to know that the houses have drinkers’ best interests at heart, but how is it possible to know whether the opening moment is the right moment? Perhaps it is easiest to begin with where not to start – to which the simple answer is, not too soon after it has been disgorged.

At Champagne Bruno Paillard, disgorgement kingpin Bruno Paillard says, “In Champagne, we do not use the word ‘disgorgement’, we use the word ‘operation’. This is what disgorgement is – an operation on the wine. As such, after surgery, the wine needs a period of convalescence before it can be enjoyed. The younger the wine, the faster it will recover.” Staying with this surgery analogy, just as doctors will tailor a post-surgery rest period to an individual’s needs, champagne houses will vary in their recommended recuperation period after disgorgement.

At Champagne Bollinger, arguably the house that has given disgorgement the highest profile to date, thanks to its trademarked luxury cuvée RD (récemment dégorgé), the post-disgorgement rest period is a minimum of three to six months. The minimum period for other houses varies, sometimes hugely so: Larmandier-Bernier, six months; Philipponnat, three to six months non-vintage, six to 12 months vintage; Dom Pérignon, three years. Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave at Dom Pérignon, says: “The post-disgorgement period has to be long enough to fully express the benefit of the extended yeast maturation. Considering the fresh nature of Dom Pérignon, we are aiming at no less than three years.”

Beyond the recuperation period, the decision as to when to open comes down to personal preference. Elizabeth Ferguson, on behalf of Champagne Bollinger, says, “As to when to consume it, that is the decision of the owner of the bottle – some may prefer it recently disgorged, others will age it for epic moments in the future. We recently tasted RD 1988 from a 2007 disgorgement and it offered all the qualities one looks for in Bollinger RD, despite the fact that it was disgorged four years ago, and it was still as fresh as a daisy.” Indeed, even though the Champenois advise that quality champagnes can still be delicious even if disgorged as long ago as 20 years, the best chance of opening the right champagne at the right time is to understand the house style and the flavour stages of a quality champagne’s life.

When it comes to the latter, in broad terms a quality champagne will begin its life with vibrant fruit, moving onto spicy, buttery, occasionally baked bread (yeasty) flavours with time, and again, depending on the style, it can develop to take on notes of gingerbread, honey and even roasted flavours as its complexity heightens with age. And so, returning to disgorgement, if an older champagne is opened soon after a recent disgorgement, the wine will benefit from a boost in freshness even if the wine retains the flavour profile of an aged champagne. Then, if a champagne is wanted turbo-charged in richness of flavour, not only should it be older in age but it should experience a longer time between disgorgement and opening, to make the most of the post-disgorgement evolution.

Richard Geoffroy adds: “Theoretically, champagnes age more quickly once they have been disgorged. Yet it is hard to generalise as it can depend on individual styles.”

Bruno Paillard gives an approximate indication of the ageing timeframe of champagne, for his wines at least: “Taking into account the conditions of conservation, a champagne’s maturity can be short or long. [If the conditions are suitable] it will still take a minimum of four to five years after disgorging to obtain the first spiced notes and even decades to attain full maturity.”

As Paillard suggests, the disgorgement is only one factor, another of which is the cellaring conditions, something that is especially relevant for older disgorged wines. Frédéric Panaïotis, cellar master at Champagne Ruinart, points out: “Something that should never be forgotten is the fact that having recently disgorged champagne is a guarantee that the wine has been stored in perfect conditions. But this is not always the case with older disgorged bottles. Since I joined Ruinart I have been buying back older vintages of Dom Ruinart that we have in limited quantity. When storage of these bottles took place in proper conditions, they were excellent. But not-so-well-stored bottles showed signs of evolution [oxidation], so this can be misleading for people buying older disgorged bottles. Provenance is key.”

The importance of the provenance of delicate wines is already well embedded in the psyche of most clued-up wine lovers. Perhaps this knowledge (and potentially bad experiences from poorly stored bottles) goes some way to explaining the widely held myth that a recently disgorged champagne is of better quality than one that was disgorged at an earlier date. It may take some time to reverse this opinion, if only because this myth originates from the Champagne region itself.

“The public thinks that champagne has to be drunk very early,” says Pierre Larmandier. “It’s the common message from champagne houses and growers, so, of course, they mostly believe that recently disgorged wines are better quality than older-disgorged champagnes.” Bruno Paillard similarly apportions part of the blame to the Champenois. “Many people think champagne does not age,” he says, “simply because that has been the dominant message for decades. It’s another story when they are given the chance to discover the effects of post-disgorgement maturation. But it takes time to change habits and beliefs.”

Today these habits and beliefs are beginning to change. Texture’s addition of the disgorgement date to its wine list is one such move; another is Club Gascon’s listing of four Bruno Paillard Première Cuvée champagnes, all exactly the same wine in composition, the difference being their disgorgement dates: November 2005, July 2008, November 2010 and January 2011. This will do nothing if not demonstrate how fundamental the disgorgement date is to a champagne’s flavour.

There may be dissenters who believe that including the disgorgement date on bottles is unnecessary, but a growing number of producers want to help champagne lovers understand that to know it is to better understand the wine’s final – and the champagne drinker’s preferred – flavour.

Such is the painstaking effort that goes into making champagne and helping us understand its intricacies of flavour better, surely it deserves to be drunk exactly as one prefers, come Christmas time, or any other?

See also

Champagne