Laying down Champagne is nothing new – Winston Churchill did it with his 1911s – but it’s not something we tend to think about or make room for in our cellars. Michael Edwards looks at the styles best for ageing.
A misconception lingers in the minds of some wine consumers that Champagne doesn’t age. It’s largely a myth, certainly as far as the best cuvées are concerned. As in other northern marginal climates of classic vineyards like Chablis and Germany’s Mosel or Rhineland, Champagne has the potential to be complex and long-lived when the weather is variable and challenging: life-giving acidity in tune with the mineral depth of great terroirs, plus extended lees ageing and protective storage, can often result in vintages that can live for 10, 15 or 20 years – and in outstanding years for half a century.
This admittedly is a tale of perfectionism, relating specially to prestige cuvées of the great Champagne houses, also to exceptional vintages from serious houses and nowadays the elite group of top growers. Of course, you get what you pay for. At the low end of the price range, budget Champagnes (made in part from the second pressings of the grapes) can sometimes pleasantly surprise, shaping a burly fruitiness for early drinking. Yet in no way are these bargain buys built to last.
Laying down fine Champagne is nothing new and has a long tradition in Britain, which can claim to have ‘invented’ genuinely dry (brut) Champagne. For it was English wine merchants in the mid-19th century who badgered great houses like Perrier-Jouët, Bollinger and Pommery into making their British Champagne cuvées less sweet.
And so Champagne, previously a wine for toasts and desserts, became both the world’s best dry aperitif and a serious wine for fine food, particularly in London’s St James’s clubs and the houses of the privileged: Winston Churchill laid down early the legendary 1911 Champagne vintage, which sustained him in the ‘wilderness years’ of the 1930s. Between the two World Wars, vintage cuvées were the norm rather than the exception at the best London tables; Pol Roger, Churchill’s favourite Champagne, shipped only vintage wines to the UK until 1945.
The democratisation and vast international expansion of Champagne focusing on dry non-vintage brands is a phenomenon of the 1950s. Today it is still overwhelmingly the dominant category as the go-to wine of celebration as well as a middle-income joy for regular pleasure.
‘There are different types of Champagne consumer,’ agrees Didier Mariotti, chef de cave of Mumm. ‘A lot of consumers enjoy Champagne on special occasions but others prefer to enjoy it as they would a fine still wine. These connoisseurs appreciate the diversity that different styles of Champagne offer, and they often look for mature wines. More and more consumers now see Champagne as a serious wine, and it is also true that more and more houses are presenting their older vintages as oenothèque collections.’
What to lay down
Most fine Champagnes in the three main categories – prestige, vintage and non-vintage – benefit from further ageing in consumer’s homes to reveal more intense flavours, so are suitable for laying down to varying degrees. The focus on flavours in Champagne’s ageing cycle is made professionally at two key stages. First, before disgorgement, when the wine stays fresh and tight, progressively enhanced by its contact with fine lees, which add complexity to the adolescent flavours and also act as an antioxidant. The pre-disgorgement spell in the houses’ deep cellars is protracted because Champagne ages differently from still wines. ‘Effectively, taking into account its ageing in contact with the lees, in an atmosphere saturated in CO2, Champagne evolves more slowly than still wines,’ says François Domi, chef de caves of Billecart- Salmon, ‘It is as in a cocoon, protected from the aggressions of oxygen, protected from light in the depth and obscurity of our cellars.’
After three to four years on lees for NV, five to eight years for vintage and more for prestige, it’s time for the second stage: disgorgement of the sediment. This ensures ideal maturation through further bottle age as well as the development of more intense wine flavours such as dried apricot, toast and spices like cumin in aged Chardonnay; leather, liquorice and torrefaction (the whiff of the coffee shop) for mature Pinot Noir – also a taste of kirsch in great vintage Champagne rosés.
Do blanc de blancs have the capacity to age longer than blanc de noirs, or is it a case of considering wines individually, I asked Domi. ‘Certainly the Chardonnays on shallow soils over chalk sub-soils like those of the Côte des Blancs give wines for long ageing,’ he said. ‘The choice of vinification (full malolactic or none) reinforces this capacity to evolve slowly.
‘Certain crus of Pinot Noir (supremely Aÿ and Verzenay) are key elements in the blends of the greatest cuvées and also have this capacity to age gracefully. With great Pinot, a late developer, you must learn to be patient.’
In the modern age, laying down vintage Champagne was resuscitated after the austerity years of post-War ration books and a cycle of glorious sunny vintages through the 1950s. The impetus was a beautifully timed decree of 18 October 1952 (a fabulous year) adjusting the Champagne appellation by indicating that vintage Champagne must be aged for a minimum of three consecutive years, with the unsaid implication that any vintage worthy of the name would actually be laid down for close to a decade. It is to the great credit of a blue-chip house like Veuve Clicquot that its far-sighted cellarmasters in the late 20th century, men like Charles LaHaye and Jacques Péters, set aside significant stocks of the finest vintages for future generations like ours to enjoy, culminating in the Cave Privée collection of vintage wines, begun in 2000 and now currently ranging from the 2004 back through the ’90s to 1982, 1979 and 1976, available on allocation to top restaurants and private collectors.
Mumm also has a collection of older vintages in magnums. And, of course, there is Dom Pérignon, where extended lees ageing has always been fundamental to its singular style as the ultimate expression of reductive, non-oxidative winemaking (no wood).
Richard Geoffroy, DP’s winemaker, believes that his iconic Champagne matures in cycles or as he now calls them, ‘plenitudes’. DP reaches its first peak of maturity (P1) after at least seven years on lees, the exact amount of time determined by the characteristics of the vintage. P2 emerges after a minimum of 12 years and P3 usually at no less than 20 years. Vincent Chaperon, Geoffroy’s oenologist and right-hand man, stresses that protected from oxidation the wine’s fruit and vinosity surges slowly, steady and stable, towards a long and distinguished life in bottle. ‘Plenitude,’ says Chaperon, ‘is a more important pointer to the gently evolving character of DP than age, which the original Oenothèque concept (of a library wine) conveyed.’
Other great houses have their own nuanced take on ageing vintages. Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer, produces a very fine exponent of a non-oxidative style in his Brut Premier, but judiciously uses oak on his vintage and Cristal cuvées.
Lécaillon is unique among the big houses’ cellarmasters in creating a growing number of biodynamically farmed vineyards within Roederer’s impressive domaine of 240 hectares in the finest sites: the biodynamic vineyards now account for 70ha or 30% of the estate. These parcels age more slowly than those in conventional farming, are more resistant to rot, the wines more intense, and the yield of juice per hectare more restrained. Ideal material for vintage Champagnes for long aging.
Great Champagne is the most mercurial of French wines, its character changing like quicksilver when least expected. In piloting its journey to exquisite maturity, you may think the wine is going to turn right, but quite often it actually turns left. That is part of its enduring fascination.
In my life as a taster, I have learned to leave my preconceptions locked in a drawer. I love all sorts. Champagne doesn’t have to be venerable to be beautiful. I’m fond of quite briefly aged wine from sunny years and grapes that were in exuberant health. As in Roederer’s youthful 2009 Rosé – fragrant, succulent, creamy yet with a willowy elegance. Its creator, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, says: ‘When I make a wine like this I am as much a pâtissier as a chef de cave.’
In my own penchant for sunny wines, I am bewitched by Salon 1997: open, friendly, ripe before its time and likely to give more pleasure than the more fêted 2002, which doesn’t do it for me; I expected more. Of true greats, young and old, I am smitten by the promise of Pascal Agrapart’s Vénus Grand Cru Avize 2008 made without dosage but with all the steel and bountiful fruit of this exceptional vintage.
Of wines in their golden age, I adore a second release of Cristal 1988 in its truffled magnificence; the floral lift of both Veuve Clicquot and Pol Roger in their straight vintage 1982; the class and iron strength in Krug Collection 1969; and the perfect balance of Bollinger RD 1952.
Michael Edwards is a wine writer and author who specialises in Champagne. In 2014 he was the first non-Champenois made a Confrère of St-Vincent de Vertus.