The release of Bollinger's RD 2002 in the same month as Billecart-Salmon's Nicolas François Billecart 2002 has reignited the discussion over the best time to disgorge Champagne. Tyson Stelzer reports...
Mature Champagne is a wonderful indulgence, but are late-disgorged cuvées (often written as récemment dégorgé or RD on bottles) simply an excuse for Champagne houses to add a hefty premium to their already pricey prestige cuvées?
Late-disgorged Champagne comes under many names, Bollinger’s RD, Veuve Clicquot’s Cave Privée, Krug’s Collection and Dom Pérignon’s Oenothèque (soon to be renamed Plenitude). The recipe is similar in each case: the standard release is held on its lees in the cellar for an extended period for later release. This comes at a considerable premium, usually at least double the price of the first release and sometime three times.
There are late-disgorged Champagnes on the shelves as much as 25 years older than the standard releases, and few would quibble about paying a considerable premium for the privilege of such grand maturity. But when a late-disgorged cuvée lands just three years later, one might rightfully feel duped at having to pay twice the price.
The later the better?
Champagne’s ageing process is more involved than perhaps any other wine style. great vintages will comfortably improve for 20 years, even 50, and the interactions that take place rely on a complex interplay of acidity, fruit and oxygen but also of dosage, dissolved carbon dioxide and the lees themselves.
Every bottle of Champagne has two lives, one relying on the sustaining presence of the lees prior to disgorgement, and the other in more rapid development post-disgorgement. its evolution is not only a question of years since vintage, but also time since disgorgement. ‘The date of disgorgement is very important, because a bottle will taste very different six months after disgorgement than it will two years after,’ explains Champagne grower Didier Gimonnet, of Pierre Gimonnet & Fils.
A rosé Champagne disgorged three months ago will present a different impression of its dosage (the level of sweetness in the wine used to top up the bottle before final bottling) than the same wine disgorged nine months ago.
A non-vintage wine disgorged in time for Christmas 2014 will be much fresher than the 2013 release. And a vintage wine shipped this year has spent a year longer on its lees than the same vintage shipped last year, and will present a different personality accordingly.
Furthermore, different disgorgements are often based upon subtly different blends, if not completely different base wines altogether. Many houses tweak the dosage, with later disgorgements typically receiving less sugar. Such is the scale of production of Moët & Chandon’s Brut impérial NV that a single blend is impossible, dictating three or four quite different blends every year. The new vintage will be very young in the first blend, and balanced with up to 40% reserve wines, while the last blend might call for only 20% reserves.
Champagnes disgorged at a grand old age are a testament to the remarkable battery pack of energy and vitality contained within the lees, which are capable of sustaining a bottle for a lifetime. Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave Richard Geoffroy speaks of three ages of peak maturity in his Champagne’s life: the first after seven or eight years (the standard release), a second at 12 to 20 years (Oenothèque) and a third at 35 to 40 years. Veuve Clicquot releases its Cave Privée cuvées as the same wines as its vintage brut and vintage rosé but with remarkable lees age – the current releases hail from the greatest vintages between 1979 and 1990.
Tasted shortly after disgorgement, late-disgorged Champagnes seem fresher, with less toasty and honeyed development, more prominent fruit and frequently more reductive characters like struck flint, burnt match or gunpowder. They are generally best consumed within a few years of disgorgement. ‘Disgorgement is a shock for a wine, like a human going into surgery,’ explains Billecart-Salmon’s owner and director Antoine Roland-Billecart. ‘When you’re young, you recover much better. When an old Champagne is disgorged, it may oxidise.’ This is why he disgorges his museum stock at the same time as the standard releases. Different houses have different philosophies, and there are always exceptions. I’ve tasted very old late-disgorged bottles that have held up magnificently five years after disgorgement.
The Billecart theory suggests that early-disgorged Champagnes age more reliably post-disgorgement, and the house’s deep museum stocks of its prestige cuvée Nicolas François Billecart are evidence that the theory holds. The exciting implication for us all, of course, is that we can confidently cellar early releases of Champagne’s great vintages without forking out a price premium.
The disgorgement date communicates a world of information: stamping a bottle of Champagne with an indelible time reference is the only clue to the age of a non-vintage cuvée and to ensuring you buy a fresh bottle. Collectors are increasingly ageing non-vintage wines like Krug’s Grande Cuvée and Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle, and a disgorgement date would provide a means of managing their cellars. The disgorgement date provides an insight into the base vintage of a non-vintage blend and all the information that goes with this. Because the disgorgement date is so important, houses that disclose the date on every bottle do their customers an important service.
Sadly, precious few deliver. ‘For non-vintage Champagne, I don’t want the disgorgement date on the bottle,’ says Ruinart’s chef de cave Frédéric Panaïotis. ‘Probably only 5% of consumers are interested in this information, and printing the date will only confuse others, who might read it as a use-by date.’ There’s no way to decipher Ruinart’s bottling code, either. ‘If it could be deciphered, it would no longer be a code,’ Panaïotis dismisses.
Smaller growers are leading the way in transparent disclosure of information on every bottle. On each of his eponymous labels, Jean- Baptiste Geoffroy displays vintages, varieties, dosage and date of disgorgement — a laudable commitment for a small grower who disgorges every few months and tweaks the dosage for each disgorgement. In Chigny-lès-Roses, Gilles Dumangin disgorges every shipment of his J Dumangin Fils Champagnes to order, and each back label not only declares disgorgement date, blend and dosage, but also features a unique QR code to unlock a wealth of other information.
Such disclosure is even more helpful for medium and large houses, who usually disgorge in subtly different successive batches, and who are more likely to have older disgorgements lingering in some markets. Printing disgorgement dates on bottles can also keep importers and retailers accountable to timely movement of stock.
Cracking the code
GH Mumm’s chef de cave Didier Mariotti tastes every cuvée from each warehouse in most export markets every six months, and checks the disgorgement date of cuvées in every restaurant he visits. ‘You can work hard on the blend, ageing and disgorgement, and if you don’t focus on the supply chain you can destroy everything,’ he says. Mumm prints disgorgement dates only on its Brut Selection for the French market, but Mariotti believes it’s always best to disclose the disgorgement date. To this end, he’s following Krug’s lead in introducing a bottle code to unlock information for consumers.
In 2012, Krug introduced an ingenious ID code above the barcode of every bottle. Use this code at krug.com and it reveals the season and year in which the bottle was shipped, the number of years over which it has aged, the blend and the vintage story for vintage wines, and wine and vintage details of non-vintage blends. It’s a discreet code that won’t confuse anyone, but for those in the know it also reveals the disgorgement date on the spot: the first three digits are the trimester (first digit) and year (second and third digits).
Veuve Clicquot’s chef de cave Dominique Demarville admits the biggest challenge in printing disgorgement dates lies in managing the logistics on the labelling line. But if Ayala can print disgorgement dates for more than 700,000 bottles shipped every year and Lanson for four million, surely every house could do it? ‘I’m all for transparency and if I can put the disgorgement date on the label I will,’ says Demarville. ‘We’re working on it, and I cross my fingers that we’ll have it in the next few years.’ Until then, the three-digit number on every Clicquot cork is the disgorgement date. The first two digits are the year and the third digit is the bimester (eg, 114 is July/August 2011).
Until every bottle leaving Champagne is printed with its disgorgement date, it’s caveat emptor. And return any bottle that’s not up to scratch.
Tyson Stelzer is the author of The Champagne Guide 2014-2015 and the 2011 Louis Roederer International Champagne Writer of the Year.
Written by Tyson Stelzer
Disgorging the lees in Champagne: how it happens
After Champagne’s second fermentation in bottle, dead yeast cells (lees) remain in the bottle and contribute subtly to the wine’s complexity. The longer this process of autolysis persists the better, improving mouthfeel and longevity, and adding biscuity, bready nuances to the flavour.
Cleaning the wine of this lees sediment without losing its bubbles is something of an art. Traditionally, mature bottles were riddled in a wooden desk pierced with holes to hold the bottles sideways. Each bottle was given a quarter-rotation every day, and slowly tilted from horizontal to upside down to collect the lees sediment in the neck of the bottle.
In modern times, this riddling process has been largely taken over by gyropalettes, giant robotic arms that slowly rotate large cages of bottles. More consistent, if less romantic. After riddling, the sediment is settled on the inside of the crown cap. The neck of the bottle is then frozen, the cap released, and the plug of sediment shot out – disgorged (or dégorgé in French) – leaving perfectly clear wine behind.
Lees sediment settles in the bottle neck
Tyson Stelzer’s top 10 late-disgorged Champagnes
Dom Pérignon, Oenothèque 1996
Such high-strung energy, drive and acid tension – this is almost completely devoid of time evolution. Achingly youthful, dancing with fairy lightness on a stage of solid chalk. Resounding proof that the intoxicating concentration and searing acidity of 1996 can find harmony.
Price: £200-£300 Farr Vintners, Fine & Rare, Four Walls, Marc Fine Wines, Miilésima, Nickolls & Perks, Uncorked
Krug, Collection 1982
Disgorged at the same time as the original Krug Vintage 1982, this is one of the most profoundly complex Champagnes you could dream of encountering. A universe of profound exotic spice, pipesmoke and burnt grapefruit evolves to plum depth, nuanced by wonderful mineral texture.
Price: £400-£721 Fine & Rare, Hedonism, LHK Fine Wines, Seckford Agencies
Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas François Billecart 2002
Nicolas François is not a late-disgorged release but, launched at the same time as Bollinger’s RD (below), it could be. Exhilaratingly honed, breathtakingly precise and monumentally mineral, the exuberance and energy of the great 2002 vintage will sustain it for decades yet.
Price: £100 Berry Bros & Rudd, Carruthers & Kent, Lay & Wheeler, Marc Fine Wine, Robertson, Uncorked, Winedirect
Bollinger, RD Extra Brut 2002
The sheer energy, bold complexity and shimmering minerality of La Grande Année 2002 finds even greater focus and honed definition with half the dosage and another few years on lees. One of Champagne’s youngest late-disgorged releases, it begs for another decade for its full magnificence to emerge.
Price: £150 Berry Bros & Rudd, Bordeaux Index, Farr Vintners, Hedonism, Noel Young, Roberson
Charles Heidsieck, Blanc des Millénaires 1995
Blanc des Millénaires is one of Champagne’s latest releases – later than many late-disgorged re-releases – and disgorged according to demand. At almost 20 years old, it’s transcended to a plane of silken magnificence and fine chalk minerality, yet still dizzyingly fresh. A regular DWWA Trophy winner.
Price: £145 Berry Bros & Rudd, Bordeaux Index, Charlie Crown, Excel Wines, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods, Millèsima, Noel Young, Slurp
Pierre Péters, Les Chétillons Cuvée Spéciale Blanc de Blancs 2000
2000 will be the first Les Chétillons to be released as a late-disgorged cuvée, a vintage that seems to transcend the very passage of time, evolving in
freeze-frame slow motion. Unnerving energy and immaculate poise are sustained by the inimitable mineral texture of Le Mesnil-sur- Oger.
Price: £120 Berry Bros & Rudd, Bordeaux Index, Hangingditch, Noel Young, Solent Cellar, Wine Bear
Veuve Clicquot, Cave Privée Brut 1990
Veuve Cliqcuot’s Cave Privée programme of setting aside respectable allocations of every vintage release is courageous, not least because vintages that don’t age well will never surface. 1990 shows breathtaking endurance – a mesmerising golden sunset of vivid brushstrokes of mature complexity.
Price: £125 Bordeaux Index, Fine & Rare, Nickolls & Perks
J Dumangin & Fils, Vinothèque Brut 1996
Such was the disarming acidity of 1996 that Gilles Dumangin never released it, holding back the entire production until it softened. It retains exceptional primary fruit expression, slowly building notes of ginger cake and nutmeg. Linear acidity promises decades of potential yet.
Price: £125 Yapp Bros
Lanson, Brut Vintage Collection Gold Label 1979
It takes 30 years for the most enduring Lanson vintages to break their pristine shell of malic acidity and attain their full potential. 1979 is one of the most enchanting of all, with all the complexity its old age promises, yet upholding a profound and lively core of secondary fruit energy.
Price: N/A UK lansonchampagne.com
Veuve Clicquot, Cave Privée Rosé 1979
Released this year at 35 years old, this is testament to the mesmeric longevity of 1979. A revelation of primary definition, pure Pinot Noir in its berry fruits, yet with a lifetime of complexity akin to grand old red Burgundy. A monument to sublime, mature rosé, with no hint of crumbling.
Price: £200 Champagne Direct, Fine & Rare, The Champagne Co