Worth waiting for

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  • Wednesday 1 August 2001

SERENA SUTCLIFFE MW likes her Champagne mature: full of honey, butter, apricots and vanilla ice cream. Here, she explains why vintage Champagne is worth the wait

SERENA SUTCLIFFE MW likes her Champagne mature: full of honey, butter, apricots and vanilla ice cream. Here, she explains why vintage Champagne is worth the wait

Contemplating this subject, as I often do, I asked myself the heretical question – why do it at all? Why should one mature Champagne, laying down bottles as for, say, Burgundy 1999s or Bordeaux 2000s? The facetious but logical answer is only to do it if you actually like the taste of mature, or more evolved Champagne. If you like your bubbles exploding out of the gate as a vintage is launched, or your non-Vintage with mega-youthful bounce, buy from the fastest-moving outlets you know and drink the same evening. I have nothing against this policy and, in fact, would agree that a young, vivacious, flirty Champagne is more suitable for huge parties and receptions, all jostle and chat, where a deeper, more complex Champagne would just go unnoticed in the mêlée.
And yet to ignore the chance of experiencing Champagne with bottle age is to throw away some of the greatest pleasures that wine can give. The proof was this weekend, at one of those glorious garden, Sunday summer lunches. The ultra-kind and generous host produced magnums of Salon 1983 which hit the bullseye in magnificent fashion – it is now the type of Champagne of which one takes big gulps, not simpering sips. It is so full, honied and buttery that I had to remind myself that, of course, it is 100% Chardonnay, but it is Le Mesnil after all (Salon's two areas there have exceptional, early-ripening microclimates) and, at this time, the oak barrels were still in place.

Ah, oak barrels – there lies a target for polemic. The glaring winners at the great 1999 Millennium Wine Tasting in Sweden were predominantly barrel-fermented. The two top wines, Billecart-Salmon, Cuvée Nicolas-François 1959 and, miraculously, the 1961 vintage of the same wine, were classic examples, as was 1961 Dom Pérignon and the 1964 DP which also scored highly. Gosset 1952, Pol Roger Chardonnay 1959, a startlingly young Krug Collection 1961 and Paul Bara Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir) 1959 – all these come from the epoch of wood. The Paul Bara (and what a tip this Bouzy grower proves to be) displays all the youth and creamy, vanilla ice-cream purity of the time which I associate so closely with the use of oak barrels.
Then there was the utterly marvellous pure Chardonnay Ed Bonville 1959 – vanilla cream and crushed hawthorn petals. This great Oger grower still uses the 100% oak, 100% grand cru, 100% Chardonnay recipe, plus no malolactic fermentation, so current brews will obviously keep splendidly too. So will contemporary Bollinger, as it also has kept to oak for vintage. My personal top 10 wines at the Stockholm tasting included four from this family house, which is quite a feat in a huge blind tasting! Bollinger 1990, with 100 points, Bollinger RD 1985, Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Françaises 1985 and Bollinger RD 1975 were all glorious, stand-out wines made from stunning material, 'manipulated' beautifully.

However, there were some magnificent Champagnes in this tasting that had seen no wood. Perrier-Jouët's flawless Belle Epoque 1985 is a prime example, as is the perfect Cristal 1985. Roederer ferments all its wines in small steel vats while its reserve wines for the non-vintage Brut Premier (up to 20% of the blend) are aged in large oak vats. I sometimes wonder if some wines in the Cristal blend also see a sojourn in wood, giving a tell-tale vanilla taste and silky sheen, a very Cristal characteristic. No doubt I shall receive a letter on the subject! Cristal 1966, while mature, is stunning, all brioche and brown sugar, and I swear that it has wood influence – the tell-tale vanilla creams finish decides it for me.
Jacquesson Blanc de Blancs 1969 is all lemon, honey and cream – and sees oak – while Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 1979 saw no oak and has class and sweet, ripe beauty and finesse. As far as I know, two other great, mature Champagnes from the 1970s saw no barrels – Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 1976, with its ethereal bouquet and fresh, vanillin, pure, clean taste and Laurent-Perrier's Millésime Rare 1976, absolutely wondrous, with such elegance and seductive fruit.
Krug, of course, has famously stayed with oak barrels, a decision not taken lightly but after reflection and experiment.
So, gems like Clos du Mesnil 1985 and 1989, Krug Collection 1961, as well as rarities such as Krug Collection 1949 and 1938 benefit from this. So, too, does Grande Cuvée as all wines at Krug are fermented cru by cru in aged 205-litre barrels.
Recently, I have had a number of bottles of Grande Cuvée's predecessor, the revered Private Cuvée, some shipped to the UK 40 years ago, and they were nuttily fascinating. Grande Cuvée, with more Chardonnay, but still barrel-fermented with no malolactic, certainly needs bottle age, both in view of its high acidity and initially dormant complexity. When you blend approximately 10 different vintages and 47 different wines from 25 villages, the marriage needs time to take. I am always put in mind of Dad's Army – 'Settle down now'!

Oak barrels aside, will the wines of today last as long as those of the past? In the main, I think not, largely due to vastly increased yields. I am sure the best will develop and gain in dimension over a period of, say, 10 to 25 years, but a life span of 40 to 60 years may be asking too much for Champagnes made in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, is bottle ageing of this length relevant today? Probably not – and certainly not in my case, unless life-prolonging science proceeds at a pretty spectacular pace! But I am convinced many of the 1990s will mature in fascinating fashion – DP, Bolly, Cuvée William Deutz, Clicquot, Pol Roger, Roederer, for a start, not forgetting Moët, whose vintage is always immensely rewarding. Those fetching 1989s seem perfect now (viz Roederer and Krug), but I hardly think they are going to fall off the perch in the foreseeable future. Although the 1988s are a different animal and will be around, and flexing their muscles, for a decade or so more. Bollinger Grande Année 1988 is still a baby, Krug 1988 will, I am sure, see me out, and Pol Roger 1988 has classic structure. La Grande Dame 1988 was wonderfully fresh the other day, slightly salty, very snappy, with a mineral finish, while Pol Roger's Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1988 is a monument and a prime candidate for cellaring.
At a Valentine's Day dinner this year we compared Roederer 1988 and 1986 – both wonderfully deep and layered, but I am leaving the rest of my 1988s for a few more years.
Everyone's 1985 seems to be blooming at the moment, none more so than Clicquot, which is a starry 20/20 Champagne with an incredibly 'briary' bouquet and a sweet, succulent, spring-like taste – perfect composition, pure pleasure, superb. In fact, I have just made short shrift of a series of mind-blowing mature Cliquot magnums. Over a genuinely exciting dinner at Daniel in New York, where Daniel Boulud cooked up a storm, Jean-Luc Le Du remained supremely calm serving a raft of Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and port, all orchestrated brilliantly by Anthony Francis in Daniel's private room, I tried to comment on the wines and write legible notes, always a major challenge. In brief, these were amazing Clicquots, amply demonstrating why one should keep great Champagne vintages – or buy them later at specialised sales, as many were for this event, with the source being several 'direct from Reims' library sales at Sotheby's.

Veuve Clicquot 1970: Nutty and full – acidity a little apart.

Veuve Clicquot 1966: Darkest in colour. Somewhat beery nose, but a great red fruit taste, incredibly like a red Burgundy in flavour! Lovely sweetness and ripeness.

Veuve Clicquot 1961: This has a nose of great white Burgundy. So creamy and rich, although there was a slightly muddy finish.

Veuve Clicquot 1959: Great, classic, honied nose. Taste of toffee and torrefaction.

Then, with roasted John Dory and a curried lobster sauce (brilliant):

Veuve Clicquot 1955: Great scent. Real class and marvellous acidity.

Veuve Clicquot 1952: Nutty, very brut.

Veuve Clicquot 1949: Pure beauty, pure honey. This has always been an absolute marvel (and I tasted my first 1949 Clicquot soon after I came into the trade in the early 1970s). A three-tick wine.

Veuve Clicquot 1947: Bouquet of warm peaches sunning themselves on a south-facing wall – and this is my best Pseud's Corner throw, but it just happens to be true. Great peachy richness on the palate.

Veuve Clicquot 1928: A great old gentleman. As if this were not enough, I came home and delved in the cellar and found a bottle of Veuve Clicquot dry 1942 – a rare, wartime vintage. It had a warm gingerbread and French toast nose, still with bubbles and the cork came out with a pop. The taste was of dried figs and apricots, immensely creamy and vanillin and so buttery. A great old Champagne and marvellous with foie gras.
With mature Champagne, size matters. Magnums may be the optimum format, but Jeroboams can be wonderful if the second fermentation is carried out in the Jeroboam, which most good houses do, including Clicquot, Bollinger, Pol Roger and Roederer. I hear this procedure will shortly become compulsory. It is worth remembering that the ullage is virtually the same for a magnum as for a bottle, and not much more for a Jero, so it is a smaller proportion of air to the mass of wine when compared to bottle size.The larger formats do mature more slowly and give a longer peak period for drinking.
Recently, a Jeroboam of Bollinger 1975, probably disgorged in 1982, was a dream – at its apogee. When top houses are disgorging mature Champagnes, they wisely use a lower dosage, as the wine is already rich and full. For example, Clicquot usually does its dosage at 9gm per litre but, for an old vintage, it would limit it to 5/6gm per litre.
Above all, I keep great Champagnes for special occasions and one is coming up this weekend – our 24th wedding anniversary, no less. The Cristal 1981 is already on ice. I reckon this is perfect wedding anniversary material, one way or another.

Serena Sutcliffe MW is head of the International Wine Department

at Sotheby's

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