Champagne disgorgement: it's all in the timing

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  • Friday 1 August 2014

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...

Disgorgement

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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.

Champagne’s D-Day

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.


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