Champagnes with more bottle age can bring complexity, interest and food-friendliness to your list. Giles Fallowfield debates their merits
Most of the table wine sold in the UK is made from a single harvest and bears the year in which it was produced on the label. Not so with champagne. Well over 80% of what is made in the appellation is non-vintage. With table wine you can immediately see whether it is young, old or middle-aged.
When you open a bottle of champagne sans année, as the French more attractively put it, you don’t know what you are going to get in terms of the wine’s age or its maturity. It could have been in the bottle less than two years, it might have been in there for seven or eight.
‘In many ways Extra Aged is an easier sell than the higher priced Noble Cuvée wines’ Michelle Cartwright, Searcys
By the time you read this, there will be non-vintage champagnes on the market in Britain, based on the not very exciting 2010 harvest in Champagne. They may, if you are lucky, have some reserve wine in the blend to make them less raw, but with a minimum of just 15 months in the bottle, such ‘champagne’ is perfectly legal, if likely to be perfectly lamentable.
When asked, the major houses will nearly all automatically say they age their non-vintage offering for a minimum of three years before release, but even some Champenois openly scoff at this claim. And it’s best to approach such statements with a healthy dose of scepticism, as hardly any of them are prepared to back it up by giving even basic information about the main harvest base for the wine and the disgorgement date on the label.
At the bottom end of the market where people are just buying the name ‘champagne’ and don’t really care what it tastes like, you could argue this doesn’t matter. But a disgorgement date and some basic information about the harvest base are essential tools to aid those who are genuinely interested in following a champagne’s development.
Very few of the major houses seem prepared to readily reveal any of this information, but several notable smaller houses and quite a few grower-producers have started to make this information a central part of their message.
The move by Lanson, which recently became the largest producer prepared to put a disgorgement date on all the wines across its range, should be applauded. Bruno Paillard, Lanson’s major shareholder, is a long-term advocate of disgorgement dates, and has employed them on the champagne that bears his own name from the outset. The news that Moët & Chandon is to put a date of disgorgement on its vintage wines with effect from the launch of the 2004 later in the year suggests even Moët Hennessy is watching this development, if not leading it.
The idea, still touted by many Champenois, that this information will merely confuse consumers, is outmoded. If consumers are not interested they are unlikely to be scrutinising the fine print on the back label. For professionals working in the on-trade, however, such material is a godsend, since it can help them in picking a wine a customer might like, rather than falling back on the safety of a brand they have heard of.
As the idea that champagne is a wine that can be enjoyed with a range of food gathers pace, knowing the relative maturity of a wine is a helpful marker for a sommelier or chef trying to suggest suitable food matches.
Something for everyone?
Knowing more about what’s in the bottle is also important in the top-end luxury sector, and Michelle Cartwright, champagne bar concept development manager at Searcys, feels that wines like Lanson’s new Extra Age multi-vintage blends are helping to create a whole
new category that’s stealing a march on the prestige cuvée.
‘In many ways Extra Age is an easier sell than [Lanson’s] higher-priced Noble Cuvée wines because there is a story to tell to the consumer,’ she says. ‘Prestige cuvées are just about fancy packaging, sexy imagery and a hefty price tag. No-one talks about the wine quality or is interested in whether it is vintage or not.’
I take my hat off to the expanding group of growers and smaller houses prepared to do this and see it as important. But why does all this matter? Who cares if a wine is aged 24 or 48 months? And why is knowing the disgorgement date useful to a sommelier or restaurant wine buyer?
Well it’s partly a question of taste. Freshness per se is an over-rated quality in a champagne, I would say. It’s great to find in a mature well-cellared bottle that offers many nuances of aroma and flavour, but is not exciting by itself without some contrast in the weight, length and palate intensity of the wine.
But if freshness is what you are after, a disgorgement date will help you find that too, as something with three years or more post-disgorgement ageing on the cork isn’t likely to be your style.
Sommeliers and restaurant wine buyers share their thoughts on longer-aged champagnes
‘The Champenois have done such a poor job promoting vintage champagne. Consumers just don’t understand the category, which makes it hard to sell. Generic support is needed to encourage everyone to give more information: the harvest base of the blend, disgorgement date, and the proportion of reserve wine should be a bare minimum.
We need these tools to help preserve the clear water between champagne and other quality sparkling wines.’ Michelle Cartwright, Searcys
‘The Aube department (Côte des Bar) is where it is all happening at the moment. Our customers come in and happily try the champagnes – mainly from small grower producers – and as a result of this, they can forget about the big brands.
‘From our perspective not only is this [selling growers’ champagnes]a point of difference, but the margin is higher, and because we are sourcing small volume wines there’s little competition. We aren’t going to see the price of champagne we sell slashed to under £20 a bottle by a competitor round the corner, as often happens with the big international brands.’ Sebastien Crozatier, The Sampler
‘Wines that have extended lees ageing or longer time post-disgorgement – or both – work well with food. They combine especially well with the mix of flavours in modern cooking. They have a lot of personality, perhaps too much for an aperitif.
‘The Francis Boulard Brut Nature Petraea is a slightly oxidative style that’s less fizzy and works particularly well with food. I describe it and similar cuvées to customers as being like Meursault with bubbles. We don’t have a tasting menu here at La Trompette, but that would be a good way of showcasing this type of champagne.’ Matthieu Longuere, La Trompette
‘It’s clear that many champagnes improve after a few extra months post-disgorgement, but long-term ageing is a different matter. I’ve drunk really old bottles of simple non-vintage champagnes and found some gems, but many disappointments too.
‘Some customers choose these wines simply because they want a highly priced champagne; others are interested in trying different expressions. Apart from those two groups, these wines are difficult to sell, as for many people, champagne is about a young, frothy, vibrant drink.
‘Of course it’s possible to talk about the complexity and interest, and how a wine could go with food, but for most people the point is, champagne is unique. Once it evolves into a more vinous style, it has more competition.’ Christine Parkinson, Hakkasan
‘A variety of ageing gives a wider choice and makes for a more complete list. It also provides a good talking point with the customer, a valuable chance for the sommelier to engage and start explaining more about champagne.
‘I’m not really sure that the customers really care about this – this is about the different requirements of the professional versus the amateur. It helps people like you and I discuss champagne.’ Xavier Rousset MS, 28°-50° and Texture
| FOUR RECOMMENDED CHAMPAGNES WITH EXTRA AGE:
Bollinger RD 1996
Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs 1999
Eric Rodez Cuvee Grand Vintages
Francis Boulard Brut NaturePetraea XCVII-MMVI
| AND FOUR MORE FROM THE CHAMPAGNE GURU
Alfred Gratien Brut NV
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV
De Castelnau Brut Reserve NV
Gosset Grande Reserve brut NV