The effect of time on champagne, both on and off lees, is as much a question of taste as it is about quality. Ned Goodwin MW provides some clarity, and challenges our expectations, with his thoughts on the familiar lees-derived characters of classic brut style champagnes.
I am often asked the difference between champagne and wine; an odd question given that champagne is a wine and should be enjoyed as such, be it as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to food. This is a question shaped, perhaps, by notions of how to approach champagne, often limited by its festive nature.
However, there are salient traits that differentiate champagne from the bevy of still wines and other sparkling expressions. Considering these, we must first acknowledge that champagne (presumably you want lowercase c for the wine and uppercase C for the region?) is a regional wine stamped with a duress inherent to the most viticulturally challenged meld of soil and climate of any major wine region in the world.
Not only is the place cold, verging on frigid, but the soils are largely bereft of nutrients, exacerbated by the free drainage capacity of the dominant geological strata, chalk.
Of course, the region and its wines are also defined by the production process, entailing a second fermentation in bottle, jurisdiction over where grapes can be grown, pressing quotients and overall yields which, frankly, despite the impregnable mantle of branded luxury that allows champagne to loft over other sparkling wines, are nothing to brag about. The average yield of the region is unabashedly high. Too high.
Moreover, there are further legal parameters stipulating permitted grape varieties, training methods, dosage levels across styles and the minimal period of lees ageing for non-vintage cuvées (12 months; 15 in bottle) and vintage wines (three years), to name but a few.
It is this last point, the lees ageing, that is particularly interesting. Not only does it confer poise and complexity to the wines, but it has come to partly define divergent styles, accentuated by the growing stature of wines from smaller producers less reliant on lees-derived detail than the champagnes from larger houses.
Lees ageing takes place following the secondary fermentation of the blend, in bottle. Ageing nascent champagnes on their lees, or the decomposing amalgam of yeast and other microbes that remain in the bottle following the exhaustion of carbon sources by the fermentation, incites the process of autolysis.
Autolysis sees the dying yeasts, starved of nutrients, break down. The by-products are mannoproteins which impart a creaminess to the ensuing champagne, while reacting with sugars (Maillard conversion) to impart flavours and aromatic compounds akin to the pastry notes, or toast, that most of us ascribe to qualitative expressions.
The longer a champagne is aged on lees, the more forcefully these characteristics will present themselves in the glass. Often for better; sometimes worse.
I once tasted an Australian sparkling wine whose maker had done his best to emulate long lees-aged champagne. To the wine’s detriment. There simply was not the natural acidity in the wine to carry the creamy heft and accentuated toastiness from all of his hard work.
Indeed, those champagne houses championing traditional toasty styles will adjust the lees ageing period to find confluence with the base year. Should, for example, the base year provide a high acid wine, it may be toned with longer lees ageing, resulting in a more balanced finished champagne. Conversely, should the base wine hail from a warmer vintage, extended lees ageing may impart too much breadth and the champagne may lack poise and palpable freshness.
The end drinker may then determine that a champagne deserves more time in bottle. Like any quality wine, certain champagnes benefit from additional time in the cellar, as gradual oxidative ingress through the porous cork deepens the hue and imparts complex nutty and truffled notes to the ageing wine.
Conversely, some champagne houses do the ageing for us, releasing top cuvées after a period of ageing before re-releasing them again across staggered disgorgements. These wines are largely aged on their lees, pre-disgorgement, rather than post. To the uninitiated, the wines are ostensibly the same: maker and vintage. However, for the perspicacious drinker, the later disgorged wines are different on many levels.
Rather than being shaped by the oxidative process of ageing under cork, later released champagnes are given a more febrile cadence by reductive, rather than oxidative, conditions. In other words, oxygen is staved off by the protective carapace of high acidity, low pH, CO2 and most of all, the cloudy mass of oxygen-occluding lees in the bottle.
Examples include Bollinger’s prestige cuvées. Its La Grande Année is aged for seven to 10 years, depending on the nature of the vintage. After further time on lees, often up to 15 years in total, bottles are released under a different moniker as the R.D., or Recently Disgorged, cuvée. The constituents are the same, albeit, the additional period on lees and its anaerobic bind, imbues a pungent mineral freshness. The R.D. is tensile, while the La Grande Année – at least in this context – is softer and almost relaxed.
Dom Pérignon, too, a staunchly reductive champagne, is released as Plénitude 1 (seven to eight years on lees), 2 (circa 20 years) and 3 (older releases, in excess of 25 years), each revealing different facets of the same constituents, brought to light by different periods of lees ageing.
Is one approach better than the other?
Not really, but I often prefer champagnes aged post-disgorgement, under cork. They are less shrill and, I suppose, a testament to my patience. They are wines to linger over as I ponder the passage of time; in contrast to the impressive freshness and fibre of later disgorged bottlings, bedazzling because of their resilience against time’s passing, like a liquid Dorian Gray.
Challenging these barometers of quality, the grower revolution has seen the acclaim of champagnes crafted by a legion of small grower-producers. This movement picked up steam following the deregulation of the champagne market in 1990, when the echelles system of fixing grape prices based on origin (rather than quality and demand) was discarded. Champagne became a free market and with this, the region’s narrative shifted irrevocably.
Out of necessity, many of these producers dispatch their wines to market earlier, resulting in substantially shorter periods on lees. Synergistically, with fewer vineyard holdings and reliance on that growing in their backyards, so to speak, their story is one of greater site-specificity, morphing into a combatant thread of ‘us versus them’, or small land-holding winemakers versus the larger houses that grow grapes in many instances, but largely purchase fruit across the 34,500 hectares of the Champagne region.
In essence, the story of the grower has become one of transparency, rather than that of an inordinate blend designed to replicate a consistent style year in, year out. Growers often embrace wood – new smaller format casks, together with larger neutral vessels – to evince textural authority, while dropping dosage (residual sugar) levels to clarify the voice of the vineyard melded to their culture, or terroir.
Concomitant to the minimalist wine movement, many embrace holistic viticulture across its guises and a ‘less is more’ approach to vinification, manifest in ambient yeast, minimal fining and less flitting with the essential properties of their wines.
And there lies the rub. These champagnes tell a different story. There are fewer parts to their composition and the end result is one of streamlined transparency, rather than the toastiness and creamy mouthfeel of a classic brut style of champagne. Indeed, for many of the newer guard, toasty aromas are perceived as maquillage, or makeup, to obfuscate lesser quality materials.
To each his own, I suppose.
Read more in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Ned Goodwin
Photography supplied by Moët & Chandon and Champagne Palmer & Co.