Extra lees ageing produces exciting wines

My tweets about Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve and how not many other non-vintage champagnes can boast eight years bottle age seems to have aroused quite a lot of comment and interest. The current cuvée of this wine was put in the Charles Heidsieck cellars in 2008, the back label tells anyone who cares to read it, revealing the wine itself is based on 2007 harvest in Champagne. Is also tells us when the wine was disgorged, in this case 2014. There is a plan, I am told, to move towards pinning down the disgorgement date a little more, as Charles used to do when this wine was known as ‘Mis en Cave’, which would be helpful, especially when the disgorgement is relatively recent. For drinking now there is quite a difference between something disgorged in December or January 2014.

A few days later I found myself having lunch in Koffmanns enjoying a bottle of Philipponnat Brut Réserve where the back label informs the drinker of the exact composition of the wine by grape variety; the year of the harvest base; the % of reserve wine in the blend, the dosage (8gm/l) and the month and year of disgorgement – as you ask this was May 2013, so the wine had benefitted, and I use the word advisedly, from around 20 months ageing on the cork after disgorgement. Why can’t all serious champagne producers do that?

Devaux champagnes, which those trying the current Charles Heidsieck range could also have tasted at the recent Liberty Wines event, are trying another approach and giving an age statement on their new labels. Thus the Cuvée D, their premium non-vintage style where the relatively large amount of reserve wine used is partly aged in old oak barrels, has a band around the bottle neck saying ‘5 years’. That’s the minimum amount of time this wine — on impressive form with some character and complexity that only time will bring – ages on its lees. This brand is produced by the go-ahead Côte des Bar, Union Auboise co-operative (so clearly such a strategy has support from within the négoce and the co-ops, not just grower producers).

Another recent weekend tasting treat was the satisfyingly rich and savoury Benoît Marguez 2006 Blanc de Blancs from Ambonnay. Again this helpfully had both the month and year the wine was  cellared (July 2007) and the disgorgement date, spring 2012.

The Champenois are, we are told, trying to introduce some simple reforms to the appellation to increase the minimum amount of time a wine must be kept before it is sold both before (when ageing on its lees) and after disgorgement. These proposed changes are being discussed as part of the 2030 review and while it now looks like there will be some delay before any such meaningful changes are going to be introduced, there is still hope that they will be. This may not be in the interests of the producers geared up to provide European markets with cheap champagne — these are no doubt the producers objecting to the proposed changes — much of which is not worthy of the name, but it certainly is in the long term interests of the region as a whole.

Happily there are already a number of enterprising producers showing the way ahead and it is to be hoped that their numbers will be swelled by the many who adopt such good production practices but don’t necessarily shout about it, further isolating those that cut corners.

  • Kaaren Palmer

    Lanson Black Label also has disgorgement dates on the back, as does Bruno Paillard (a very early adopter of this approach). Grande Année now displays the info – all good for the champagne lovers.