Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Storing Champagne

Did you know that there are several types of closures used for secondary fermentation in Champagne? And several closures used by producers to store Champagne as it ages? I suppose this is not shocking, but I hadn't really thought about it until I saw bottles in cellars and started asking questions. Here are some of the things I found out.

Vin clair, the base wine of Champagne, undergoes secondary fermentation in bottle. Typically the bottles are closed with capsules, like with a soda bottle.

The bottles in this photo are Vincent Laval's, of Champagne Georges Laval. Non-vintage wines must be stored on their lees for a minimum of 15 months, vintage wines for a minimum of three years, and then they are disgorged and closed with a cork (and there are several types of corks used here, but that is a different story), and shipped out for the world to drink.

There are producers who prefer to ferment their wines under cork. Raphaël Bérèche of Bérèche Père et Fils is one of them. The cap does not allow for any appreciable exchange of gases, and Bérèche feels that his wines are better when fermented and aged under cork, allowing minute quantities of air to enter the bottle.

I asked him if he has compared cap and cork fermented wines with a decent amount of post-disgorgement aging, and he has. "They evolve differently," he says, and he prefers cork. Fermenting under cork requires much more work in the cellar, however, and Bérèche currently ferments only the top wine created by his father called Reflet D'Antan, and his own new wines called Instant and Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche. The rest of the range is fermented under capsule.

Champagne producers, like most wine producers anywhere I would imagine, hold back wines for themselves to watch their progression over time. Sometimes these wines are disgorged and then aged as you or I would age Champagne (except our cellars are not underground and cavernous) - in a cool dark place, sealed with a cork and a wire cage. I saw plenty of these bottles as I toured various cellars. Some are really quite old, and preserve the history of their family's work as wine makers. These are bottles made by Marie-Noëlle Ledru's father Michel (I think that was his name) in the 1950's.

Some producers store old wines that have not been disgorged. They are sealed under caps and kept fully inverted, stored sur pointe, as these bottles of 1982 Réserve Millésimée in the Philipponnat cellars.

The interesting thing with bottles stored sur pointe is that the lees remain in the bottle for the length of storage. Think about that - if the wine in question is from the 1982 vintage, the wine has had 28 years of lees contact. That would probably be too much lees contact, except that the bottles are riddled and the lees is collected in the neck before the bottles are stored sur pointe, so that the lees have far less surface area and they simply protect the wine from oxidation.

Drinking a bottle of old Champagne that has been disgorged and stored on cork is as as simple as removing the cork and pouring the wine. On this trip we were lucky enough to drink several old wines that had been stored this way. Rodolphe Péters of Champagne Pierre Péters was absurdly generous and opened several old bottles for us.

The 1990 Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs Brut Millésimé was delicious and showed intriguing mushroom and sous-bois aromas, and felt young and energetic on the palate. It was perfectly balanced and seemed like it could live on for another decade at least, probably longer. The 1973 Pierre Péters Blanc de Blancs Brut Millésimé was one of the finest old bottles of Champagne that I have ever tasted. The wine had a beautiful orange color, and incredibly vibrant aromas and flavors. Chamomile, mandarin, honey, flowers...but those are just words that don't really do the wine justice. It was a tremendously beautiful old bottle.

Then Rodolphe Péters, for reasons that I still do not comprehend, decided to open a bottle of 1921 Camille Péters Champagne Demi-sec. This was the last bottle in his family's cellars. It was dark amber in color and tasted like the freshest Madeira, which is to say, delicious.

The cork was a work of art.

Drinking a bottle of old Champagne that has been stored sur pointe is a bit more difficult. The wine must be disgorged first, a process made to look simple by the producers, but I have no doubt that I would destroy a wine attempting to disgorge it. A wooden and metal tool that is probably exactly the same as it was 75 years ago is used to pry off the capsule.

First the bottle is held upside down, and obviously it is a good idea not to disturb the lees in the neck.

As the bottle is tilted upward the capsule is pried off and the pressure in the bottle forces the lees plug to fly out of the bottle. A little bit of wine is lost too. This process is called disgorging à la volée. No dosage is added to wines disgorged à la volée and from what I am told, the wine is best when consumed immediately. On this trip we drank several bottles that were disgorged à la volée, including the bottle being disgorged by Charles Philipponnat in the above photos, the 1979 Philipponnat Grand Blanc, a Blanc de Blancs made from Côte de Blancs and Montaigne de Reims grapes. The wine was just delicious, complex and deep, and I don't know if it is because it is a little younger, because the 1979 vintage ages differently, or if storing sur pointe is the reason, but it felt structurally younger than wines that had been disgorged long ago, as if its inner core had not aged as quickly as its outer flavors and aromas.

It would be fascinating to one day drink examples of wines aged on cork compared to the same wines disgorged à la volée. I suppose that means I will have to go back to Champagne some day.


King Krak, I Drink the Wine said...

Great post and envious.

Clotpoll said...

I am speechless.

lars makie said...

Really nice post. Completely green with envy on your trip. Have to say, though, that I take slight offense at seeing '1973' and 'old' together in a sentence. Sigh. Anyway, looking forward to more posts.

Peter Liem said...

Great post and photos. The '73 Péters wasn't just Millésime, it was Spécial Club! The forerunner of Cuvée Spéciale, and pure Les Chétillons. And I agree, it was lovely.

Kevin said...

I'm still stunned by the 1921 Champagne. There's something mythical about being poured ancient wines out of old-world producers rock cellars that makes me quite jealous. And the last bottle no less.




Clotpoll said...

Is the Special Club still in existence? If so, who are the members? I fondly remember several vintages of Bonnaire from the 1970s.

Brooklynguy said...

Clotpoll - sorry for the delayed response. There is still a Special Club, and it includes folks like Hebrart, Paul Bara, and many others - if you search for a list you'll find one easily. Try Besotted ramblings as a place to look.