There are dozens of anecdotes and quotations associated with wine and champagne. I’m sure you’ve heard lots of them.
One of my favourites is
“Wine improves with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”
It’s not surprising then that if you ask most people about wine they will probably say that the older it is, the better it is, but that’s not necessarily true, especially when it comes to champagne. In the next few minutes you’ll find out why not and you’ll learn the golden rules about ageing champagne.
With champagne, unlike most wines, there are two distinct ageing periods that you need to take into consideration: the first is the time spent ageing in the bottle before it leaves the cellars in France and the second is the time from then on until you actually drink it.
The first is called ageing on lees. ‘Lees’ is the name for the dead yeasts cells left over after the fermentation inside the bottle has finished and which form a sediment in the bottle.
The second is called ‘bottle ageing’ and is not at all the same thing.
Here’s how they are different and why that’s important
The rules of champagne making set down the minimum age a wine must be before it can be sold. The rule is the same for grower champagnes as for famous brands; everyone plays by the same rules. For non-vintage champagne it’s 15 months and for 12 months of that time the champagne must be allowed to age in the cellars with the lees in the bottle.
During this time the dead yeasts cell break down and release into the wine a cocktail of amino acids, enzymes and other nutrients which enrich the wine and develop its subtle flavours and aromas. This process is called autolysis.
At the same time there is another process going on called oxidisation. This is the reaction between the wine in the bottle and the oxygen in the atmosphere outside. It can take place because even though the bottle is sealed, the seal is not totally hermetic and a minute amount of air still gets into the bottle to react with the wine.
Oxidisation will also produce richer, deeper flavours in the wine up to a certain point, but it is also the process, if carried too far, that will turn the wine into vinegar.
The cellars in Champagne provide the perfect conditions for the wine to age and for these two processes: autolysis and oxidation, to work together, so generally speaking, the longer a champagne ages in the cellars in Champagne, the more rich and complex the wine becomes and, thanks to the yeast cells, the champagne retains its freshness and liveliness.
So how do you know how long the champagne spent in the cellars before you bought it?
Well for most wines it’s easy. There’s a date on the bottle which indicates the year of harvest. No such luck with non-vintage champagne mind you; there’s no date on the bottle.
To make things worse champagne makers don't indicate on the label exactly how long the champagne has been aged. This is a shame because it’s crucial information for any serious champagne lover.
We saw above that the minimum ageing is 12 months on lees, but this is hardly time enough to allow the champagne to acquire any real quality so most reputable champagne makers will age their champagnes for 2 -3 years, but there's quite a difference between 24 and 36 months and you're none the wiser from just looking at the bottle.
However, if you are content to stick with just the famous brands and take their word for what they say about the ageing period then you should be fine. However if you want to explore grower champagnes and discover all the amazing variety and quality they offer, then you’ll need some more information.
Now because non-vintage champagne is a blend of wines from several different harvests what you need to know is which harvests, but where do you find that information?
One way is to ask your supplier and if you are dealing with a specialist retailer, or a top quality sommelier, he or she will know. It’s part of parcel of doing a good job. However you will need to go to a specialist because you won’t get that level of expertise at your local supermarket – mind you, you probably won’t find a good range of champagnes there either.
It would be nice to think that the champagne makers put this information on the back label and there are a few of the more enlightened ones that are doing just that. Take champagne Tarlant for example. They have some of the most informative back labels in the business
The bottle you see in the picture is a blend of wines taken mainly from the 2005 harvest therefore bottled in 2006. So when I was drinking this champagne in 2011 I knew that the youngest wine in the blend was at least 5 years old. That’s an impressive age and far longer than any of the major branded champagnes will ever offer you for a non-vintage champagne.
In the next article I’ll explain about bottle ageing and how you can avoid having to throw your precious champagne down the drain.