Sunday, March 27, 2011

Debate a Bubble - How Old Is My Champagne?

Debate a Bubble - How Old Is My Champagne?

Link to Debate a Bubble - Champagne News and Reviews

How Old Is My Champagne?

Posted: 27 Mar 2011 01:34 AM PDT

De Sousa Réserve Here's a picture of the label from a bottle of Champagne De Sousa Réserve - a great champagne from a superb maker. Don't worry if you don't know this brand; you can find out in a later post, but today I wanted to use this example to talk about how long champagne is aged and how you can tell.

Ask most people about wine and they probably say that the older it is, the better it is. That's not necessarily true, but before you can begin to make any judgement the first thing you have to know is how old is the wine in the first place.

It sounds obvious and if there's a particular vintage year indicated on the label  - which is the case for most still wines - that's a big help, but when it comes to champagne things are a bit more tricky because most champagne has no date on the label. That's because it's 'non-vintage' i.e. it's a blend of wines from several years. So what are the other pointers to look for?

Things can get even more unclear with champagne because there are two distinct ageing periods that you need to take into consideration: the time spent ageing in the bottle before it leaves the cellars in France and also the time from then on until  you actually drink it. This post is mainly about the second of these periods.

Before getting on to that let's just mention the first bit: the time the champagne spends ageing in the bottle before it leaves the cellars. During this time the 'lees' (the yeast sediment) are still inside the bottle and they play a important role in how the champagne matures.25 Nabuchadnezzars in cellars at Palmer

The minimum time a champagne must spend ageing in the bottle 'on the lees'  is 15 months, but this is hardly time enough to allow the champagne to acquire any real quality so most reputable champagne brands, the Moëts and the Veuves of this world, will tell you that they age their champagnes for  2 -3 years.

The trouble is they don't indicate on the label exactly how long and since there's quite a difference between 24 and 36 months, you're none the wiser from just looking at the bottle.

Since that bit is outside your control anyway, let's turn our attention to the other ageing period which is something you can influence and that's the time from when it's taken out of the cellar until you buy the bottle and then drink it.

Dégorgement à la volée Just before a bottle of champagne leaves the cellars to be sold, the yeast sediment is removed in a process called disgorging ( dégorgement in French). This is a crucial step in the champagne making process because, once that yeast sediment has gone, the champagne enters a different phase of maturing, so knowing the date of disgorging is pretty important.

The general rule of thumb that I have been always given by people here in Champagne is that you can keep champagne, after disgorging, for about the same length of time as it spent ageing before disgorging.  So let's say between 2 and 3 years. After that the champagne will deteriorate and will eventually not be worth drinking.

Yes of course this is a generalisation, but unless you have a really good cellar and really know what you are doing then it's not a bad rule to go by.

Sounds simple enough then. Find the date of disgorging, count forward a couple of years and that's all you need to know. But where do you find that disgorging date?

De Sousa Disgorgement date Unfortunately this is another piece of information that very few brands actually share with you.

Quite why they don't is another long discussion but fortunately there are a growing number of champagne producers, mainly amongst the smaller ones like De Sousa, who have the good sense to put the disgorgement date on the bottle, as in this picture.

This bottle was disgorged on 22nd March 2010, so when I drank it on 21st March 2011 I knew  it was one year since the disgorging and the champagne should be just right to drink - it was by the way.

On the other hand if I was in a shop on 21st March 2014 and was thinking about buying this bottle, I'd know that it had been hanging around quite a long while since disgorging and would probably have lost some of its freshness. I'd think twice before buying it unless I knew for sure that it had been kept in perfect storage conditions. Then, but only then, I might give it a try.

So look out for the disgorgement date somewhere on the label. You may not always find it, in fact it's still only a minority of makers who do put this date on their bottles, but it is becoming more common and one day it might even become the norm.

Champagne - The bits you don't get to see

Posted: 26 Mar 2011 12:41 PM PDT

It's been a glorious week here in Champagne with the sun shining all day and the promise of Spring just around the corner. 

As you can imagine, there's been lots of activity in the vineyards and I love seeing what's going on at first hand as I take my dog for a walk in the vineyards at the end of the afternoon.

Today I spotted something I had never seen before and it got me thinking about all the things that go into the making of champagne that, as a consumer, you never get to see, or even think about.

There's a huge amount of work that's needed in the vineyards. It takes around 200 hours per hectare  (just over 2 acres) just to do the pruning and that's just one of the many tasks that have to be carried out.

Spreading engrais Anyway, back to today. I came across one solitary figure walking back and forth along the rows of his vines. "What is he doing?", I wondered and my curiosity was all the more piqued by the sound that came drifting across the vines  from his direction - a bit like the rythmic sound of maraccas being shaken to a very distinct beat. "Surely he's not practising his Latin American dancing?"

Sure enough he wasn't 'salsa-ing' his way along the vines. In fact he was spreading fertiliser. I've only ever seen this done by tractor, but here was a guy doing it all by hand in the same way that his father and even grandfather must have done it years ago.

The maracca-like sound was him taking a handful of fertiliser pellets with every step he took and scattering it, first to the left, then to the right,  with each step he took.

He was a really chatty chap as well and was only too happy to stop and have his picture taken. "The fertiliser is all natural", he explained although he was insistent that my dog, Pepper shouldn't try eating it.

Engrais He was using equipment that looked as if it hadn't changed in years. A curved sort of bucket that attached to a harness strapped round his chest. Then it was just a question of dipping into the bucket as he walked along the rows of vines. Left hand, scatter. Right hand, scatter. Simple, but effective.

"I've got all this to spread" he said gesturing to the back of his van where there were several bags waiting to be opened, "so I'll keep going till it gets dark."

I left him to it after a few minutes, but it struck me that how much work is needed to make champagne, that most of us never realise. No wonder it's not cheap.

More news soon from here in the Champagne vineyards and if you have any questions, then do leave a comment and I'll get back to you


Spreading fertilizer by hand 

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