We’re starting to see more and more champagnes with disgorgement dates printed on the back labels, and as far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing. Egly-Ouriet has done it for a very long time, and wines like Bollinger’s R.D. or Jacquesson’s D.T. have as well (since in those cases it’s obviously the whole point of the cuvée). But today, it’s becoming a much more standard practice among forward-thinking champagne producers. It’s easier to do it when you’re small, and all of the hipster growers do it. American importer Terry Theise requests it of all the growers that he imports, which is an extremely laudable practice. It’s not only growers, though: a few of the most progressive houses do it as well, such as Philipponnat and Jacquesson.
Why is the disgorgement date important? The simplest reason is that bottles disgorged at different times are, in effect, different wines. A particular cuvée of either non-vintage or vintage champagne will see several different disgorgements over the time that it’s sold. This is done for practical, physical reasons in the cellars, and also because leaving a champagne on its lees keeps it fresher while waiting for the next outgoing shipment. But since they spend different amounts of time on the lees the wines will necessarily be different, even if these differences are subtle. The amount of post-disgorgement aging will obviously be different as well, which has perhaps an even bigger impact on the wine. Furthermore, it’s a relatively common practice to adjust the dosage for different disgorgements of the same wine: earlier disgorgements usually take a higher dosage, because the acidity is more pronounced. In contrast, the dosage is often reduced for later disgorgements, as the wine mellows out and the acidity becomes rounder and less aggressive.
Of course, this can also lead to a lot of bickering, especially amongst those who are constantly demanding the “best” wine. (“My February disgorgement is better than your December one, so there.”) I don’t get too hung up on this. It’s true that there can sometimes be pronounced differences, but this is rare — more often the differences are due to the combination of slightly more lees aging and slightly less post-disgorgement aging. The main reason I like knowing the disgorgement date is not to find the “best” version of a cuvée, but to know what to expect when I open the bottle. A bottle disgorged six months ago is going to be different in character than the same wine disgorged two years ago. Since I prefer wines with more post-disgorgement age, I’ll usually pick the older one if there's a choice. In truth, I actually enjoy tasting different disgorgements of the same wine, and find it to be a very instructive activity. I do think that there is an optimum time to disgorge a champagne, and that some wines have too little lees aging and others too much. But that's a story for another day....
One problem with disgorgement dates is that many consumers mistake it as a sort of “born on” warning, and assume that the more recent it is, the better. Honestly, finding an older disgorgement of a wine can be a great thing, if it’s been well-stored. There’s nothing in the world like the biscuity, complex character of properly matured champagne, and this can be fully achieved only with aging after disgorgement, not before.