Monday, June 23, 2008

Disgorgement Dates

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.

5 comments:

Steve L. said...

Anything that helps me to discern exactly what is in a bottle is, in my view, worthwhile information. I am happy to hear of Theise's request (although I know not everyone he represents is complying). If I am waffling between two bottles and one has more information on the label, I am apt to select it on principle.

Brooklynguy said...

fully agree with you regarding the inclusion of this info (and more too - dosage, for example?) on the label. very instructive bit about why disgorgement dates are important. i had a few misconceptions that i believe are now cleared up.

Peter Liem said...

I agree with you guys — the more information on the label the better. Unfortunately, champagne tends to be much less transparent than other wines about that sort of thing, for marketing reasons. But I do like it when someone puts things like disgorgement, dosage, base year, grape varieties, etc. on the label, and it gives me a good vibe about them as well — honesty and straightforwardness and all that. Hmm... I think I have the seeds for today’s post.

Anonymous said...

Peter, great blog about my favorite wines. As you say, having more information about the wines is better than not having enough.

I just went to a M&C Dom Perignon tasting and they really don't give out much specific information. At those price points I'm interested. But then I'm really into Champagne. The average person is probably not that interested even if they are purchasing the champagnes. The smart houses could use the info for marketing but that is another issue.

Peter Liem said...

Things like Dom Pérignon are going to be the least transparent when it comes to information about what's in the bottle. As a gross generalization, the smaller the champagne producer, the more willing they are to share specific information.