Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cellar Issues

I’ve been miserably ill with the flu, and haven’t had a drop of champagne since Friday, which has only served to compound my misery. As I lay dying in bed over the weekend (on a completely different continent from the one where I originally got sick), I thought about a couple of things that Tom Stevenson said last week at his Christie’s Masterclass champagne tasting, both relating to the cellaring of champagne.

The first concerned temperature. Tom states that the ideal temperature of a wine cellar is a constant 12.5°C (54.5°F), and that with a cellar such as this, one should be able to store a good champagne for ten or twenty years without a problem. At higher temperatures, the potential longevity decreases dramatically. The major issue, however, is to keep the temperature constant, with as little fluctuation as possible. But Steven Spurrier, who was also at the tasting, offered an alternate viewpoint. He said that his cellar, which is underground and passively cooled, can drop as low as 5°C (41°F) in the winter, and can climb as high as 16 or 17°C (61-63°F) in the summer. This doesn’t disturb him in the least, as the changes in temperature occur extremely gradually over the course of the year, and he views this as part of a natural cycle—as wine is itself a living organism, it’s only fitting that it should exist in an organic environment. He even went so far as to say that he can’t stand the American penchant for artificially controlling their cellars at a rigidly constant temperature, as this imprisons the wine, holding it in this unnatural stasis where it can’t behave normally. I found this contrast of viewpoints very interesting. I’m not inclined to disagree with either of them—both of them are renowned experts in the field of wine, and I find merit in both of their arguments. Tom’s is certainly the conventional viewpoint, or at least the one that seems to currently be in the hegemony, and it describes the cellar that I would love to have. If only I could have my own crayère, like at Champagne Ruinart in the above photo. But I don’t. My modest cellar functions much more like Steven’s—it gets very cold in the wintertime (no need at all to chill champagne bottles before drinking) and a little warm in the summer, since it’s not all that deep underground. (A cynic might remark that a Champenois summer is hardly cause for concern, especially those of the last couple of years.) But as my bottles are largely for drinking, not for long-term aging, I don’t get all that bent out of shape about it. And anyway, I’m betting that they’ll age perfectly fine, for my purposes.

The second thing was even more curious to me, as I had never heard it before. Tom said, “It’s been shown that a champagne bottle stored at room temperature for one year develops 70 times the level of mercaptans as the same wine stored in a proper cellar.” Seventy times. That sounds alarming. Alarming enough to make you paranoid. Mercaptans, by the way, are volatile sulfur compounds that can smell like strong flint stone or burnt rubber (or, some people say, cabbage). Once these mercaptans develop in a bottle, they can’t be eradicated. Now, just so we’re clear on this, I really know nothing about this subject. I studied intaglio printmaking, comparative literature and the I-Ching, not chemistry. I’m just telling you what I heard Tom say, because I thought it was interesting. Perhaps someone like SFJoe or the Chief Executive Researcher can comment further. But it made me think of experiences I had as the tasting director of Wine & Spirits, where the incidence of faulty bottles of champagne is generally much higher than any other wine, and more often than not, these faults are related to volatile sulfur compounds. That makes me curious.


werner.j said...

very very interesting topic. I prefer 9-10°, because I hope my wines will age as slow as possible. But I have had old bottles, aged at room t° in my cellar (17-19°)
of which i thought they would be exhausted, and they where still very likable. I have read that Roederer is doing some testing with bottles in the sea to compare it with regular cellaring.

Joe said...


I fear that this is a situation where a little empiricism trumps a world of theory. I could make up stories for you about the chemistry, but they would just be predictions that should be tested and verified.

The arguments about cycles and living creatures and etc. are gibberish, of course. Which doesn't mean that variation in temperature can't be good in principle, or indifferent, for wine storage.

I would say that I find Champagne fragile and frequently badly treated. I would also say that most of the really great, really old wines I've had have come from pretty deep cellars with very constant temperatures.

Sorry not to be more helpful.


David McDuff said...

Fascinating stuff, Peter. Even though I'm inclined to agree with Joe regarding Spurrier's theories on temperature fluctuation, I'm still intrigued by the concept, mainly from the perspective of natural life and biodynamic energy.

It's Stevenson's comments on temperature's effect on mercaptans, though, that really caught my attention. Did he feel that this phenomenon is somehow unique to Champagne? If so, why/how?

Most importantly, I wish you a speedy recovery.

Thomas said...

Hi Peter,

Interesting post – I read it with great interest.

First – it’s good to have you back. I have been caught with a likewise flu, which has prevented me from drinking wine for almost two weeks now. Tonight I will make a come-back with 2003 David Leclapart “Apotre”. Speaking this wine (sorry a bit off topic) – I have been thinking about decanting this baby, but I am not a decanting man (or should I say – I have very little experience with it) and fear that the mousse will vanish. Any advice would be appreciated??

Back to the subject:

To me, the whole temperature debate is a bit hysterical. When people start discussing the difference between 12-14° I am simply lost. However, when it comes to Champagne I tend to be more aware of proper storage conditions and always try to buy immediately after release or the latest disgorgement date. I buy into the concept of Champagne being a more fragile substance as it has low alcohol and very little tannin structure to prevent not welcome enzymes to enter this blessed drink.
For many years I stored my Champagne in a cellar which had the same seasonal swings as you describe. I have had absolutely no problem with these bottles, such as 1985 Salon, 1990 La Grande Dame and 1990 Bollinger GA. Today I live in a modern house, which has no cellar facilities (damn it) and therefore I have an external cellar with some friends and a Eurocave Wine Cabinett at home. My external cellar holds a constant 11° - which is on paper; perfect. I am especially aware of storing some of the new biodynamic producers, such as Leclapart at mint conditions as these bottles holds very little sulfur. The Danish importer of these wines told me, that 4 weeks at room temperature for these wines is enough to loose some overall finesse.

I wish all the Champagne lovers out there a nice weekend.

Best from,


Peter Liem said...

The mercaptan thing got me intrigued too. This is the issue that makes me wonder about the chemistry involved. The constant temperature thing is just that, temperature. The mercaptan thing is much more sinister.

2003 Apôtre—you're coming back with a bang! That is a great wine. I would not be afraid to decant it, and anyway, David's wines have plenty of mousse to spare, but if you want to be cautious, just open it several hours ahead of time and keep it stoppered in the fridge. As far as temperature is concerned, I have no problem believing that four weeks at room temperature would not be to the benefit of a wine such as the Apôtre.

TomFizz said...

Sorry not to have chipped in earlier, but I have only just seen this Peter.

On the topic of empiricism trumping theory, I might add that most people would agree that the very worst place to store any wine would be an uninsulated attic (loft), yet on the publication of Champagne in 1986, my great aunt gave me a bottle of Moet & Chandon NV that had been in her attic for at least 13 years, since her husband died. I told her that I doubted it would be fit to drink, yet it turned out to be one of the most miraculously preserved NVs I had tasted. What can you say? Except that there always seem to be exceptions to everything and if we are going to base any strategy on empirical evidence, we should follow the norm, not the exception.

The reference that you correctly quoted me on can be found on page 246 of Handbook of Enology, Volume 2, by Ribereau-Gayon, Glories, Maujean and Dubourdieu. To quote: "It has been observed that Champagne stored for one year at room temperature in a dark place contained 70 times the quantity of total thiols as the same wine stored in a cellar temperature at 10-12ºC."

As for David McDuff's questions (Did he feel that this phenomenon is somehow unique to Champagne? If so, why/how?
), my feeling is not that it is "unique" to Champagne, but that any sparkling wine is more prone. Why? It probably has something to do with opening up a wine in a highly sensitive reductive state (after second fermentation and autolysis), theb adding sugar and sulphur. The higher level of heat applied to the sulphur derivatives that occur when Champagne undergoes Maillard reactions following disgorgement could well be responsible for the greatly increased mercaptan count.

I must try to surf by your blog more often, Peter, as you have so many astute observations. It's also one of the most elegant, professionally presented blog on any subject I have come across.

Tom Stevenson

Peter Liem said...

Thanks for your kind compliments, Tom, and for taking the time to post your comments here. I continue to be intrigued by that quote, as it makes so much sense to me when I think about tasting experiences in hindsight, knowing (or suspecting) where and how bottles have been stored. I always feel that sparkling wine is more fragile and more susceptible to environmental conditions than still wine is, for whatever reason, and it makes sense to me that this thiol phenomenon would be more noticeable in champagne.

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of which i thought they would be exhausted, and they where still very likable. I have read that Roederer is doing some testing with bottles in the sea to compare it with regular cellaring.
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