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.