Most sparkling wines, like discreet ladies of our mothers’ generation, don’t tell us how old they are. Those are “non-vintage” wines, with no year of harvest listed on the label because they are a blend of wines from several vintages. (Some people prefer to call them “multi-vintage” wines.) In a fickle northern climate such as Champagne, France, where the technique was perfected over centuries, vintners cannot count on producing a high-quality vintage-dated wine every year. Blending different years together helps create a house style that can be consistent despite the vagaries of annual weather patterns.
So when we go into a store to buy our New Year’s bubbly, we usually have no idea how old it is. We don’t know whether it’s a fresh batch from the producer or whether it has languished for years in a warehouse or a storefront window display. If you’ve ever been disappointed by a bottle of your favorite champagne because it didn’t taste as bright and fresh as you remembered, you might have purchased an old bottle.
To give consumers more information about the wine they’re buying, some producers have started listing disgorgement dates on the back label. Disgorgement, or “dégorgement” in French, is the last step in the traditional champagne process of sparkling-wine production. After the secondary fermentation that produces the bubbles and the aging on the lees that gives character, the spent yeast and lees are removed, the wine is topped off to balance its sugar level (“dosage” in French) and the familiar champagne cork is inserted. By knowing when the wine was disgorged, we know how recently it was in the producer’s hands and can gauge — or at least guess — how fresh it is.
Listing disgorgement dates is by no means a widespread practice, and it is controversial. Some champagne houses imprint a code on the bottle or the back label, and the Alan Turings among us might be able to decipher the enigma of the disgorgement date. The Krug champagne house began putting “Krug ID” codes on its back labels a few years ago; you can enter the code on the Krug Web site to learn your champers’ story. Some houses will tell you the disgorgement date if you ask, or it might be disclosed in a QR code or looked up on their Web sites.
Some producers give disgorgement dates for their vintage wines but not their non-vintage cuvées.
“For champagnes that are stored for collectors, it’s relevant,” Frédéric Panaiotis, the chef de cave for Ruinart Champagne, told Decanter.com earlier this year. “But there’s very, very little point in having disgorgement dates on non-vintage. Most people don’t know what disgorgement is.”
He’s probably right. Most people don’t care how their wine is made, as long as it tastes good. So does it matter when it was disgorged?
I conducted an enjoyable experiment recently, tasting two bottles of Pascal Doquet’s Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru Brut champagne. The wine is not vintage-dated but does include the disgorgement date. I had a new bottle (which I recommended two weeks ago in this space) that was disgorged on July 3, 2013; the label explained that it was a blend of 2003, 2002 and 2001 vintages. (Champagne fiends will note that the wine was therefore aged on its lees for about nine years, much longer than the required 15 months for a non-vintage blend.) The older bottle that I plucked from my cellar had no information about the vintages but gave the disgorgement date of 080722, or July 22, 2008.
Both were delicious. The 2013 was fresh and vibrant, while the 2008 was more golden in color, richer in flavor and calmer in its fizz. It had aged nicely in the imperfect storage conditions of my basement.
I would not have rejected the older wine if it had been served to me at a restaurant or if I had bought it in a store. But I appreciated the clear information on the back label of the younger wine. It made the wine more accessible by offering a glimpse of how it was crafted. More producers should do so, rather than keep their wines cloaked in secrecy.