Champagne: Disgorgement dates and dosages

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A tasting of Champagnes with different disgorgement dates
Conclusions
The wines
Champagne Tarlant. Cuvee Zero Brut Nature
Dom Perigon 1996
Oenothèque 1996
Louis Roederer '96
Roederer brut Premier
Champagne houses which put disgorgement dates on their wines

Despite its importance, disgorgement dates (when the lees are removed) don’t play much of a role at auction or otherwise. Most Champagne houses do not put disgorgement dates on their bottles although some enlightened producers are starting to do so. All non-vintage and vintage Champagnes undergo several disgorgements during their life-cycle, in the case of a Bollinger Grande Année this could be as many as five to six different disgorgements during the 2-2.5-year period of its commercialisation – somewhat confusing but, fortunately, since 2004 disgorgement dates are now also noted on the label of all Bollinger GA Note 1with the 1997 vintage.

Late disgorgement is a concept invented by Mme Bollinger when the company launched its iconic RD extra brut in 1961 (1952 vintage). RD is a reissue of the Grande Année, although not every year (for example 1989 and 1992 excepted). RD is characterised by the longer period on lees and the lower dosage, 3-5g/litre – "extra brut". Dom Pérignon has its own version – Oenothèque. According to Richard Geoffroy (the celebrated cellar master at Dom Pérignon): "one can’t really understand Champagne without knowing the post-disgorgement period", as once freed from its contact with the lees the wine is in a relatively less reductive state.

Disgorgement "has such an overall impact on the final expression... one has to know... " Speaking of Dom Pérignon/Oenothèque from the 1996 vintage, Geoffroy said that the salient characteristic of the 1996 vintage is “concentration”, highlighting the dehydration of the berries leading up to the harvest with higher levels of sugars, acidity, and fruit. “This was Dom Pérignon in a major mode. Gutsier than a normal Dom Pérignon. One might compare '96 to an '85 or '76. It is bold... provocative even... More structured but also with a particular sharpness.” 1996 was also the most challenging year he can remember in the 20 years he has overseen the production of Dom Pérignon. The two wines are from the same blend, only the dosage is different and, of course, the period on the lees (greater lees contact also brings more viscosity to the wine – "glide", as Geoffroy likes to term it). Dom Pérignon is also a testament to the whole thesis that great Champagne comes from an assemblage. The exact quantity – no one is even close to estimating it – seems relatively unimportant. Geoffroy tends to favour the Oenothèque '96 as the wine "which is truer to the spirit of Dom Pérignon", continuing, "the finish is the absolute truth of a wine". The lower dosage “is closer to the contour of the wine” (5-6g/litre in the case of Oenothèque, 9g/litre in the original release). He has also used a different liqueur, "which reinforces its drive and purity".

Echoing Geoffroy’s sentiments on the importance of disgorgement there is no doubt that different wines, different vintages and even different dosages play their role in determining which might be the most successful outcome. One thing is certain: non-vintage Champagne may be considerably improved with ageing. A highly reputed NV would not be disadvantaged by cellaring for even up to four years or more and one must conclude that most NV is drunk far too young.

A tasting of Champagnes with different disgorgement dates

This tasting (winter 2010/11) was conducted in order to try and establish distinctions and the evolution of different wines according to differences in their disgorgement dates which would confirm the importance of knowing, or at least understanding, the impact of this process. Currently, there are still very few Champagne houses which write their disgorgement dates on the bottles (see a list at the end of this article). Ironically, two of the wines below didn't have disgorgement dates but were nonetheless available from their producer so clearly this is something of interest to them even if the general public aren't invited to participate in the experiment. The sample of wines we tried was interesting. One, Tarlant, was provided because as it was 'zero dosage' so one might eliminate the impact of the dosage. Dom Perignon make a feature out of the disgorgement dates by renaming the wine as 'Oenotheque'. Louis Roederer provided a non vintage wine in addition to their vintage.

Conclusions

On reviewing all the notes, one was struck by one clear thought. Yes, the date of the disgorgement plays a significant role and it is vitally important to know what that date is. A clear example: Dom Perignon. They even rename their wine to make the distinction. However, the lesson, which was less clear when one started with the exercise, is not just the importance of the date of disgorgement but also the dosage. The type, sweetness, concentration, are vital in providing the right kind of balance to the wine and any cellarmaster would adapt this according to the evolution - it wouldn't make sense to ignore the direction a wine is taking given that one has opened the bottle to discover this path. Just how much this may be adapted by producers is unclear. Given that any vintage release will be commercialised over a number of years and that several disgorgements will take place this is an important factor.

The dosage therefore helps to provide a more reductive environment for the wine and this was very clear in the samples from Tarlant. Even in a relatively short time the 'Zero dosage' had begun to evolve whereas this was much less the case in the vintage wines. It was quite striking how fresh and crisp the later disgorged wines appeared compared to a wine which, afterall, only had a year of bottle age. Even the mid-point provided a waymark which would probably have been missed with a vintage wine carrying a hallmark dosage.

The DP '96 and Oenothèque were more about the interpretation of the path the wine was taking. Both bore the salient characteristics of the vintage but as Geoffroy says, the character of the Oenotheque was, he felt, truer to the true spirit of DP. One can't help feeling this is more to do with the dosage than the evolution of the wine. Certainly distinctions in the two wines exist, there are elements of freshness which doubtless come from the late disgorgement but these are complimented by the dosage.

The wines from Louis Roederer served to highlight the impact of dosage even more. Roederer is rightly famous for its excellent Champagnes. They have a currency even when mature and for the true Champagne lover there can be no finer moment than uncorking a wine which has some considerable age to its name. It is undoubtedly a motivating factor in their method of production. This contradicts the general status where most wine, especially Champagne, is consumed within hours of its purchase. Of course, depending on the type of wine one may wish to drink (fresher or with more evolved flavours) knowing disgorgement dates permits one to play the game. However, one needs to know the rules. If a fresh, crisp Champagne is demanded there are plenty out there which will do the trick. It seems a shame, therefore, to open up a bottle which is really just beginning to get into its stride. The LR '96 is a wine for the long haul.

One of the most interesting outcomes of this tasting was to observe the ageing of a non-vintage Champagne. One would have liked to have tried an older NV because the trajectory of the Roederer Brut Premier was one one would like to have followed in more depth. Its evolution was confirmation that one should always keep one's Champagne for at least 6 months before consuming it.

There is no doubt that the dosage needs time to be integrated into the story of a wine and an interesting question might be to ask whether the judgement made at the time of initial disgorgement regarding the level of dosage is better then or with the benefit of hindsight.

The wines

Champagne Tarlant
Cuvee Zero Brut Nature (from the 2007 bottling)
We tasted wines which had been disgorged on three different dates: October 2009, March 2010 and August 2010. This was interesting because the wines showed a clear evolution according to the dates. The earlier disgorged bottle had a distinctly darker colour and the tastes were much more of a older wine - warmer honey notes on the nose and palate. It was more mellow and without quite the sharpness of the later wines. The wine disgorged 6 months later was paler (10ct rather than 14ct gold). This had a rather more toasty bouquet with a creamy texture. Distinctly 'dry'. The later disgorged wine was altogether different with a much lighter, fresher taste. It was much more citrussy on the palate and provided a more elegant wine with a greater floral sense, acacia too. It was rather 'feminine'.

Dom Perignon
Dom Perigon 1996 (disgorged 2003)
The wine didn't show its age, with hardly any evolved flavours. It was lovely and yeasty and showed good balance. It was also quite sharp and refreshing with some real citrus flavours on the palate. Considering this was a wine already 14 years, disgorged some 7 years previously it appeared noticeably youthful.

Oenothèque 1996 (disgorged 2008)
The bright light straw colour, smooth attack and lots of depth with floral fruit flavours certainly marked this down as a younger wine than the DP '96. It was very elegant and rather moreish. Very smooth and buttery. What is interesting is the contrast of the fresh taste with the vintage qualities of the wine. The preferred wine by its cellarmaster over the DP '96.

Louis Roederer
Louis Roederer '96
Three disgorgements here - May 2010, December 2007 and August, 2003.
The earliest disgorgement was a wine in every sense a beautiful vintage Champagne. 14ct gold colour, very bready tones, full-bodied and succulent. Tons of depth in the flavours which include burnt, toasty bits, honey, kiwi, lichee and nuts even. It has a noticeable acidity. The Dec '07 disgorgement was a very smooth wine but it hadn't evolved into the structure of the earliest disgorgement. It was fresher without any evolved flavours, lacking the persistence and body but we're comparing wines alongside and there was no doubt that the wine had high aspirations. The wine from the 2010 disgorgement was an altogether 'different ketttle of fish'. A lighter wet straw look with lighter bready aromas. It was round but fresh. However, there was a distinct sense that the dosage hadn't been entirely integrated into the wine with some separation of the flavours. Comparing the '03 to the '10: the colour was similar but not quite matching. The '03 had a yeastier more bready aroma with some exotic fruit (very subtle) on the nose - this is less present in May 2010. The May '10 is at first quite fresh but has a denser dosage. The '03 is smoother with deeper flavours on the palate, whilst the presence of the acidity is still noticeable the acidity in the May '10 is more apparent.

Roederer brut Premier - two disgorgements (November 2009 and June 2010)
The older disgorged wine is by now over a year old - probably a little older than many people consumer their Champagne (6 months is the norm.) The wine has good depth but still quite a fresh taste. Lovely balance with perfect acidity. The second disgorgement, however, immediately shows its youth and provides a much crisper, fresher taste. Here the citrus notes still jostle with its yeasty nose. Very fine and light. It has a lighter colour too.

Champagne houses which put disgorgement dates on their wines: Note 2Correct at time of going to press

Dom Perignon
Tarlant
Krug (begrudgingly since 2011)
Bollinger (since 2004)
Jacquesson & Fils (2002)
Marguet Pere et fils
Moutard Diligent
Jacques Selosse
Bruno Paillard
Philipponnat
Launois Père et Fils (2010)
Agrapart et Fils

This is not intended as an exhaustive list. Note 3Correct at time of going to press

References   [ + ]

1. with the 1997 vintage
2, 3. Correct at time of going to press

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