What is the true ageing potential of Champagne? Always a popular choice with lovers of fine wine, Champagne’s ability to improve with long-term ageing is a regular topic of hot debate amongst drinkers and professionals alike. Winston Churchill was famously proud of his collection of 1911 Champagnes, and the iconic caves below the streets of Reims are home to an incredible vinous archive of Champagnes of all ages.
This endlessly fascinating question has long kept the Chelsea Vintners team and our Champagne-loving clients occupied. As a team we are split, with some of us preferring the bright, fruit-forward freshness that young Champagne is best known for, and others seduced by the more complex, intense flavours that develop with long-term cellaring.
Attitudes to ageing Champagne also vary dramatically amongst producers themselves. Many leading houses release their Champagnes to market as soon as they believe they’re ready to drink, whilst others craft their wines specifically with long-term ageing in mind. Champagne designed to age will usually spend a significant period of time on the lees before it is disgorged and corked, and many more continuing to mature in the bottle.
There is even a style of Champagne known as ‘late release’ which spends an extended time ageing on lees – a decade or more – and is disgorged just before release. Consequently, these wines age differently to their younger contemporaries and tend to evolve more rapidly, designed to be at their best on release with no need for further ageing (sounds good to us!). Some fabulous example of late release Champagnes include Bollinger R.D. and Dom Pérignon P2.
The question of age-worthiness arose once more recently when Chelsea Vintners attended a particularly memorable vintage Champagne tasting. On offer were some incredibly rare vintages ranging from Dom Pérignon 1959 to Krug 1990 (a legendary vintage year) and a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2002. Almost without exception, the Chelsea Vintners delegates and the other lucky attendees felt that both the 1959 and 1990 were incredible wines. Each showed a gorgeously well-developed profile with sumptuous depth and complexity, but still an extraordinary amount of life and energy remaining.
The reality is, like any other wine, ageing Champagne is ultimately a matter of taste and circumstance. It all comes down to the palate of the drinker and whether the occasion itself calls for cork-popping freshness or something weightier and more mature. However, there’s no doubt that aged Champagne is one of the most sought-after fine wines in the world and a truly spectacular way to celebrate a special occasion.
Whether you prefer an unctuous, aromatic 1959 Dom Perignon or a bright, bubbly Cristal 2002, one thing is for sure …. there is no right or wrong way to enjoy Champagne! We think that the immortal and much-quoted words of Champagne legend Mme Lily Bollinger sum things up perfectly; “I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”
The debate around our favourite Champagne, aged or otherwise, continues in the Chelsea Vintners office … what better reason to carry on tasting?
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