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Champagne Worth Cellaring

Forget what you’ve been taught about older Champagne losing its fizz; in reality, aged Champagne is often exquisite.

Many myths have evolved throughout the years regarding that wonderful elixir, Champagne (the real stuff, that is, from the Champagne region of France). One common and longstanding myth is that Champagne is best when it’s consumed shortly after you buy it, because “it doesn’t age well.”

This is pure poppycock—a myth perpetrated by the marketing people of the Champagne houses themselves, who assure you that their Champagne “is ready to drink when you buy it.” In fact, the assertion is better rewritten as “Champagne is seldom ready to drink when you buy it.” Oh, yes, you can drink it right away, but it will be considerably better with some aging. Champagne gains wonderful secondary aromas and flavors with age, including those of honey, hazelnut and biscuit, and also acquires a toastiness and creaminess with maturity. True, Champagnes do lose some effervescence with age, but this is a small price to pay, considering what they gain.

The marketing people know that Champagne, unlike Bordeaux or Barolo, is usually an occasion-driven purchase. At least in the United States, someone’s buying it to celebrate something. Of course the marketers are going to tell us that it’s ready to drink. When wine drinkers discover that Champagne is not just the celebration drink, but also a great wine for food, they’ll have a reason to buy Champagne and hold onto it.

The challenge in drinking aged Champagne is that you must have access to proper wine-storage facilities. Almost all Champagne is sold when it’s young—with the possible exception of the small amount sold at wine auctions. So you very likely have to do the aging yourself. For those of us who have the facilities to store Champagne and other wines in a cool (53-59°F), dark, vibration-free and preferably humid place, I can assure you that Champagne not only can age well, but will improve with age—just like any other fine wine.

Nonvintage Champagnes
Most Champagnes are nonvintage and are the standard blend of three permitted grape varieties—Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Nonvintage Champagnes are also a blend of several vintages and several wines, often from diverse villages throughout the region. These are the least expensive Champagnes; typically they retail in the $20 to $45 price range.

Even nonvintage Champagnes improve with two or three years of aging—especially those from certain producers. You can compare nonvintage Champagnes to good, homemade soups and stews—they invariably improve after all the ingredients in the blend marry.

Blanc de Blancs Champagnes
Chardonnay is often maligned today because of the boring wines made from this variety. But when the Chardonnay grape is grown in the right places, such as Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, Chablis or Champagne, it is arguably the world’s greatest white variety. A great majority of the very best Champagnes are either at least 50 percent Chardonnay or 100 percent (labeled blanc de blancs).

A Champagne Primer
Some types of Champagne age better than others, and some brands have established a track record for aging, especially with their vintage Champagnes. But not every Champagne is a vintage Champagne. Champagne is classified in the following ways:

Nonvintage Champagnes are made from a blend of wines from three or more years. Close to 90 percent of all Champagne produced is nonvintage, because the marginal climate of the Champagne region doesn’t permit quality vintage Champagne every year.

Vintage Champagnes generally age better than nonvintage, because all of the grapes come from one good vintage year, and usually from superior vineyards.

Most Prestige Cuvées are also vintage Champagnes whose grapes come from the very best vineyards. Prestige cuvées usually need at least 15 years of aging to be at their best.

Champagnes are usually made from a blend of three permitted grape varieties: Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (black-skinned varieties) and Chardonnay. Vintage Champagnes—and especially prestige cuvées—are often made from only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

A few other types of Champagne also exist. Many, but not all, Champagne producers also have a blanc de blancs Champagne, made entirely from Chardonnay. Then there is the rarer, golden-colored blanc de noirs Champagne, made from the one or two permitted black grapes, but usually only Pinot Noir. Finally, there is the pink-colored rosé Champagne, usually made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Neither rosés nor blanc de noirs age nearly as well as blanc de blancs. These three types of Champagne come both in vintage and nonvintage forms.

Many people are surprised to learn that blanc de blancs Champagnes are especially long-lived. After all, blanc de blancs Champagnes, like white wines, are often used as apéritifs because, theoretically, they are lighter-bodied than other Champagnes. In truth, many of the best blanc de blancs Champagnes—such as Krug Clos du Mesnil, Salon and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, to name a few—are far from light-bodied; in fact, these three are quite full-bodied and among the most long-lived of all Champagnes. It is almost criminal to drink any of these Champagnes when they are young (less than 10 years old); they’re tight and unevolved. The better blanc de blancs Champagnes need at least 10 years to begin evolving (in the case of Krug Clos du Mesnil and Salon, at least 15) and can live for up to 20 or 25 years easily. In a way, the great Champagnes are just like people. Who do you know who isn’t a more interesting person to know at 35 or 40 than he was at 14?

Vintage Champagnes
The Champagnes that are best known for aging are vintage Champagnes and premium Champagnes—usually known as prestige cuvées. Theoretically, vintage Champagnes are made only in particularly good years, but Champagne houses, especially the larger ones, often make vintage Champagnes in average or even less-than-average years for marketing purposes. (See “Age-worthy Vintages,” page 56, for the scoop on the good Champagne vintages.) Standard vintage Champagnes (not including prestige cuvées) usually retail for $40 to $60, and make up only about 10 percent of Champagne production.

Vintage Champagnes are often the best buys in Champagne, because (in a good vintage) they’re invariably superior to nonvintage Champagnes and are just a bit higher in price, yet they typically cost only half the price of prestige cuvées. My personal rule is to not touch vintage Champagnes from a decent vintage for at least 10 years. It is only then that vintage Champagnes develop the complex aromas and flavors that come with slow aging. Most vintage Champagnes, when stored in a cool place, can age and improve for up to 20 years or more.

Three houses that truly have marvelous records with their ageworthy vintage Champagnes are Krug, Pol Roger and Veuve Clicquot. One of the most memorable Champagnes I ever tasted was the 1928 Krug. Both the 1914 and the 1900 Pol Roger that I tasted recently were superb, as was a collection of vintage Veuve Clicquots dating back to 1928 (needless to say, all of these Champagnes had been stored under ideal conditions).

Prestige Cuvées
When you pay $80 or more for a bottle of Champagne, you expect it to be special. But if you drink it in its youth—say, when it’s six to eight years old—it will not be an exceptional gustatory experience. One of the questions I hear all the time is, “Don’t you think that Dom Pérignon (or Cristal, or some other prestige cuvée) is overrated? I just had a bottle, and it wasn’t so great.” Then I ask them what vintage they drank, and it’s invariably the most recent vintage available—that’s the reason it wasn’t great. Don’t drink that 1993 or 1992—or even 1990 or 1988—Dom Pérignon now. Save it. If you want to drink a great Dom Pérignon now, try the 1982. Then you’ll know what prestige cuvées are all about.

A prestige cuvée is the best Champagne that a house or grower makes. It is usually a vintage Champagne, but a few houses—such as Krug with its Grande Cuvée and Laurent-Perrier with its Grand Siècle—make their prestige cuvées as nonvintage (they prefer the term “multivintage”).

Prestige cuvées are made from the finest and costliest grapes from the best vineyards—usually vineyards that have been rated grand cru or premier cru by the CIVC, Champagne’s regulatory board. Prestige cuvées are also aged longer in producers’ cellars before they’re released (from five to eight years) than other Champagnes (nonvintage Champagnes are aged about three years and standard vintage Champagnes are aged four to five years).

This extended aging even before they are released endows the prestige cuvées with several advantages:

· Their bubbles are finer—very tiny and delicate.
· When they are mature, their aromas and flavors are more intense, more complex and more elegant.
· Their finishes (the length that flavors linger on the palate) are longer.

Try to hold on to any prestige cuvées for about 15 years from the vintage date before popping the cork. They should age for up to 25 years or more in good vintages. Once you try one you’ll understand that some Champagnes are indeed worth cellaring.

Age-worthy Vintages
1996: Excellent year; needs another 7-10 years.
1995: Good year; give it 5 years,
1990: Very good year; ready now, but can age for 5 more years.
1988: Good year; still needs another 2 or 3 years; will last for another 7 years.
1985: Great year; just about ready; will last for 5 to 7 more years.
1982: Great year; ready now; will hold for 2 or 3 more years.
1979: Very good year; ready now; has lasted a surprisingly long time.

Ed McCarthy is the author of Champagne for Dummies and co-author, with Mary Ewing-Mulligan, MW, of the recently published French Wine for Dummies and Italian Wine for Dummies.