Champagne – better late-disgorged?

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

R.D., L.D. or D.T. – more and more Champagne bottles seem to be bearing these enigmatic acronyms, but what do they mean? We asked Champagne Specialist Edwin Dublin to explain what exactly late disgorgement is and why the trend has seized the industry.

R.D., récemment dégorgé and dégorgement tardif all refer to that niche Champagne category known as late-disgorged (L.D.). These wines, along with vintage and prestige Champagne releases, are hot topics in the world of Champagne. But what do we mean by late disgorgement and what’s so special about it?

To many Champagne drinkers, R.D. equals Bollinger, but late disgorgement actually refers to any Champagne (usually vintage) that has been aged on its lees for longer than is usual for that particular house or cuvée, normally after an initial release several years earlier. And Bollinger is a good example to use as the difference is clear: La Grande Année, its vintage Champagne, is released after seven to eight years’ ageing on lees, while its R.D. expression is the same Champagne kept on lees in its cellars for an additional few years (for the 2002, it was about five), and is released at a later date.

Even though Bollinger trademarked R.D. with its first release more than 50 years ago, there are others. Veuve Clicquot’s Cave Privée and Dom Pérignon’s Oenothèque (now renamed Plénitude) are other high-profile examples. The wines are generally vintage, although a recent release in this category was Jacquesson’s Cuvée 733 D.T. from its non-vintage 700 series.

What is disgorgement? To understand why this category exists, we need to look at how Champagne ages and develops. Champagne’s bubbles come from a second fermentation in a sealed bottle. The yeasts that induce this also produce flavours and aromas that contribute to Champagne’s taste, interacting with the liquid as they die and settle during the ageing process. Disgorgement is the process by which the dead yeast cells are removed and the bottle is topped up with dosage, which may or may not contain sugar to balance the acidity.

Why bother with late disgorgement? Longer ageing on the lees (ie pre-disgorgement) results in more pronounced and complex flavours; the grape varieties used are also developing and maturing, adding a further layer of complexity. This ageing process is different to that undergone post-disgorgement and corking, which is kick-started by the sudden inflow of air at disgorgement and then continues as the wine interacts with the minute amount of air coming through the cork. The combined effects of pre- and post-disgorgement ageing contribute to the final taste.

Photograph: Jason Lowe

Photograph: Jason Lowe

So, when is best to disgorge? The timing of disgorgement helps determine the style of the eventual Champagne. So, when tasting a Champagne disgorged “normally” and stored for say five years alongside the same wine aged on lees and late-disgorged, the L.D. will taste fresher but still have great complexity. Why? The simple reason is that it has been exposed to less oxygen and had extended yeast lees contact. And it is this difference which explains why L.D. as a concept exists. Madame Bollinger, for instance, wished to give discerning customers something special and so decided upon a long-aged example – R.D.

Some producers and winemakers (chefs de cave) talk of different “ages” of a Champagne. The most famous proponent of this idea is Richard Goeffroy, chef de cave at Dom Pérignon. He believes that there are three peaks or plénitudes: the first at seven to eight years (the standard release), the next at 12 to 20 years, and a third at 35-plus years. Following this idea the House releases the same wine at each stage of its life, the latter two forming its revamped Oenothèque series, P2 and P3.

Some Champagnes are by default late disgorged, even though they don’t say so. Charles Heidseick’s Blanc de Millénaires, currently still on the 1995 vintage, has had more than 15 years on its lees, more than when first released nearly 10 years ago, but it is not styled as “L.D.”. The 2006 Chemin de Conges from Janisson-Baradon underwent a subsequent name change, becoming just Conges with the later release, but was not otherwise pitched as an L.D. Champagne. In fact, it was more a reflection of the later release’s lower dosage, a common practice with L.D. Champagnes as the extended ageing and complexity requires less sugar to balance the acidity. Krug Collection is an interesting anomaly: historically, Collection was simply a re-release of the same vintage after impeccable storage in its own cellar, but the current release (1989) and future releases are late disgorged.

How late is late and does it matter? While some houses have yet to release any 2002 wine at all, Bollinger is on its R.D. expression of the vintage. There is no legal definition for the term and with so many Champagne House philosophies around ageing, there is no definitive guide. As to when is the right time to disgorge, there is no definitive right or wrong answer – and of course the vintage in question will also impact on the initial ageing period and whether a late disgorgement is done.

When should you drink L.D. Champagne? Many producers and critics suggest drinking them within a couple of years of disgorgement to retain the fresh component, but I’ve had such Champagnes several years after their late disgorgement and still find freshness alongside more oxidative notes compared to original disgorgement releases.

Are they worth the money? With a price premium on these late releases (as much as two or three times dearer), you might be tempted to cellar the original wine yourself and drink it later. But, as I said, the ageing would be different without lees contact. Along with more frequent vintage and prestige releases, the question has been asked by some critics, “Are they uncommon enough to merit a price premium?” Chefs de cave have hit back and say that Champagne has been blessed with a run of good to excellent vintages in recent years, and that, as with other winemakers around the world, they should take every opportunity to express these. As for me, I would certainly miss that incredible sensation of youthful vitality and maturity that late-disgorged Champagnes express in such a unique fashion.

Find out more about Champagne on bbr.com, including a range of recently disgorged wines.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine

On the table: Noble Rot

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Noble-Rot-bar_2_004

This month we sent Sophie Thorpe to report on Noble Rot, the new eatery from the team behind the eponymous magazine – a wonderfully-unstuffy spot that offers fantastic food and seriously fine wine.

When I worked on a stall in Borough Market three years ago, I was shivering my way through a quiet midweek shift when someone thrust an A5 pamphlet into my hand and wandered off. ‘Noble Rot’, its jaunty cover read. It offered salvation on that rather gloomy day, the articles that covered both The Beastie Boys and DRC something entirely new to the wine-writing scene. That was only the beginning for Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew: their magazine seeped into wine bars and restaurants around London, its pages littered with pieces penned by the glitterati from the worlds of both music and wine. They were managing to make fine wine almost, well, cool.

Late last year they extended their edgy vinous empire, opening a wine bar and restaurant on Lamb’s Conduit Street, with a little help from the team behind The Sportsman. I popped in for a glass or two before Christmas, lingering far too long by the fire clutching a glass of Sadie’s Pofadder, but vowed to return after their January refurb. Thank goodness, the fireplace survived the building works (and health and safety). The restaurant has a deliciously Old World feel to it: entering through thick, luxurious curtains, the walls are the deepest shade of Burgundy, delightfully mismatched tables and chairs cluttering the floor, candles offering just enough light to read menus. (If this makes it sound a little too boudoir chic, I promise – it’s not.)

My friend was late, and I was early, as can be the way – but I settled at the bar with a book and – it was Friday, after all – a glass of Champagne. It turns out a Zalto-full of Gaston Chiquet’s Pinot-rich fizz doesn’t last very long – under a chapter, in fact. Anywhere that accepts or even encourages this sort of behaviour is my kind of place – no pressure for small talk with the staff, although I’m sure they would have obliged had I been book-less.

Noble-Rot-bar_2_012

I resisted ordering another glass until my friend arrived and we moved into the recesses of the restaurant. We staved off hunger with some juicy olives, musing our options. The much-written-about ‘Halibut Braised in Oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru’ was clearly an essential order, albeit one I delegated to my companion, while I opted for ‘Ox Cheek, Swede & Purple Spouting Broccoli’.

Once the food was decided I was able to take charge of the wine list, picking a bottle of Moric’s peppery, red-fruited Blaufränkisch that I hoped would work throughout the meal (apart from the fish, now my friend’s problem). While we waited an incredibly generous selection of superb bread arrived – a treacle-laden soda bread that was soft and sweet, an olive-oil soaked, herb-scented focaccia and chewy sourdough. I could have polished the lot off, but luckily swift service brought our starters forth. My ‘Duck Hearts, Radicchio & Grapefruit’ was the best thing I’ve eaten in a while – the sharp freshness of grapefruit (alas, a nightmare with the wine) worked perfectly with the rich, seared duck hearts and bitter radicchio. A substantial slab of wonderful ‘Venison & Walnut Terrine’ seemed to disappear rather quickly. Unable to resist, we also tried the ‘Slip of Sole & Smoked Butter’ – a perfectly-cooked, purists’ piece of fish.

Next came the regrettably un-Instagram-friendly halibut that finds purpose in premox. It was worth the hype, so much so that my unfortunate friend ended up with more of my ox cheek than he’d bargained for. The sauce was so unctuously rich, the fish so delightfully flaky, the shallots sweet and soft: it really is fantastic. My ox cheek was no lesser, its fatty meat falling apart under my fork, the swede totally spoon-able and the broccoli dancing in a piquant sauce.

Some might suggest that we didn’t need pudding after all that, but caramelised blood orange made a lime cheesecake seem positively calorie-free, and while my ‘Warm Chocolate Mousse’ was far from light, the crème fraiche helped things along.

Before I knew it, we were one of the last tables there: the place just feels so incredibly comfortable, so instantly familiar, that it’s difficult to drag oneself out the door knowing only a journey on the number 59 awaits. From the serious wines by the glass (thanks to Coravin) to the enjoyable and accessible wine list (which includes gems such as a KFC and Robbie Williams analogy), to the straightforwardly good grub, it was hard to find fault. Thank goodness, I did manage to find one flaw: to get to the loos one must first tackle a slightly treacherous spiral staircase, no friend to the larger patron, the vertiginous heel or, indeed, to those who over-indulge in that aforementioned wine list.

What we drank:

Champagne Gaston Chiquet, Tradition Brut, Premier Cru

2013 Blaufränkisch, Moric, Burgenland, Austria

Noble Rot Restaurant & Wine Bar, 51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, WC1N 3NB

Category: Food & Wine

Buff not bluff: how to be a wine expert

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the 24 hour wine expert

Today marks the publication of The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson MW, arguably the world’s foremost wine critic and author. Here she talks to us about distilling her knowledge into such a diminutive tome, the key piece of advice you should take from it and the landmark wine that got her hooked…

You won’t even need especially large pockets to accommodate this 112-page Penguin paperback: surely that’s not enough room to convincingly convey even the basics of wine? And yet, somehow, having stripped back anything that’s non-essential, Jancis has crammed this book with nuggets of information which will take novices through how to buy, taste and select different wines, how to store them, serve them and how to recognise different grapes, how to match wine with food and how to cut through all the “wine speak” and jargon.

While a pass-notes guide cannot hope to delve into topics in any great depth or detail, throughout the pared-back text you are aware of Jancis’s effortless expertise. She envisions readers using the book as a touchstone to inform a weekend of wine-tasting with a group of friends – a purpose it would serve admirably; equally the lone student could happily work through its pages. For those who have an appetite to learn, but don’t quite know where to start, The 24-hour Wine Expert offers a perfectly compact solution.

Who should pick up a copy of this book? Anyone who enjoys drinking wine and would like a shortcut to the essentials of the subject

You know better than most how infinitely complex the wine world is: with that in mind, we wondered whether it was easier to write a simple guide to wine such as The 24-Hour Wine Expert, or an in-depth one, such as your Atlas or the Oxford Companion? In many ways it was more difficult to boil wine down to the essentials and to answer the most common questions about it than to write my huge reference books. It didn’t take as long of course but I was frequently caught up short by the sort of questions non-professionals have. I realise how much I take for granted.

What was the hardest thing to leave out? I honestly can’t answer that as I don’t think I have left anything essential out!

What single piece of advice in there do you hope readers will retain? Get to know your local independent wine retailer. (I know that I earn my living giving advice about wine but I always tell people the most useful thing to do is to establish a rapport with a local wine shop.)

What was the first nugget of information you gleaned about wine that got you interested in learning more? It was a wine itself that lit the flame: Chambolle Musigny, Les Amoureuses 1959

There’s lots of fantastic tips in the book. We were intrigued by the suggestion of Fino or Manzanilla Sherry as an alternative to Meursault: what was the thinking behind that? Full bodied, savoury, bone dry, oak aged – and not that different in terms of alcoholic strength

You cite Bordeaux’s first growths as overpriced. Do you think value can ever be found at the top end? And if not, then what is the future for Bordeaux? I don’t think the sort of people who buy Bordeaux first growths are looking for value; they are looking for luxurious status symbols. While the number of seriously wealthy people interested in wine continues to grow, then the future of the first growths is assured.

You’ve been writing about wine for long enough to have seen many regions come and go from being in vogue. In your book you describe Jura as ‘fashionable’ and Sicily as ‘exciting’ and Moldova as having ‘massive potential’; which emerging regions do you believe will be really on the wine map in a decade from now? England, Canada, Mexico and Brazil

If there was a piece of advice you could go back and give yourself when you were just starting to learn about wine, what would it be? When blind tasting, always go for your first guess.

Having read and digested The 24-Hour Wine Expert, where would you suggest readers go next? Their nearest good wine shop.

And finally… what’s the most interesting thing you’ve spent 24 hours doing? Believe it or not, I used to be a rock climber in my teens.

The 24-Hour Wine Expert by Jancis Robinson (Penguin, £4.99) is out now.

Category: Miscellaneous

From the inside: dangerous descriptions

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Photograph: Joakim Blockstrom

Photograph: Joakim Blockstrom

This month we have delved into our archives for an article which was originally published in the autumn 1956 edition of our Number Three magazine, musing on the exotic – and sometimes lascivious – language employed by those describing wine.

One of our many pleasant memories of evening spent with the Sainstbury Club* is of an occasion shortly after the war when Mr. Charles Morgan was the speaker and took the opportunity to reproach M. André Simon good-humouredly about the style of his writings on wine. “What you say of wines is so dangerously often applicable to ladies,” he pointed out, “that it may cause confusion in the minds of our younger members.”

Mr. Morgan proceeded to quote chapter and verse in support of this charge, “changing,” as he explained, “nothing but a pronoun.” Here is one of his examples:

Somewhat short in the nose, she gave more than she promised – a good fault. Full of life: silky, serious, robust and elusive; refined and expanding; she left behind, as she departed, a sense of complete gratification without the least feeling of satiety.

“Really,” the speaker demanded of M. Simon to the great amusement of the company, “what are you describing? Château Ausone 1909 or Cleopatra?”

He went on to cite “a less romantic, indeed a wickedly cynical” passage:

When she was quite young, none could be more attractive, and yet with a little age, barely a dozen years in bottle, she faded to sugar and water and was worthless.

On which Mr. Morgan’s comment was: “We are all only too familiar with ladies of whom that is a precise description… You pretend that what you were writing about was a Cheval Blanc born in 1923, but you knew quite well that no one would believe you.”

Mr. Charles Morgan is not by any means the only to have called in question the literary integrity of wine connoisseurs. We imagine that Sir Norman Birkett, K.C., was expressing a not uncommon feeling when he confessed, in a “Memoir” contributed to the 1949 edition of the late Maurice Healy’s book Stay Me With Flagons, that the language of wine experts “occasionally seems to me to be a little forced and artificial, and if it is not plain blasphemy to say so, at times a trifle ridiculous.”

After referring to the Thurber cartoon which we reproduce below, he went on to quote from Maurice Healy’s own chapter on Burgundy the following description of what would clearly be fitting male company for M. Simon’s voluptuous ladies:

When one thinks of Bertrand du Guesclin the image is as much of good manners and courtesy as of valour; so I shall borrow him as a type of Romanée Conti, ranking the others as his brothers-in-arms. For the suavity of these wines would not show to such perfection were it not for their valour and sturdiness. They are indeed princely wines, and the qualities that lurk in their depths are courage and fair dealing.

1956-–-Autumn-–-From-the-inside

There is no need of further illustration to show how easy it is to make fun of the pictaresque, and sometimes high-flown, style of much writing about wine. It has to be remembered, however, that someone who sets out to record his impressions of wine is attempting a notoriously difficult task. The equivalent would be to ask a gardener to describe the scent of one rose and compare it verbally with another.

So if the wine commentator sometimes resorts to strange similes and far-fetched images, his motive is not literary preciosity, still less snobbery, but to try to convey to others (and to himself when he has occasion to refer to a previous judgement) the character of a particular wine. If wine-tasting possessed its own glossary of terms, with each word corresponding to a well-recognised sensory experience, there would doubtless be more science and less art in the work of keeping a record of different types and vintages. But, in the nature of things, this is impossible. Every tasting experience is unique and elusive, and the wine chronicler must perforce be something of a poet striving to express his inner feelings.

So much for the practical considerations; but it would be less than honest to pretend to justify the language of wine simply as a means of communicating information. Even were some zealous student of semantics to succeed in evolving a completely objective way of describing the qualities of wine, we doubt whether his bald symbols would find much acceptance amongst wine-lovers. For in the heady prose of wine literature there is a hint of mystery, a promise of escape from all things trite and dutiful, that would be sadly lacking in such a statement as: “Alcoholic strength, 20 Proof; taste range, :25 to L27; perfume, AB7; annual maturation, 3/8.” Speaking for ourselves, we trust that wine will continue to bring out the poet in its devotees and to inspire such phrases as that beloved of the late Mr. Francis Berry… “silky on the farewell.”

*Founded in the early 1920s in honour of the late Professor Saintsbury as a dining club representative of the wine trade and literary world. Today, with some 50 members, it is one of the few such clubs still flourishing and dines twice yearly in Vintners’ Hall.

Category: Miscellaneous