When wine lovers get to that point in their enological journeys where they start assembling cellars in their closets and basements, their intent is always the same — stock it with bottles that are ready to drink with whatever is being put on the dinner tables, but also to set aside a few prized wines to mature a little longer.
With reds from California, Bordeaux, or Burgundy, those wines will gradually change flavors and textures over a decade or so. Even a Chardonnay from Burgundy or a fine Riesling from the Rhine may still be lovely for years to come, growing rounder and more mellow.
And so will some Champagne. For anyone who wants a special bottle to put away for a future anniversary celebration, Champagne is worth considering.
Why cellar Champagne?
More complex and pricier bubblies may improve for five years at minimum and even still be delightful, with bubbles intact, for up to 20 years. And while it may not improve, even everyday non-vintage Champagne will still be good drinking for several years.
Yet with the exception of serious collectors with million-dollar cellars, very few people even think about buying Champagne and intentionally laying it down for years to come. Sadly, that has long been the case, and not only in the U.S.
Alice Paillard tells the story about how her father, the founder of the eponymous Champagne house, Bruno Paillard, made that surprising discovery in the 1980s while on a global tour, visiting wine collectors with stellar cellars. “He rarely saw Champagne that was meant to be kept and aged before being enjoyed,” she says.
One reason is that Champagne is generally still bought with an upcoming event in mind, not to enrich a cellar collection. But it is also because there has not been much education on how Champagne should be aged — and why aging is worth doing.
“If bottles are properly stored, Champagne can last for a very long time,” says Natalie Pavlatos, who heads the Champagne Bureau in Washington, D.C. Like other wines, Champagne should be stored in a cool, dark place with little vibration.
But as to why Champagne is worth aging, a lot has to do with how it’s made and stored.
“Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, of which 12 months maturation on lees is required for non-vintage cuvées,” Pavlatos explains; a non-vintage wine is one made from juice that comes from multiple harvests. In addition to picking up flavor from the lees, the wines will also improve because the oxygen in the bottles ages the wine. While too much aging turns wine into flat and insipid drinking, moderate oxygen over months and years will round off a wine’s rough edges, add to its complexity, and crucially, marry together all the separate wine components.
“The minimum for vintage cuvées is three years,” Pavlatos continues, adding that in practice, most producers cellar their Champagnes for much longer. “Two to three years for non-vintage wines and four to ten years for vintage Champagne. Some vintage Champagne wines even spend several decades maturing in the cellar.” At this point, the wines are ready to be released and enjoyed, but if they are capable of maturing much longer, they will reward the bottle owner with a great variety of flavors.
How the taste changes
“We recommend buying magnums, especially for vintage Champagne, for longer aging — up to 10 years or more,” says Mathieu Roland-Billecart, the seventh generation to head the Billecart-Salmon Champagne house. It’s not just to impress people – it’s because the wine will age more slowly in a magnum because it’s only exposed to the same amount of oxygen as in a regular bottle.
During a recent tasting of the soon-to-be-released 2012 vintage Dom Pérignon, cellar master Vincent Chaperon explained that “there are two ways of addressing time. One is maturation, the time Champagne stays in our cellars in the bottle on its lees, which makes the wine more complex and keeps it fresh.” The other way of looking at time is after the bottle is disgorged of its sediment and ready to be sold. “This is when the wine begins aging,” Chaperon says. For that reason, more Champagne producers are putting a disgorged date on the back of the bottle which alerts the buyer to how old an expensive bottle of wine is when they buy at the store.
And while most non-vintage Champagne will improve for only a couple of years after purchase, vintage Champagne and special cuvées are put together from the best vineyards and are blended to become more complex in the bottle. The Paillards have even identified five stages of how Champagne matures and ages.
The first is the age of the fruit, whose aromas dominate, followed by floral aromas, the age of flower. The middle periods are the age of spices, where nuts and spices come forward, and the age of the toasted, where brioche and other bready characteristics appear. As the wine reaches maturity, there will be a candied fruit stage, with allied aromas of gingerbread and honey.
Finally, magnums should be kept in mind for those planning a way-in-the-future Champagne celebration, such as buying a bottle of vintage Champagne from a child’s birth year to be opened when they, like the Champagne, reach full maturity.
5 Champagnes to try:
This wine has pure, clean, green fruitiness – tart apples and lime – with a dollop of creaminess at the end that will blossom for years to come.
Lots of metallic minerality, but it’s fairly posh on the palate with persistent bubbles caressing the tongue. Flavors of dried pear, apple, and apricot that are in that before stage, waiting to round and deepen with more years in the bottle.
Krug does not let its wines go through malolactic fermentation, so that adds to their aging potential. Here, there is a rich intensity of flavors of lemon peel and stone-like minerality that is lean, but not spare, and which stretches across the palate.
Still extremely fresh and crisp, with flavors of apricot, brioche, and dried nuts in the finish. Delightful now, but it can be enjoyed for another decade or two depending on your taste preferences for which age a Champagne is passing through.