Disgorgement is a fundamental part of the Champagne method. It refers to the process of removing the sediment that accumulates during secondary fermentation and bottle-aging on the lees. Following disgorgement, a dosage (usually sugar syrup) may be added to the wine, and then the bottle is corked and prepared for release.
French law regulates the amount of time a wine must spend maturing on the lees before disgorgement: at least 12 months for non-vintage Champagnes and three years for vintage bottlings. (Many producers will age their wines even longer, sometimes as much as five years or more for vintage versions.) After disgorgement, producers must keep the finished bottles in their cellars for at least three months for non-vintage Champagne and at least a year—though sometimes more—for vintage cuvées.
Champagnes age differently on the lees, or before disgorgement, than they do on the cork, or after disgorgement.
A Champagne from the 1990 vintage that was disgorged in 1994, for example, then aged on the cork until 2010, may be very different in character from a 1990 Champagne that was not disgorged until 2008 and then opened in 2010. Many experts believe that the lees nourish the wine, adding complexity and preserving youthfulness, but it's a matter of personal preference, and also very much dependent on the character of the wine itself.
Until recently, there was no way for a consumer to know how long a bottle of Champagne aged on its lees before disgorgement. But some houses have begun to indicate a disgorgement date on their labels. Unlike a vintage year, the disgorgement date does not give any specific clues as to the potential quality and character of the Champagne in question; but like the vintage date, it may give some idea of how the Champagne is aging.
Many of the region's récoltant-manipulant, or small growers who produce Champagne from vines they own themselves and do not buy any grapes, have always listed a disgorgement date on their wines. Among the larger négociant houses, Bruno Paillard has included a disgorgement date on all of his house's wines since 1985, including both its vintage and non-vintage bottlings. Philipponnat has done so since the late 1990s, while Lanson started in the last decade. Krug began this year to mark several of its wines with an ID that indicates the quarter and year a bottle was disgorged.
Paillard is a strong advocate for disgorgement dates, believing they help to counter the idea that Champagne doesn't age. "The motivation was to try and explain to consumers that Champagne is, or can be, a great wine, and as such it has its life and its specific kind of maturation, including after disgorgement," he says. "[We want] to encourage people to discover the wonderful extra complexity which post-disgorgement maturation can offer, and the first step is to know when the disgorgement actually happened."
Paillard's conviction regarding the importance of disgorgement dates is matched by those who adamantly oppose them, such as Peter Wasserman, a wine broker who works with Le Serbet, which represents many Champagne producers in the U.S. Wasserman agrees that it benefits vintage wines to include the disgorgement date, but thinks it can be misleading on non-vintage wines.
"It does not tell you either how long the wines have been aged on the lees, or what the composition—the base year plus the reserve years—is of the wine," he says. "You need the whole explanation each time you put a disgorgement date. There is no way to extrapolate [more information]."
There's also the possibility that some consumers might mistake the disgorgement date for a vintage date, or assume that they only want the "freshest" disgorgement date, overlooking the fact that bottle age may be a plus for the wine overall. But at the end of the day, it's additional information for the consumer, and as with any fact or figure, in order to get the most from the data you need to understand what it means and how to put it in the proper context.
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