Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is There a Future for Old Champagne?

By Jeff Morgan

When winemaker Paul Bara returned to his home in Champagne after World War II, he discovered that German soldiers had drunk his entire stock of sparkling wines. Broken glass and empty bottles littered the floor of his family's cellar, carved two stories down into the limestone. But here and there, an untouched bottle had survived the onslaught, and the young Bara painstakingly sifted through the rubble, making neat little piles of the remains of his life's work.

Bara, now 72, has a collection that still includes some prewar survivors dating back to 1929. "Here's one from 1933," he says, shining a flashlight into a dark corner of his now rehabilitated cellar in Bouzy. He dusts off a slightly ullaged bottle and opens it upstairs in the light of day. A deep amber color, the wine can still be called "bubbly," displaying a remarkably lively effervescence after 60 years. Is this unusual, or is Champagne made for cellaring?

"People have strong opinions about old Champagne," says Serena Sutcliffe, Sotheby's wine director in London. "They either like it or they don't. Old Champagne can show great intensity, especially when you go back to a great year like 1914, where tiny yields made wines of great concentration." But winemakers are now getting 3 to 4 times the yields their grandparents did in 1914. "I think today's wines will last, but I don't know if I'd keep them for 80 years," she chuckles. She recommends a somewhat shorter time in the cellar for recent vintages--up to 30 years.

Ronald Weiser is one of those collectors who likes old bubbly. The 48-year-old Michigan real estate executive has an extensive collection from the 1960s and 1970s. "There are extra flavors in old Champagne that you just don't get when it's younger," he says. "People think after 15 years you should get rid of it. But they're wrong." Weiser says his Cham-pagnes don't generally go flat, but he often enjoys them even when they do.

In some ways, Champagne is really made for longevity. The dissolved carbon dioxide and high acidity act as natural preservatives. In addition, the lees (yeast cells) that remain in each bottle suck up oxygen for a number of years and retard spoilage. At dégorgement, a small amount of oxygen passes into the wine, accelerating the aging process. The difference between two 20-year-old Champagnes from the same producer and vintage can be astonishing when one of them has been recently disgorged (R.D.) and the other has rested gently in its disgorged state. The former can be surprisingly youthful, while the latter tastes its age, not necessarily bad.

Guy Bizot, export director at Bollinger, goes so far as to say, "We don't believe in keeping disgorged wines." The company is focused on the fresher, youthful complexities of R.D. releases and will "disgorge to order" wines from certain vintages.

What about non-vintage and non-brut Champagnes? Most Champagne houses discourage collectors from cellaring non-vintage wines. But Serena Sutcliffe says, "You can do great things with non-vintage. I keep Cliquot and Roederer. Their structure tends to be from black grapes. Bollinger keeps their reserve wines in magnums, and a small dollop in their non- vintage wine will give it great backbone."

None of the experts recommend collecting sweeter Champagnes. Producers tend not to use their best blends for these styles because the higher dosages of sugar can mask complexities in the wine.

Back in that exceptional year of 1914, the winemakers at Maison Pol Roger had some good raw materials to work with. Mining treasures of the past, Christian Pol-Roger recently opened a bottle from that year, which was disgorged in 1944. Upon tasting it he remarked, "With age, our great wines may lose bubbles and vitality, but they certainly gain charm and personality."

Jeff Morgan is a freelance writer on food, wineand other topics who lives on Long Island, N.Y.


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