Deciding what’s age worthy and what’s not
It’s a day for the books when you decide to start a champagne cellar. Spurred no matter by a bottle gifted to you, a developing interest in wine or a relationship formed with a newly discovered wine shop, you’ll need to know some basics to start your collecting campaign. There are countless factors that contribute to a champagne’s age-worthiness, and rabbitholes upon rabbitholes to fall into trying to figure it out at once. The best advice? Take it slow and make the learning process enjoyable, not daunting. So let’s take a look at what gives champagne longevity and how long you should plan to store it.
The Basics of Storing Champagne
Storing champagne doesn’t require a wine cellar, or even a significant amount of space. Seek out cool, dark space away from strong odors/chemical – i.e. not the cleaning supplies closet. Some humidity benefits wine so a basement or garage is a great option as long as neither suffer from issues with mold. To store unopened champagne long-term, consider the factors outlined below along with what qualities you desire in a cellared bottle. The older the champagne age, the richer it will become in flavor, color and texture, and the less carbon dioxide will be present in the wine. An unopened bottle of high quality champagne can last decades, so there’s room to play with testing out what you appreciate about different phases of wine age.
Vintage vs. Non-Vintage Champagne
Vintage bottles are from a single year of exceptional quality grapes and have longer aging requirements than non-vintage (NV). They are representations of excellence all around and will age gracefully for quite a long time. This is not to say that there aren’t NV (non-vintage) champagnes that won’t do well with some cellar time, but they’re not built for cellaring to the same degree.
This is a French term that translates to grape varieties, but more colloquially in the world of wine it’s come to refer to the grape make-up of a blend. For champagne, knowing which grapes – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier – and in what proportion they are used is especially important for gauging long-term aging. Monovarietal champagnes (i.e. made with one type of grape) are often destined for aging in the same way vintage releases are. Blends may, and often do, feature all three varieties. Chardonnay, especially, and Pinot Noir age better than Pinot Meunier.
Production Method Factors
There’s a lot to know about what happens to a single bottle of champagne during its production, and it can feel overwhelming trying to grasp even a little knowledge about each stage. But don’t fret; it’s common these days for the back label of a bottle to tell you everything you’d initially want to know. Or at a minimum, a quick internet search will usually yield the technical info you need. Better yet, find a retailer you trust who can provide answers for you. If you’re thinking about storing a bottle for a while, it’s helpful to know…
- what the oldest vintage of the base wine is (if it’s not a vintage champagne)
- how long the bottle was aged before leaving its cellar of origin (most producers exceed the requirements)
- how long it rested on the lees
- when it was disgorged
The significance of the latter two points requires some nuanced understanding of how wine
behaves throughout the aging process. The basis is this: the longer a champagne rests on its lees, the faster it changes/evolves after being disgorged. (E.g Say you’re at your local retailer choosing between two NV Blanc de Blancs that are known to gracefully handle a little extra age. One indicates 2 years on the lees, disgorgement 2 years ago. The other spent 5 years on the lees, disgorgement 1 year ago. Generally speaking, the first option will hold up better if you want to lay the bottle down for an addition 3-5 years, but the second may be the better option if planning on opening within a year or 18 months.)
If you’re just getting started building a cellar collection your focus is probably on the standard champagne bottle size – 750 ml. But it would be a wise novice to consider purchasing magnums (double bottles, 1.5L) right out of the gate. They are the format of choice for extended aging and sometimes actually present a more cost-effective purchase than the standard bottle.
The Shelf life of Champagne
The typical estimate for the shelf life of champagne is three to five years for non-vintage and five to ten years for vintage. As we’ve covered already, there is much that weighs on the ageability of champagne, so take these figures with a grain of salt and do your research. For extremely well-made vintage champagnes and prestige cuvée, even the high end estimate of 10 years is probably conservative. These bottles will almost always mature well for many decades. As a side note: go ahead and drink champagne whose storage methods prior to your possession seem questionable, even if it’s a cuvee suspected to age well. A falling apart label or cork are instant warning signs of poor storage.
Characteristics of an Aged Champagne
In a lot of ways, the attributes of a beautifully aged champagne have been downplayed or even straight-up belittled. There are drastic changes that occur in a bottle that has been cellared for twenty or thirty years and, yes, they alter the wine considerably. This may challenge our notion of what champagne is or can be, but that’s not a negative thing, nor should it render the wine “bad.”
A significantly aged champagne will have much lower (or possibly no) carbonation, softer acid, a richer hue (golden to tawny to brown, or sometimes the orange-pink spectrum) and an outstanding complexity of aromas and flavors. The quality of fruit notes, if still present, will indicate age so that what was once a fresh raspberry aroma may now appear stewed or preserved. Earth tones will deepen and elongate and typically oxidation over extended aging will impart a sherry-like quality to the champagne.
The Markers of a Spoiled Champagne
While the quality of an aged champagne may not be everybody’s cup of wine, the differences between that of aged character and spoiled are distinct. So don’t worry, just let your senses guide you. When opening a bottle always inspect the cork. If the part of the cork that makes contact with the wine has any signs of mold or a repellent musty odor it could (but doesn’t always) indicate a ruined bottle. A spoilt champagne may also smell musty or moldy, or taste overly bland or like vinegar. If a relatively young bottle has taken on a dark or brown hue or has low carbonation, it may indicate that the champagne has been sullied by oxidation.
All in all, it’s pretty rare to come across a bust bottle of champagne. The region’s tight regulations and high standards of production make for a very sound product. Where the greatest risk comes is in transportation of the bottles. When it comes to collecting, it really pays off to acquire your champagne from trust sources who can attest to proper movement and storage.