One English eccentricity is a fetish for old Champagne. This is altogether a good thing, as Champagne grows a whole new personality as it ages, on top of its youthful, acidic core. That personality is yeasty, nutty, heavy in the mouth, and sympathetic to the papillae on the tongue. It lingers in the Eustachian tube with a long and harmonious finish.
Growing older can imbue the wine with a gravitas not present in its youth. A light Champagne like a Perrier-Jouet can go from being like a giggling college kid after two margaritas to resembling a serious personage commanding respect. Earthier monsters like Krug might suggest an enlightening but formerly brooding acquaintance to whom you want to say, “I knew that you were really like that.”
I had the good fortune to see the effect of almost 30 years of aging telescoped into one evening recently when Marie-Christine Osselin of one of Champagne’s best houses, Moët & Chandon, tasted me on three decades of great examples of its wine.
Our starter was the Grand Vintage Brut 2008. Despite being almost a decade old, this is the current available vintage of this wine. It has already acquired a richer body and some toastiness despite being, at root, a fresh and vibrant wine with white peach and lemon on the nose and palate.
Next, we stepped back ten years to the Grand Vintage Brut 1998. Yeasty and brioche flavors and bouquet notes have taken over from the fruit. The color was a deeper gold than that of the 2008. The mouthfeel had greater presence and the finish was softer and more drawn out.
Finally, the Grand Vintage Brut 1988 — a wine that started life back when the average house price was hitting $92,000, George H. W. Bush was in the process of defeating Michael Dukakis (remember him?), and the Soviet Union was beginning to implode. The vintage was one of the best of the latter twentieth century, and the wine ignored everything going on around it and just continued to evolve. It is as vibrant as ever today, but the color is deeper gold than the younger vintages were. The nose emits malty notes and toastiness. The flavors contain the expected yeastiness but also iodine and pine notes. It is a wine you want to savor in your mouth for minutes on end.
This tasting was a fine lesson in how Champagne can change through the years. However, we must remember that each vintage is different. Champagne is a special grape-growing region, as it is France’s most northerly wine region, on the edge of viability; 2008 and 1998 were cooler years and reached ripeness only thanks to September sun. In 1988 there was more warm weather than usual. This can make for riper grapes and a richer base wine.
Winemaking also varies across vintages. Significant in Champagne’s production is the disgorgement date (the date the lees are removed from the bottle). Both the 1988 and the 1998 vintages were both disgorged after 15 years in the bottle; the 2008 was obviously disgorged much earlier, as the wine is available now.
Finally, the assemblage — the blend of grapes used to make the wine — varies with the harvest. Thus 1988 was 50 percent pinot noir and 30 percent chardonnay, while the 1998 increased the chardonnay to 40 percent and reduced the pinot noir to 35 percent. The 2008 was similar, at 40 percent chardonnay and 37 percent pinot noir. (The balance in all cases was made up of pinot meunier.) The blend is adjusted to preserve the house style despite vintage variation.
Age isn't the only factor contributing to the character of Champagne, then, but it does have an unmistakable effect. We don’t drink enough old Champagne. This year, let’s resolve to change that.