A selection of multi-grape blends from single vintages — all lending credence to every wine snob’s favourite theory that Champagne is predisposed to “ageing gracefully”.
For all the information that accompanies widespread internet access and the omnipresent, somewhat dogged spectre of social media, a huge chunk of drinkers remain oblivious to the decisive role lees ageing plays in the production of sparkling wine. Ditto whenever you pop a bottle of Champagne: that famously coveted regionality of bubbly, that benefits from anywhere between 2-3 years of ageing sur lie for even the most pedestrian of non-vintages.
In contrast to the EU’s wider wine-producing industry (where the minimum statutory requirement is 90 days), in Champagne sufficient time spent on fermentation of flavour is deemed indispensable to the overall process. Away from the predations of light, in a CO²-rich environ that’s deep underground, the wines of the Champenoise achieve a kind of miraculous metamorphosis: ageing, evolving, revealing complexities of character.
Of course, every Chef de Cave (‘cellarmaster’) has their own philosophy pertaining to the vicissitudes that accompany extended lees-ageing. Perhaps most controversially, Vincent Chaperon, Dom Pérignon’s Chef de Cave, has long maintained that Champagne doesn’t evolve linearly, but rather through a series of multi-year cycles he described as “windows of opportunity, or plenitudes”. At DP, that hypothesis expresses itself in three distinct bottlings: the first comes 7-8 years after the wine has been sur lie (what most consumers will recognise as DP’s signature, vintage-specific Champagne), the second requires 12-15 years, and the third when a vintage wine has matured on lees for at least two decades. Amongst the brand’s devotees, the intermediate ‘window’ has always been popular, largely because of its association with the ‘P2’ label — the most recent expression of which pivots around the famously “challenging” vintage of 2003.
Put plainly, in 2021, there are no shortage of serious Champagne houses releasing cuvées which bear the unmistakable mark of a long sleep in the cellar. In concert with grapes borne of excellent soil and weather, extended lees-ageing can bolster the cellaring potential of a given vintage 10, 20, occasionally even 30 years. At the very least? The process makes for bubbly that is delicious and eminently drinkable. Amidst the height of the Hong Kong summer, you’ll find a few of my personal favourites below.
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Born of a miraculous late summer in which temperatures reached upwards of 35℃, there are fewer more perfect ways to immerse oneself in the world of Bollinger than with the Grande Année 2012. At time of harvest, yields for this prestige cuvée were comparatively lower than in previous years, culminating in vins clairs that were rich, fulsome, but with just enough acidity for balance.
Described by the house’s winemakers as a “classic” blend — the finished product is dominated by about 65 percent Pinot Noir — the secret to the Grande Année’s distinctly toasty style is barrel-ageing: before being put on lees for an extended 6-year hiatus, the individual wines are left to mature in casks for six months. Creamy, complex, and already extremely long in the finish, this is part of a venerable club of cuvées which are both delicious now and promising long-term prospects.
Available via Ponti Wine Cellars
As its name boasts in no uncertain terms, Piper-Heidsieck ‘Rare’ is a prestige Champagne that is as exceptional from a quantitative perspective as it is a qualitative one. Since 1976, there have only been 11 ‘Rare’ vintages: a resounding indication that the label is only conferred on wines that are produced in remarkably challenging/optimal years.
In contrast to first-tier wines offered by Champagne houses that are arguably bigger and more prolific, Piper-Heidsieck leaves its ‘Rare’ bottlings to undergo lees ageing for no less than 17 years. The ‘98 has clearly benefited from this extended convalescence, with the exclusively Grand Cru wines co-mingling into something that is rich yet uncloying and balanced in spite of all its aromatic complexity. To enjoy the full spectrum of flavours associated with this admittedly subtle vintage, we suggest tasting this in magnum.
Available via Avize Wine Cellar
Belatedly released to retailers in the fall of 2020 (no prizes for correctly guessing why) Taittinger’s latest vintage of its long-feted Blanc de Blancs harkens back to the relatively recent annus mirabilis of 2008. Among the largest of the Grande Maisons in Reims, Taittinger produces some six million bottles of Champagne per year — a miniscule percentage of which is accounted for by this prestige cuvée.
The outstanding quality of fruit in this vintage is magnified by several distinctive practices during vinification. Namely: a small percentage of the initial vins clairs are fermented in new and seasoned oak barrels for four months, before being transferred onto lees in the brand’s cellars in Saint-Nicaise — where the wine undergoes a lengthy process of autolysis for 12 years. Though regarded by many oenophiles as “adolescent” at this stage (this particular vintage should continue to evolve for another 15 years) the current experience of drinking this Comtes de Champagne emphasises freshness, tensility and a refreshing saline finish. If you’re thinking of fast-tracking the aromatics of this wine, then decanting is essential.
Available via Kerry Wines
As alluded to earlier, P2 is the middle child of Dom Pérignon’s extended-age lineup: charting a vintage’s arc during the second of three ‘plenitudes’ (12-15 years after it’s initially produced). Controversially, the vintage in question this time ‘round is 2003: at one time hand-waved away by wine critics (and those who slavishly follow) as a hot, disappointing interlude in which it had been impossible to produce a Champagne of “vintage quality”. Enter P2 2003.
Made using one of the highest proportions of Pinot Noir ever recorded (i.e. 62 percent) it is a prestige blend that has, according to Chef de Cave Vincent Chaperon, “pushed the boundaries of the Dom Pérignon universe”. Unlike Champagnes from a traditionally agreeable vintage, this particular expression of P2 has become fresher with time, while shouldering a degree of gravitas that is unusual by the house’s consummate standards. A wine of contrasts, shorn of its hard unpalatable edges by some of the most meticulous vinification practices that money can buy.
Available via Avize Wine Cellar
Long venerated by industry folk for crafting some of the most powerful, and often hedonistic wines in the Champagne region, Philipponnat has seen a surge of popularity with enthusiasts throughout Asia in the last half-decade. Though by no means a ‘budget’ bubbly, the house’s site-specific ‘Clos des Goisses’ still offers an almost unrivalled balance between quality, critical acclaim, and value (though with wine speculation what it is in 2021, prices are bound to surge).
Often touted as a fine wine first and Champagne second, Clos des Goisses is unique among all of Philipponnat’s wines because it is vinified using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that comes exclusively from the eponymous vineyard: one of the steepest terroirs in Mareuil-sur-Ay that combines mineral-dense chalk soils and excellent weather exposure, courtesy of its hillside location. Like a lot of the fizz that’s been recommended in this article, the wines are partially vinified in oak before being cellared sur lie for at least a decade. Importantly, the inherent balance in this vintage meant that the wine was given very minimal dosage (i.e. 4.25g per litre), contributing to a nose, palette, and mouthfeel that all share a delicious harmony. An excellent candidate for richer food pairings.
Available via The Fine Wine Experience