Give Us Dates!

By now you know that I am an avid Champagne lover. Who isn’t? And one of the hotly debated topics of conversation in the sommelier/critic community is disgorgement dates. This may seem mere minutia for the casual Champagne drinker. But the disgorgement date of a bottle can be very important. It can ultimately decide whether we drink the bottle now or later, or purchase one bottle over the other — no small thing when the prices of these Champagnes soar above the three-digit price level.

Disgorgement is when the wine producer removes all the dead yeast cells and other proteins from a bottle of Champagne to make the wine clear. The object is to get all the solids that have been coaxed to the crown of the top of the bottle out of the bottle without losing too much of the liquid. The process can be done either by hand or by machine. Most Champagne houses proceed with machines, as they are more consistent and much faster.

I actually have seen the disgorgement process done by hand in person. As all the sediment is at the top of the bottle in a cap, the bottle is held upside down until the winemaker is ready to disgorge it. In one fluid motion, he quickly but very carefully tilts the bottle right side up, holding the bottle at its bottom all the while watching as the small air bubble that was at the bottom of the bottle rises to the top. Just as that air bubble reaches the solids at the top of the bottle, he immediately opens the crown cap of the bottle and the little cap, or bidule, filled with the lees and other proteins, flies out of the bottle from the pressure of the sparkling wine. It is an art to accomplish.

But what of the disgorgement date? It is so important to many Champagne drinkers because it can dictate the way a bottle of Champagne will taste — simple as that. A bottle of Champagne that recently was disgorged will taste more youthful than a wine that was disgorged earlier but kept on the cork longer, even if they are from the exact same vintage and lot. Champagne producers believe that as long as the lees and yeast are in contact with the wine, the wine still has something to “live on.” While in touch with the yeast, the wine undergoes a chemical process known as autolysis, gifting the wine with many nuanced flavors.

Whether you like Champagne that is fresher or more mature is a matter of taste. I like them both — it just depends on my mood. But most Champagne houses do not even make that information available to the consumer. My point is that the more information you can give the consumer, the more ammunition they have to make an informed choice on the Champagne they drink. Houses that say it doesn’t matter because the house style is consistent every year are missing the point. If a wine drinker tastes a bottle of Champagne from a friend’s cellar that was bought five years ago, then that same person goes out and buys the same bottle off the shelf, chances are that they are going to have a very different experience.

Disgorgement dates on the label would at least give consumers more direction and knowledge. Even those who do not understand the term disgorgement will be able to read a date. And if they don’t know what it is, they will end up asking and eventually learning. So more power to the people! Put disgorgement dates on the labels.

Recommendations: 2012 Votre Sante Chardonnay ($15) This is one of the Chardonnays that completely over-delivers with loads of ripe fruit, sweet vanillin and a lively and lengthy finish. Really impressive considering the price. Match it with kalua pig and cabbage (yes, I am a local boy!). 2013 Hippolyte Reverdy Sancerre ($25) I cannot think of a more lovely, refreshing white that I would want to drink on a beach or on the veranda in the afternoon. This Sauvignon Blanc quenches more than just thirst, it puts a smile on your face. Pair it with Greek salad topped with Feta or goat cheese wontons for an even livelier treat.