Disgorge Yourself!

When buying a champagne or sparkling wine
this holiday season, consider disgorgement.
No, that’s not a spam e-mail offering you paradise in bed, but an
important phase in making sparkling wines by the traditional champagne
method. These wines undergo a second fermentation in the bottle – the
process that gives them the bubbles – and are “disgorged” to
remove the yeasts and add a dosage of sweetened wine to finish the
overall product. Most fizz producers don’t tell you when the bottle
was disgorged.
Should you care?
Yes, especially if you’re buying a non-vintage blend, the style that
accounts for most sparkling wine produced in the world, including
champagne. Non-vintage bubblies contain juice from two or three vintages
blended to produce a consistent house style and the label does not
specify a vintage year. Veuve Cliquot yellow label Brut is an example of
a popular “NV” (for non-vintage) blend. When you pay $40 for this
wine, you would expect it to be as good as the wine you bought last
year.
But there are two reasons why it won’t be identical. First, even
non-vintage blends are subject to vintage variation. A particularly hot,
ripe year, such as 2003, will influence the blend differently than a
more classically structured vintage such as 2004. Admittedly, this
distinction might be noticeable only to people who drink too much
champagne, if that is possible. (I, for one, don’t drink enough.) The
major champagne houses pay their winemakers to make a product so
consistent that most people can’t tell the difference.
Another, more important reason to care about the disgorgement date, is
that you don’t know how long this bottle has been gathering dust in a
store window or an overheated warehouse waiting for someone to get a
raise, get engaged, have a birthday, or most likely, waiting for New
Year’s to roll around again. A recently disgorged wine will be
fresher, more lively than one that’s been going stale on a shelf for
several years.
Terry Theise is one importer who insists that his
champagne producers put a disgorgement date on their labels. “I want
retailers and consumers to know that they are tasting the same wine I
tasted – or the wine writers tasted – when raving about a particular
wine,” Theise says. A disgorgement date is an important piece of
information in judging a wine before opening it – because once
you’ve popped the cork, it’s too late.
“When you buy a bottle of non-vintage champagne, it could have been
disgorged three months ago, or it could have been sitting in the sun in a
shop for three years,” says Charles Philipponnat, president of Champagne Philipponnat,
which puts disgorgement dates on all its labels. “It is important
information for sommeliers and for consumers – it tells you what to
expect when you open the bottle.”
A disgorgement date is not as crucial with a vintage sparkling wine –
usually, they are aged for three or four years on the yeast before
disgorgement. So a California sparkling vintage dated 2003 or 2004 will
still be quite fresh. But that non-vintage brut could be from … well,
who knows when?

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