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 ‚€œdisgorged‚€ 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 ‚€œNV‚€ (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. ‚€œI 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.
‚€œWhen 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. ‚€œIt 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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