Why time is priceless for Champagne

When it comes to Champagne, good things come to those who wait, says David Kermode. Here, he shares why disgorgement dates and time on lees matter - especially in light of a heated market

Words by David Kermode

billecart salmon's cellars with ageing champagne bottles
Champagne ageing in action in Billecart-Salmon's historic cellar

‘Come quickly, I am tasting the stars’ – apparently the words of Dom Pérignon, as he sipped the results of his first foray into secondary fermentation. Whether or not he actually invented the process is, of course, hotly disputed, because an English physician, Christopher Merret, had already documented an experiment along similar lines. But my own doubts about this story mostly rest on the supposed sense of urgency.

Granted, had he known what lay ahead for his febrile fizz (he was thought to be trying to remove the bubbles at the time of his ‘discovery’ to deal with a bout of exploding bottles), he might have been tempted to kick his habit into the fermenter and head for the bright lights of Paris armed with the recipe. But it is the notion that anything might happen ‘quickly’ that seems to be so entirely at odds with the concept of his creation (let alone the monastic lifestyle), for the passage of time means absolutely everything when it comes to Champagne.

Sparkling wine made in the traditional method, with its secondary fermentation, enjoys two distinct ‘life phases’: adolescence is spent luxuriating on its own lees, protected from oxygen by the yeast, while its adulthood, after disgorgement, is lived without those cells, ageing gracefully, albeit more rapidly. Hence, in recent years, there has been increasing pressure on producers to state the disgorgement date on their labels. It might sound nerdy, and it is admittedly unlikely to trouble those quaffing a top cuvée on the deck of a millionaire’s yacht, but it is genuinely important. Time is famously a great healer and, when it comes to Champagne, it is also a magician.

Champagne producers have been struggling to keep up with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for their wares

It matters because Champagne producers have been struggling to keep up with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for their wares. Last autumn, in her Champagne Report for Club Oenologique, renowned critic Essi Avellan MW observed that the market was ‘becoming overheated … with some wines rushed to release earlier than usual due to the huge demand,’ meaning less time on lees. Thankfully, prestige cuvées were spared this unseemly rush, thanks to release times that she described as ‘sacrosanct’. So, as if it were needed, there’s a reason to head for the best.

Released later this month, Billecart-Salmon is certainly not rushing anything with the latest iteration of its top cuvée, Nicolas François, the 2008 vintage, which I had the good fortune to taste at its launch in the South of France last week, paired with the triple-Michelin-starred creations of Mirazur’s Mauro Colagreco. Having spent 150 months resting on its lees, it exemplifies the wonder of that ageing process, showcasing the intensity, complexity and depth that such a process promotes. ‘You cannot cheat with time, there is no substitute for it,’ says Billecart-Salmon’s president, Mathieu Roland-Billecart, whose message to those demanding he replenish their cellars is that they will simply have to wait. The company accountant, we assume, is also endowed with similar reserves of patience.

billecart salmon Nicolas François 2008 bottle and glasses
The 2008 Nicolas François from Billecart-Salmon has spent a total of 150 months on lees

So what must we pay for this luxurious long-term-thinking-in-a-bottle? Not nearly as much as you might expect. Though produced by one of the great names, synonymous with luxury, and limited to several thousand bottles, at a time of insatiable demand for Champagne, the 2008 Nicolas François will be on sale in the UK at around £150. It represents extraordinary value for a wine of such elegance and complexity – in fact, a paltry pound for every month of carefully controlled cellar ageing. Tasting the stars need not cost the earth, so there is really no need to rush.

What David has been drinking…

  • Billecart-Salmon Nicolas François Brut Millésime 2008 (£150 released late April) Created in 1964, named in honour of the co-founder of the house – which remains under family control seven generations later – this top cuvée combines Grands Cru Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Côte des Blancs and Montagne de Reims, respectively. Refined, blue-fruited and still fresh, with candied citrus and rich notes of frangipani, there’s a teasing tension and delicate limestone texture with a delicious mineral undertow melting into the toasted, honeyed brioche finish. Outstanding.
  • Yangarra Old Vine Grenache 2020 (£31.50 The Good Wine Shop) There is something really wonderful about old vine Grenache and this does not disappoint. Yangarra is an aboriginal word meaning ‘from the earth’, which feels appropriate as this wine is certified biodynamic. Perfumed and complex, the fine tannins whisper as the fruit intensity sings.
  • Roberto Voerzio Nebbiolo Langhe ‘Disanfrancesco’ 2020 (£23 Justerini & Brooks) Floral, enchanting aromas merely hint at the silken charm of this finely framed Nebbiolo from one of Barolo’s hottest talents. The fruit definition and purity suggest a decade or so of ageing might lie ahead, for those with the patience and self-restraint.
David Kermode 2021
By David Kermode

David Kermode is a journalist and broadcaster, with two decades of experience across TV, radio and print media, and a lifelong love of wine and spirits. Don’t miss his weekly podcast for Club Oenologique, The Drinking Hour.