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Champagne: the significance of disgorgement

In the last of her reflections following the publication of her 2022 Champagne Report, Essi Avellan MW considers the importance of a complex but integral topic: disgorgement

Words by Essi Avellan MW

bollinger champagne disgorgement
The Collection
Bollinger began printing disgorgement dates on the front of labels for bottles of R.D. back in 1952

Pour a glass of the latest vintage of Dom Pérignon. The Champagne is, despite its 10 years of age, the pale lemon green of a young white wine. We have the yeast lees to thank for this youthfulness.

It’s at disgorgement that the direction of a Champagne’s ageing changes dramatically, when the bottle is opened and the yeast lees sediment is removed. From then on, it will continue its life in an oxidative environment, without the protecting influence of the lees.

What happens to Champagne after disgorgement?

After the often sweetening dosage has been added and the bottle re-sealed, a multitude of chemical changes begin, and the wine’s complex post-disgorgement evolution starts. It’s from then the Champagne gradually gains its hallmark toasty or biscuity richness. In order to integrate the thick sweetening liqueur to the wine, most quality producers return the bottle to the cellar for several more months. The older the wine, the longer rest period it tends to be given.

Champagne producers use the verb opérer (to operate) when talking about the disgorgement process. As with humans, an elderly patient needs a longer recovery time than a teenager. One often hears of a three-month recovery time for young non-vintage Champagne and six-to-12 months for vintages. However, it takes longer than just a couple of months for a Champagne to move away from the acacia or candle-wax notes of fresh disgorgement to the mellow universe of toasty and biscuity aromas.

bruno paillard
Bruno Paillard advises drinkers to use the disgorgement date as a guide for when to open a bottle of fizz

Champagne Bruno Paillard has long understood the importance of communicating on disgorgement. The house says the wine’s ageing post-disgorgement advances in the following stages: fruity, floral, spicy, toasty and candied. Its Première Cuvée Extra Brut NV is given an eight-month rest before release, while N.P.U. Nec Plus Ultra Brut 2008 lies in the cellars for 18-months. Customers are advised to use the date of disgorgement as an indicator as to when to open their bottle in order to catch it at the stage of evolution they prefer.

The longer lees-aged versions of prestige cuvées – labeled with terms indicating late or recent disgorgement – are very much part of a trend for a greater focus on the process. From Bollinger R.D. and Dom Pérignon’s P2/P3 to Cristal Vinothèque, Laurent-Perrier Grand Siècle Les Réserves and Dom Ruinart La Réserve, there are now a great many late disgorgement cuvées to choose from.

Are late disgorgement versions automatically superior to the original? 

Champagne stays beautifully fresh undisgorged, but this freshness comes at a price. The wine becomes dependent on its anaerobic environment and increasingly sensitive to the oxidative shock of disgorgement. Being remarkably fresh right after disgorgement, the Champagne’s oxidative evolution accelerates thereafter. Several years after disgorgement, the original disgorgement bottle often seems fresher than the late one. But there are exceptions to the rule, and ultimately it all comes down to original wine quality and oxygen management at disgorgement.

Disgorgement is a complex topic, its intricacies difficult to fully convey, but understanding it is crucial to understanding Champagne

Dom Pérignon has truly mastered the art of prolonged lees ageing, and there is no hurry opening these bottles. Proving their resilience, each P2 and P3 is disgorged three years before being brought onto the market. ‘We blend Dom Pérignon with a 40 years’ time perspective in mind and maturation on lees is part of the blend,’ chef de cave Vincent Chaperon explains. ‘Every vintage must have the capacity to shine as Plénitude 2 and Plénitude 3, otherwise we will not declare it in the first place.’

Historically, why have Champagne houses been reluctant to communicate disgorgement dates?

Disgorgement is a complex topic, its intricacies difficult to fully convey, but understanding it is crucial to understanding Champagne. Madame Bollinger understood the importance of the issue back in 1952, when she printed the disgorgement date on the front label of the inaugural vintage of R.D.

While the length of time a Champagne ages on its lees is a contributing factor to its style, the post-disgorgement time is more significant, says Avellan

For me, knowing the disgorgement date for the ‘ageless’ non-vintage bottles is at least as important. Bruno Paillard, Philipponnat and Charles Heidsieck are among Champagne’s pioneers in communicating these disgorgement dates. The new generation of grower producers have also been prominent in championing this, and now more and more houses are following the trend. Many are trying not to bombard the consumer with too much information on the label, instead using QR codes to enable the retrieval of technical information online.

Admittedly, many Champagne drinkers do not care about this data, nor are they likely to read the fine print on the back label, so there is little risk in making the date seem like a best before date. But in my opinion, the disgorgement date is such an essential piece of information that the Champagne rules should compel every producer to display it on the bottle.