A Guide to Aging Champagne: Sommelier Cara Patricia Higgins on Why It’s Worth Cellaring Champagne

cellaring champagne

We think Champagne deserves to be drunk more on everyday occasions, and cellared more often. Photo Credit: Pixabay CC user Mcability

FEATURED WINES:

We do a lot of things with Champagne. We celebrate holidays and weddings with it, we kick off an elaborate meal with glass of racy Blanc de Blancs, and we shoot it out of Champagne guns off yachts in St. Barts (not really, such a waste!). But there are also many things that the majority of wine collectors and enthusiasts do not do. For one, they don’t drink Champagne on any of those hundreds of days that are not a special occasion. Many collectors barely drink it beyond a celebratory toast, and it’s rare that you’ll find a collection of Champagne aging alongside Burgundy, Barolo, or Napa Cabs in a cellar.

There are a few possibilities for this. First, most wine lovers balk at the idea of serving Champagne with a home-cooked meal on a Wednesday night — Champagne feels more like a party wine than a casual drink. In addition, many consumers don’t know the difference between vintage and non-vintage Champagne, so they stick with the bottles that are immediately ready to drink. And, admittedly, Champagne isn’t the cheapest bottle on the shelf.

Whether you’re a serious collector or just have a few bottles stored away in your hallway closet, we think Champagne is worth a second look, both for enjoyment and investment purposes. We sat down with Advanced Sommelier and San Francisco-based Champagne Specialist Cara Patricia Higgins over a few glasses of Krug to talk about great Champagnes and why (and when) they’re worth aging.

Why do you love Champagne and believe that it’s a worthy beverage beyond a glass for a celebration?

I love Champagne because it is unpredictable in the best way possible, which makes it very exciting. Champagne has so many different personalities that are a result of many factors: the dominant grape used in the blend, the time spent aging in the caves, the dosage, the base vintage of the blend, and most importantly, the producer’s style. This means there is always something new to discover, whether in the bottle or how it plays with food. Champagne never leaves me bored! For example, my favorite Champagne pairings are Peking Duck and Vintage Rosé Champagne, Fruits de Mer with Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and pasta with truffles or cream sauce with an oxidative style of Champagne…like Krug!

Can you age non-vintage Champagne? How can the consumer tell how old an NV Champagne is?

Producers tend to make a variety of Champagnes to release every year, most of these being non- or multi-vintage. In most cases, NV Champagnes are meant to be enjoyed near their disgorgement, or release date, for optimal freshness, but many can age nicely for 5 years after they receive their cork. However, some top producers like to release their Tête du Cuvée “Grand Cuvée” as a multi-vintage every year and these can easily age 20+ years under the right storage conditions. It is all about the high quality of Grand Cru fruit, balanced acid, and their very slow production methods. Many producers print the disgorgement information on their back label, so you can tell how long a bottle of NV Champagne has been sitting on the shelf.

So overall, vintage Champagne is probably a safer bet for long term aging?

Prestige cuvees from top producers are built to age as well, as they typically spend a very long time on their spent yeast which acts as not only as a body-building seasoning, but also as a kind of preservative. For this same reason, vintage Champagne often outlives its non-vintage counterparts. Think about 10-30+ years for top houses’ Vintage or Tête du Cuvées releases, or ‘Special Club’ releases from small grower-producers. I’ve had Salon on their original corks back from the 70s and while the fizz may have calmed down, the wine inside only got better and more mind-blowingly complex!

What are the benefits of aging Champagne versus instant gratification? Because, let’s face it, a bottle of Champagne doesn’t last long in my house.

For me, cellaring Champagne at home almost never happens. Even in my own Champagne collection, I probably only have about a dozen single bottles that I’m aging, and all of these are prestige cuvees or vintages. Sometimes I’m lucky and get to drink “RD”, or “recently disgorged” champagnes–which is when the Maisons hold back their vintages and release with a new cork years later. These include Bollinger RD, Krug Collection, or Dom Perignon P2. This allows me to appreciate substantial aging without having to endure the anticipation myself. I recently had a 1985 Veuve Clicquot Rosé from their Cave Privée collection and nearly fainted because it was so amazing.

But, if you’re seriously collecting and have the patience, tasting a bottle of Champagne that you’ve stored for a decade is akin to discovering an uninhabited island. It is absolutely exciting. You’re the only one who gets to taste it for the first time, and have the memories of all the bottles you’ve had before come flooding back.

For a consumer who is just starting to collect Champagne, what are some producers that are great to drink now, and some that should get hidden away for the future?

I am not having a good day until I have a glass of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, which is the most balanced and generously delicious 100% Chardonnay Champagne on the market under $100 retail. It is the perfect antidote to the way-too-dry, way-too-acidic Blanc de Blancs that have flooded wine lists and retail shelves over the past few years. I also love Moussé & Fils ‘Special Club’ releases that are 100% Meunier. These are wild and gorgeous!

For cellaring, everything from Champagne Krug, Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot Vintages, Salon, Champagne Philippe Gonet, and Chardonnay-dominant Tête du Cuvées from high-quality Grower-Producers like Pierre Peters, Vilmart & Cie, and Pierre Gimmonet.

So, does size matter?

Actually, size does matter. Your 375ml bottles do not age as long as standard 750ml bottles, and for the long haul (say, if you’re buying the vintage from the year of your child’s birth and giving it to her on her 21st birthday) 1.5L or bigger is the way to go. It is worth the investment!

Another aspect of what makes Champagne so much fun is sabering. Do you recommend it or should the regular drinker leave it to the professionals?

Anyone can saber Champagne, under the right conditions. The Champagne bottle has to be COLD COLD COLD, and the cage has to be taken off. It has to be CHAMPAGNE because of the thickness of the glass and the pressure of the CO2 inside–no one should chance it with any other kind of sparkling wine. Do it outside, and watch a YouTube tutorial by a real sommelier like Andrea Robinson, Catherine Fallis, or Patrick Cappiello before even thinking about attempting sabering!

Great Champagne Isn’t Just for Special Occasions

We think that many times people see Champagne as its own entity, not as wine. While yes, the process of making a méthode champenoise wine is different than making a Bordeaux blend, at the end of the day, it is wine, it can age just as magnificently as some of the best reds in the world, and with its versatility, we would argue that it is one of the most food-friendly beverages. Champagne is drunk in times of celebration, and the sound of a cork popping has a Pavlovian way of bringing us joy. We all deserve to feel that way more often, not just on a few designated days of the year. So, this week, break out the Champagne, and perhaps a couple bags of kettle chips. That’s really the best pairing, in our opinion.

Whether you are buying your first bottle of vintage Champagne or adding to a fully-stocked Champagne cellar, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s best wine, including fine Champagne.

At Vinfolio, we help our clients buy, sell, store, and manage their most treasured bottles of wine. But in our spare time, we’re just a group of passionate and slightly obsessed oenophiles--we love sharing a great glass of vintage Champagne, followed by a Burgundy, and then a Bordeaux, to get things started. We’re always obsessing over the latest (and oldest) vintages, and we want to share that knowledge and passion with our readers.