First, rightly or wrongly, champagne is seen by the majority of consumers as a wine you drink only as an aperitif and even then only on special occasions. It’s seen as a wine of celebration rather than a ‘serious’ wine for enjoying with a meal, or for laying down in a cellar for years and years.
Second, the majority of champagne is non-vintage and, once again, I suspect, although I admit it’s only a hunch, that the absence of a vintage year on the bottle in some way detracts from the image of champagne as a ‘serious’ wine unlike the great Burgundy and Bordeaux wines which all bear a vintage year on the label.
Third, until relatively recently champagne hasn’t been given as much attention as an investment wine as have the other great names in the world of wine. The whole point about investing in wine is that you buy a case at a price of X, you store the wine carefully for several years and then you sell it at a price of several times X. With very few exceptions, this entire concept has been reserved for wines other than champagne.
Last but not least, most other great wines are sold when they are relatively young and certainly not ready to drink. It is understood by the consumer, at least the more knowledgeable ones, that they will have to wait many years before the wine is ready to drink.
In total contrast to this, a fundamental principle of champagne making and marketing is that champagne doesn’t have to be aged by the consumer because it has already been aged for many years in the cellars in Champagne before being sold. Champagne therefore does not need to be kept after purchase and can be enjoyed immediately.
So what’s the truth of the matter? How long can you keep champagne?
In the same way that there is more than one reason why people think that they cannot or shouldn’t age champagne, there is more than one element to the answer
First, if you want to keep any wine for more than a few weeks you need to have a proper cellar or somewhere with the right conditions:
- - constant temperature
- - little or no light
- - no vibrations
- - no strong smells
- - fairly high humidity
So, if you are thinking of keeping your champagne in the garage, under the stairs or in the kitchen, forget it. It won’t keep well and you are better off drinking it now.
Let’s assume that you do have somewhere suitable to store your champagne, you still want to know how long you can keep it and here I’m going to take a line from the Moet et Chandon training manual
“A champagne is not of better quality for having aged longer; it is better for having had the time necessary for it to reach its best”
In other words, there is no inherent virtue in keeping champagne just for the sake of keeping it..
Now, you will often hear sommeliers and other wine writers say adamantly that one champagne or another ‘has been sold too young’, ‘needs another year or two’ , ‘hasn’t reached it’s best’, or some similar remark. They may well be correct judging by their own appreciation for slightly older champagnes, but I am not sure that the majority of the general public would share this appreciation.
Champagne, just like any other wine, will change over the course of a few years from being youthful and lively with plenty of fruity and floral aromas, to something more complex that shows more evolved aromas such as hazelnuts, brioche, butter and vanilla. If you keep champagne long enough, it will eventually take on a much richer, more concentrated character with aromas such as spices, tobacco, mushrooms and coffee and more.
Tasting these more mature champagne can be a wonderful experience, but it may well not be what many consumers expect, or want, in a champagne, which, for most people, is still a lively, bright , uplifting wine of celebration, rather than a wine for serious contemplation and discussion. That may well appeal to sommeliers and other serious students of wine but is that what YOU want?
If the answer is Yes then the rule of thumb is that a champagne can be safely kept, for as long as it was aged in champagne before sale.
In practice this means up to about 3 years for non-vintage and up to about 5-6 years for vintage champagne BUT this assumes that you have ideal storage conditions to keep the bottle in. If you don’t (and very few of us do) then don’t keep your champagne longer than a few months, or a year at most.
Every bottle of wine or champagne will ‘go off’ one day and since you never know how long is the right amount of time to keep the wine, all you do with every passing day is to increase the chances of you being disappointed when you do eventually open the bottle.
But, what should you do if you DO like mature champagne and you DO have good storage conditions?
If this applies to you, then you’re in luck because champagne can age for many years, even decades, It’s a total fallacy to say that it will not.
Don’t expect it to be bursting with effervescence, mind you. The pressure in the bottle and the quantity and vigour of the bubbles will diminish over the years to the point at which there may be hardly any bubbles at all, nevertheless the wine will still sparkle and dance on your tongue because some of its youthful energy lingers on.
As mentioned above, the aromas and flavours will have evolved too and if you like that style of wine, then you’re in for a real treat.
Yet the story doesn’t end there
There are two stages in the life of a bottle of champagne
The first stage starts when the wine is put into the bottle and the bottle is taken down into to cellars.
During this time the wine ferments a second time producing a slightly higher level of alcohol and CO2 gas which, because the bottles is sealed, dissolves into the wine creating the bubbles and stays trapped inside the bottle creating the pressure.
The CO2 gas protects the wine from exposure to oxygen that might otherwise seep into the bottle and cause the wine to deteriorate. As long as the bottle remains unopened in the cellars, even for very many years, the champagne will retain much, although not all, of its freshness and will still be in tip-top condition. The aromas and flavours will evolve as described above, but only very slowly.
This stage of ageing is called ageing ‘on lees’ which refers to the yeast deposit inside the bottle which is called the lees.
At the end of this period of ageing, the bottle is deemed ready for sale and is removed from the cellar and opened so as to remove the lees. When the bottle is opened the champagne is exposed to oxygen and even though the bottle is then sealed again with a cork, a certain amount of oxygen will seep into the bottle subjecting the wine to oxidation which, sooner or later, will render the champagne undrinkable.
In this second period of ageing the wine is said to be in an oxidative environment rather than a reductive environment which is the term used for the first stage of ageing with the less inside the bottle.
After you buy a bottle of champagne you have no real way of knowing how long to keep it and most people are never entirely sure if they are storing the champagne in the best conditions or not, so there is always a risk of keeping it too long.
However there is a way to enjoy old champagne and eliminate the risk attached to storing it yourself. The answer is to buy what is called recently disgorged champagne.
This is champagne that has been stored in the cellars in Champagne, sometimes for several decades, but only recently opened to remove the lees. This solution gives you the best of all worlds: champagne that has been aged for a very long time, in perfect conditions, with no risk that it will be past its best.
Most major champagne houses and even some of the smaller ones have a catalogue of recently disgorged champagnes. They are quite expensive, but to drink them is an experience well worth the price not to mention the peace of mind.