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Who Am I?

17 years spent living and working in Champagne has allowed Jiles to build up a vast amount of knowledge about all things bubbly as well as a very extensive network of contacts, especially amongst the smaller and less well-known champagne makers whose champagnes will probably amaze you with their quality and diversity.

A job as area manager for Asia and Australia with Moët et Chandon was what first drew Jiles to Champagne after completing an MBA in Luxury Brand Management at ESSEC, a prestigious business school just outside Paris.

After nearly 9 years at Moët Jiles moved back to the UK where he started one of the first online businesses promoting and selling grower champagnes, wrote two books on champagne and created an online champagne study course.

However the draw of ‘The King of Wines and the Wine of Kings’ once again proved irresistible and another 8 year stay in Champagne was the result.

Jiles now puts his knowledge and contacts to work in helping businesses and individuals to create their own private champagne brand.


 

WHY I DON’T DO TASTING NOTES

Part I

Tasting-at-Henriet-Bazin225A friend of mine recently posted a comment on Facebook about my web site. He said that anyone interested in champagne, particularly grower champagnes, could find just about anything they wanted on my site, except tasting notes.

That may surprise some people, so I thought I should explain why I don’t believe in tasting notes.

First and foremost I’m not an oenologist or sommelier and although I have tasted hundreds of champagnes over the years I still don’t think that I have a particularly discerning palate, so I don’t think I can add anything of value to that sort of discussion. Besides there is no shortage of other people writing their thoughts on how wine tastes and that’s part of the problem for me…

I should make a distinction between on the one hand, people who love wines and simply want to share their ideas amongst one another. (I have no right, or wish, to criticise the way they enjoy themselves) and on the other hand tasting notes intended as some sort of a guide for the general public and it’s the second category whose value I find hard to appreciate. So with that proviso put of the way and my assurance that I don’t want to offend anybody, let me explain my point of view

This is the second part of an article all about how champagne ages and how you can avoid wasting your money by keeping champagne too long until it has no bubbles and is completely undrinkable.

Degorgement-a-la-volee225As we have already seen, before a bottle of champagne can be sold to you the yeast sediment is removed from the bottle of champagne by the process called disgorging (dégorgement in French). When that happens Autolysis stops and oxidisation takes over producing a rather different effect on the champagne.

That doesn’t mean that the champagne stops ageing altogether; on the contrary, if anything oxidisation speeds up the ageing process. Oxidisation is the effect that oxygen has on the wine and it takes place more rapidly after disgorging because the champagne is no longer protected by the CO2 inside the bottle. The flavours and aromas can become more intense and richer during oxidisation; the biscuit and toasty notes that for many people are the hallmark of good champagne, can become more pronounced.

However, it’s important to remember that oxidisation certainly doesn’t suit everyone. It is essentially a process of decay and when it goes beyond a certain point the champagne is ruined.

The best analogy I can think of is when game, such as pheasant for example, is left to hang for several days, or longer, before being cooked and eaten. The flavours become much more pungent and pronounced. Some people adore this but others find it just too strong to the point that it spoils their enjoyment of the meat entirely.

The trick then is to keep your champagne just the right amount of time and to avoid keeping it too long and finding, when you open it, that it has turned dark brown, has lost its bubbles and tastes more like vinegar than champagne.flying-cork

Unfortunately this is all too common. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me that they were given a special bottle of champagne on their wedding day, or on the day of their child’s birth and that they can’t wait to open it on their 21st anniversary, or on the child’s 21st birthday. That’s way too long and they are almost sure to be disappointed.

So here’s what to do.

There’s one approximate way and one more precise way.

I’ll tell you both

  1. The general rule of thumb is that you can keep champagne, after disgorging, for about the same length of time as it spent ageing in the cellars before disgorging.  So let's say between 2 and 3 years for non-vintage and 5 to 7 years for a vintage.

    However, and this is very important, the rule above only applies if you have good storage conditions at home. If you keep your wine in the kitchen, in the fridge, in the garage, under stairs or wherever, it won’t keep well and the best advice is to drink it within a few months of purchase.

  2. If you want to be more precise then you need to know the date of disgorging. When you know that you simply count forward to today’s date and you know exactly how much time has passed since the precious lees were taken out of the bottle.

But where do you find that disgorging date?

Unfortunately this is another piece of information that very few brands actually share with you. They know this date themselves but they don’t trust consumers with the information for fear, amongst other things, that the consumer will think it is a ‘Best By’ date and conclude that the bottle is ‘out of date’. However for people such as you who are more interested in champagne than the average consumer, you’d find this really useful.

Fortunately there is an increasing number of champagne producers, mainly amongst the grower champagnes, who have the good sense to put the disgorgement date on the bottle. Let’s look at an example.

Champagne De Sousa

Disgorgement-Date225You’ll see from this back label that this bottle was disgorged on 22nd March 2010, so when I drank it on 21st March 2011 I knew it was one year since the disgorging and the champagne should be just right to drink - it was by the way.

 

On the other hand if I was in a shop in 2014 and was thinking about buying this bottle, I'd know that it had been hanging around quite a long while since disgorging and would probably have lost some of its freshness. I'd think twice before buying it unless I knew for sure that it had been kept in perfect storage conditions. Then, but only then, I might give it a try.

So look out for the disgorgement date somewhere on the label. You may not always find it, in fact it's still only a minority of makers who do put this date on their bottles, but it is becoming more common and one day it might even become the norm. Let’s hope so.

Meanwhile... Stay Bubbly

Jiles

 

There are dozens of anecdotes and quotations associated with wine and champagne. I’m sure you’ve heard lots of them.

One of my favourites is

“Wine improves with age. The older I get, the better I like it.”

It’s not surprising then that if you ask most people about wine they will probably say that the older it is, the better it is, but that’s not necessarily true, especially when it comes to champagne. In the next few minutes you’ll find out why not and you’ll learn the golden rules about ageing champagne.

Bottles-ageing-at-Krug225With champagne, unlike most wines, there are two distinct ageing periods that you need to take into consideration: the first is the time spent ageing in the bottle before it leaves the cellars in France and the second is the time from then on until you actually drink it. 

The first is called ageing on lees. ‘Lees’ is the name for the dead yeasts cells left over after the fermentation inside the bottle has finished and which form a sediment in the bottle.

The second is called ‘bottle ageing’ and is not at all the same thing.

Here’s how they are different and why that’s important

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The rules of champagne making set down the minimum age a wine must be before it can be sold. The rule is the same for grower champagnes as for famous brands; everyone plays by theDepot-in-Rose-at-De-Sousa225 same rules. For non-vintage champagne it’s 15 months and for 12 months of that time the champagne must be allowed to age in the cellars with the lees in the bottle.

During this time the dead yeasts cell break down and release into the wine a cocktail of amino acids, enzymes and other nutrients which enrich the wine and develop its subtle flavours and aromas. This process is called autolysis.

At the same time there is another process going on called oxidisation. This is the reaction between the wine in the bottle and the oxygen in the atmosphere outside. It can take place because even though the bottle is sealed, the seal is not totally hermetic and a minute amount of air still gets into the bottle to react with the wine.

Bottles-ageing-at-Philipponnat225Oxidisation will also produce richer, deeper flavours in the wine up to a certain point, but it is also the process, if carried too far, that will turn the wine into vinegar.

The cellars in Champagne provide the perfect conditions for the wine to age and for these two processes: autolysis and oxidation, to work together, so generally speaking, the longer a champagne ages in the cellars in Champagne, the more rich and complex the wine becomes and, thanks to the yeast cells, the champagne retains its freshness and liveliness.

So how do you know how long the champagne spent in the cellars before you bought it?

Well for most wines it’s easy. There’s a date on the bottle which indicates the year of harvest. No such luck with non-vintage champagne mind you; there’s no date on the bottle.

To make things worse champagne makers don't indicate on the label exactly how long the champagne has been aged. This is a shame because it’s crucial information for any serious champagne lover.

We saw above that the minimum ageing is 12 months on lees, but this is hardly time enough to allow the champagne to acquire any real quality so most reputable champagne makers will age their champagnes for 2 -3 years, but there's quite a difference between 24 and 36 months and you're none the wiser from just looking at the bottle.

However, if you are content to stick with just the famous brands and take their word for what they say about the ageing period then you should be fine. However if you want to explore grower champagnes and discover all the amazing variety and quality they offer, then you’ll need some more information.

Now because non-vintage champagne is a blend of wines from several different harvests what you need to know is which harvests, but where do you find that information?

One way is to ask your supplier and if you are dealing with a specialist retailer, or a top quality sommelier, he or she will know. It’s part of parcel of doing a good job. However you will need to go to a specialist because you won’t get that level of expertise at your local supermarket – mind you, you probably won’t find a good range of champagnes there either.

Tarlant-Back-Label225It would be nice to think that the champagne makers put this information on the back label and there are a few of the more enlightened ones that are doing just that. Take champagne Tarlant for example. They have some of the most informative back labels in the business

The bottle you see in the picture is a blend of wines taken mainly from the 2005 harvest therefore bottled in 2006. So when I was drinking this champagne in 2011 I knew that the youngest wine in the blend was at least 5 years old. That’s an impressive age and far longer than any of the major branded champagnes will ever offer you for a non-vintage champagne.

In the next article I’ll explain about bottle ageing and how you can avoid having to throw your precious champagne down the drain.

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