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Veuve Clicquot disgorgement date experiment

by Tom Cannavan

I was invited to participate in a roadshow that is currently touring the globe, where a panel of wine writers takes part in a blind tasting of various vintages of Veuve-Clicquot. A pair of identical vintage wines is served in each flight. One had been disgorged just months before, the other up to 20 years earlier, with careful cellaring ever since. All we had to do was choose our favourite wines.
 

Perhaps more than any other, it is Champagne Bollinger who have created the current vogue for "RD" Champagnes: where old vintages are held on the lees back in the Champagne Caves, before being disgorged and immediately released onto the market, as 15- or 20-year-old vintages wines. Given Bollinger's success, other houses, large and small, have followed suit, releasing recently disgorged Champagnes from vintages as much as 50 years old.

When the Veuve-Clicquot blind tasting hit London recently, I was lucky enough to be asked to join the UK panel along with fellow writers Margaret Rand, Giles Fallowfield, Nicholas Faith and Chris Orr. We tasted pairs of four wines: 1990, 1988, 1988 in magnum and 1980. All were served blind, and of the two samples of each vintage, one was old disgorged - as much as 18 years ago - and one recently disgorged, in April 2004.

Presenting the wines was Fred Panaïotis, one of the four winemakers at Veuve-Clicquot. Before the tasting Fred gave us a run-down on the vintages, but no information on the disgorgement dates of the samples in front of us. I had no real expectations as to A) how much difference there would be between the samples, B) whether the difference would be easy to spot, and C) whether I'd show a preference for the old- or recently-disgorged style. As the tasting unfolded, I was quite surprised to learn that in most cases the difference between the samples was quite marked, and that in every case I selected the "old disgorged" as my favourite wine of the pair.

In most cases I found the recently disgorged wines to be less complex, and in some cases - compared to the old-disgorged - even a touch attenuated.

 

The old disgorged wines were toastier, richer, and had greater depth. This was definitive proof for me of something I've always believed in anyway: that cellar-aged Champagne is one of the great joys and to some extent, bargains, of the wine world. It did surprise me how poorly the RD wines stacked up when directly compared against their OD counterparts, but then, as Fred pointed out, there is also house style and winemaking to be taken into consideration: it is easy to see that a different style of Champagne (Bollinger, for example where the first fermentation is in oak barrels) might be better suited to later disgorgement.

The other four panelists showed a strong preference for the old disgorged version of each vintage too, and the results of eight previous seminars (given to us at the end of the event) showed an approximate 75/25 split in favour of the old disgorged bottles.

The tasting was blind of course. Retailers and prices are given at the bottom of the page, though older wines are hard to come by.

flight one

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1990
This was the recently disgorged wine, disgorged April 2004. Very small, steady stream of bubbles. Light gold colour. Quite a nice, mellow, gently plummy aroma with some broad autolysis. Soft mousse, that is quite persistent. Lovely nutty palate, with bruised pear and tart plumskin fruit. Lovely harmony here and succulence, with quite a downy peach quality into the finish. Very good indeed.

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1990
This was the old disgorged wine, disgorged February 1998. Seems slightly more effervescent, with the colour just a shade deeper. Seems brighter and toastier on the nose, but also more vibrant. Big, toasty notes but a citrus zip too. The palate has a full mousse and there seems more warmth; a toasty, burnished edge to masses of mouthwatering lemon fruit and just a nutty, yeasty hint into the long finish. Excellent.

See 1990 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

flight two

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1988
This was the old disgorged wine, disgorged August 1998. Pale gold colour and plenty of small, consistent bubbles. This has quite a fresh nose, with plenty of nutty aromatics, apricot kernel and some bruised apple. On the palate a touch of coffee and toast precedes a smooth, full palate of walnut and mouthfilling orange and peachy fruit. There is a broad, rich toastiness, but lovely background acidity keeps this sharply focused into the long finish. Excellent.

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1988
Pale gold. This was the recently disgorged wine, disgorged April 2004. Quite an old Champagne nose - a touch of vomit (sorry) and it seems much more oxidised. Much fresher on the palate, with a real streak of lemony fruit. This is quite poised on the palate, with floral and lime nuances, and lots of freshness. Excellent length, with tingling acidity. Excellent.

See 1988 stockists on wine-searcher.com.

flight three

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1988 in magnum
This was the old disgorged wine, disgorged September 1998. Identical colour again, and plenty of minute bubbles. Quite a sweet, floral edge on the nose, with lots of sweet toastiness too, and an emerging espresso note. The palate has terrific breadth; a sumptuous mélange of orangy fruit, sweetness and rich, rolling mousse. There's a precise cut of mineral and lemon acidity and though it stays toasty and broad, a scintillating edge. Harmonious and outstanding.

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1988 in magnum
This was the recently disgorged wine, disgorged April 2004. Very floral nose; acacia and spring flowers. Very fresh, with peach-skin notes. On the palate quite mouthfilling, with a rolling mousse and a burst of beautifully sweet fruit. Cleaner than the previous wine, with apple and pear and some herbal quality. Very long and fine, this is excellent.

flight four

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1980
This was the recently disgorged wine, disgorged April 2004. Very youthful, pale gold colour. Quite a high, perfumed, estery and exotic nose, with a hint of oxidation and bruised fruit. The mousse is quite rich, and the palate is lovely, with soft, apricot fruit that is very pure, buttressed by coffee and a background nuttiness. beautiful balance in this wine, and good length too. Very good indeed/excellent.

Veuve-Clicquot Vintage Reserve 1980
This was the old disgorged wine, disgorged November 1986 - almost 20 years before the first wine of this pair. Toastier for sure, more mellow, with a nutty nose, orange and plum. It is quite earthy, with a coffeeish note. On the palate it is beautifully biscuity and creamy, with fine, fine sweet fruit and extra lushness over the first of this pair. Good balance, with taut acids adding precision to the finish. Excellent.

No 1980 stockists listed.

See stockists of all Veuve Clicquot Vintages on wine-searcher.com.