Rathfinny Wine Estate

Disgorgement dates on labels: yea or nay?

A recent article in Decanter discussed whether or not to disclose and/or display disgorgement dates on bottles of sparkling wines.  I was horrified to read that a Champagne producer thinks “that the recent obsession with disgorgement dates is reducing the winemaking process in Champagne to insignificant numbers which are not understood by most of the people talking about them”. What a way to think about your customers!

Even if some consumers do not understand the entire sparkling winemaking process and how a disgorgement date is set, why wouldn’t a producer want to explain how this works and educate them? People know that there is more to winemaking than bottling and disgorgement dates. For example, harvest dates are important too, as is all the work around blending wines before bottling.

When a sparkling wine ages on its lees in a bottle, its profile changes with time. After the yeast has died, their ‘autolysis‘ starts—this is when the yeast cells break-down—releasing flavour compounds that are quite typical, as they give buttery, fresh bread, nutty notes to the wine. So with longer ageing on lees, the wine will potentially gain more complexity.

In Champagne, the minimum for a non-vintage wine to age on lees is twelve months and we have adopted a similar rule for the Sussex PDO. After disgorgement and corking, the wine would benefit from a resting period of about three months. This resting period will allow for the wine to settle and for the liqueur de dosage (if any was added) to blend and integrate in the wine properly. If the disgorgement date can indicate that a wine had enough time to settle after said disgorgement, it will also show how long the wine has been ageing “on the cork”. As wine ages on the cork, it evolves as well via a slow exchange of gas between the bottle and the atmosphere.

What would be even more indicative is a bottling date AND a disgorgement date, so one would know exactly how long the wine has been ageing both on its lees AND on the cork.

In Champagne, it is not mandatory to indicate either of these dates on the label, so the question becomes: would it help consumers to be able to make a better choice of wine if they could pick depending on bottling/disgorgement dates, or do they keep buying “blindly” and trust that both producers and sellers guarantee an optimum quality wine at that moment?

One needs to remember that, in the case of Champagne, fifteen months on lees is a minimum, but some producers, like Rathfinny, leave their wines more than three years on the yeast lees. I think there is room for some additional information to be made available for consumers.

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  • Thanks for the piece Jonathan. I also had a look at this issue in my piece here last week:

    http://www.scalawine.com/wpblog/2016/01/24/champagne-lenoble-tells-nearly-all/

    Of course, it’s not obligatory anywhere to put the disgorgement date on labels. I just think too much of a fetish has been made of the issue, implying that knowing the date tells us lots about how the wine will taste. I’m in favour of the date, but what it might predict is much less certain than people imply. And I also think the kind of explanation and education of the mass of potential consumers out there is much more complex than people think. Lenoble is a very good and deep-thinking producer, among the leading lights of winemaking creativity in Champagne. I think their apparent retrograde decision is an effort to get people to think a bit more, instead of the stock right-on reaction people may have if denied the date.

    Incidentally, sorry to be a bit pedantic, the rule in champagne about time on lees is 12 months compulsory actually on lees. The 15 months minimum is defined in the appellation as from the bottling to when the wine leaves the producer – ie is shipped for market. Goes without saying that the vast majority age rather longer! The classic view has been that long lees-ageing is critical in making a good champagne. But champagne’s single estates are pushing stylistic variation far more – one cult producer in the Aube barely gives his wines 15 months, Increasingly I think time on lees will not be such a badge of virtue it has been classically, although the classic examples of long ageing will continue, no doubt.

    Looking forward to Rathfinny fizz in good time!

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