Old bubbles

On cork maturation has taken on an unusual meaning in the bubbly section of our cellar. The problem is that it’s housed in a corner with other bottles and boxes in close proximity and at right angles. Extracting a bottle of fizz is thus extremely difficult; the result is the bubbly bottles tend to get neglected. A pity, as I love bubbles, the CO2 lifting the spirits at the end of the day.

Recently I decided this is no good; over the past couple of weeks I’ve conducted what promises to be quite a long purge of bottles from their sleeves. Loading two or three at a time in the fridge so there’s always one that’s chilled and a backup, should the first be over the hill. So far there’ve been some unexpected results.

First, my general thoughts about ageing Méthode Cap Classique, that’s ageing on the cork. The primary ageing – on lees and crown cap is important for the development of complexity – but once degorged, ie the lees removed, dosage, if any, added and both cork and muzzle applied, the ageing becomes more oxidative, the saturated CO2 diminishing and softening, but hopefully not totally transpired when so much effort has been made to create ‘the perfect bubble’, as Graham Beck’s cellarmaster, Pieter Ferreira describes his goal.

Sadly and especially in the Non-vintage MCCs, such is their popularity, that time on the cork before release is too short. To my taste, these have too vigorous a bubble, one that detracts from the wine’s more intricate flavours. What time on the cork achieves is better assimilation between bubble, wine and whatever dosage has been added. I’d guess that period could be anything up to three years. But the bottles tucked away so soundly in our cellar were much older than that. My expectations weren’t high (and there have been a couple of duds) but there have been some very pleasant surprises.

BubblyTraditionFirst was this NV Villiera Grande Cuvée with its still strong, bright colour, richness and persistent, gentle bead. A most satisfying, calm fizz – if that’s possible. On querying its age with Jeff Grier, he asked about coloured dots under the punt; ‘If there’s an orange dot, it’ll be ’89, a gold dot means it’s a ’90 and if no dots, it’ll be a 1991 or 1992,’ he advised. This bottle was dotless, so one of the two last vintages: in other words either 23 or 24 years old!

Remarkable, but I see checking in Platter that this label was a 50/50 blend of chardonnay and pinot, which spent four years on the lees; the chardonnay was barrel fermented. What Jeff also told me is that the Grande Cuvée was the forerunner to Villiera’s much-lauded Monro Brut, introduced in 1993. So it had everything going for it.

Boschendal Brut 1990 still used the term Méthode Champenoise.. The Cap Classique Association was formed two years’ later, when it adopted the term Méthode Cap Classique to signify the wine was made in the traditional Champagne method.

Bubbly boschendalPlatter offers the information that the blend is 48% pinot noir to chardonnay’s 52% and the wine was bottled with just 6 grams/l dosage. It won a silver medal on the International Wine Challenge and was one of three finalists on the Snday Telegraph wine of the year.
Annoyingly, as the bottle has now gone to the recycling depot before I could look, it also noted the date of degorgement, apparently applied since 1988. It must’ve been one of the first to do so. It’s something the MCC Association is going to more generally introduce, I think initially on vintaged wines.

The colour was even more pristine and brilliant than Villiera’s, it tasted less rich too, possibly because of lower dosage or no oak, but like the Villiera, it was still very together with the finest, most persistent of beads. Another bottle of enjoyment!

So why did these two wines offer such a relative surprise: the corks. The best way to remove a bubbly cork (apart from sabrage) is to keep the muzzle in place, grab it with a cloth to preserve the skin on one’s hands, and slowly turn the bottle. The cork should be released with a gentle sigh of the trapped CO2. Not with this lot; they wouldn’t budge; eventually the top broke from the well-shrunken piece left in the bottle. Both were easily removed with a corkscrew and sorry little bits of cork they were, both as hard as bullets and thoroughly saturated. Even more amazing then that the wines were drinkable, let alone sufficiently pleasurable to finish the whole bottle.

Such lengthy ageing isn’t something I’d recommend, especially under less than ideal conditions, but certainly NV wines (as well as their grander siblings), released after all-too short a time on the cork can give greater drinking pleasure if left from a year or two.

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