The Black’s Law dictionary defines disgorgement as “the act of giving up something on demand”. No wait, we are talking about wine... But we’re not far off the truth...
Champagne Disgorgement, in simple terms, is the removal of dead yeast cells from a bottle before a new cork is added and is one of the key processes in the production of Champagne.
So why are we talking about it?
During the last 10 or so years there has been a thirst for more information from the consumer led by a handful of predominately small growers. But the concept of acknowledging the disgorgement and telling the customer all started way back in the 1960s when Bollinger released a revolutionary cuvee named “R.D.” with the 1952 vintage. A wine that had seen further time in the cellar than the standard vintage, more time that is in contact with the dead yeast cells. It wasn’t, however, until the 1980s that another name joined in, namely Bruno Paillard, when they started to advise their consumers of what date the cork was added. From that point on, and mainly in the last 5 years, the information on the back label has increased greatly from the date the wine went into the bottle (Tirage), the blend (percentage of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Meunier etc), dosage, (amount of sugar per litre), base year, (the youngest wine in the cuvee) and even information around malolactic fermentation, and whether or not it saw oak. The list is endless, as you can see from the back of the Pierre Legras Idee de Voyage 2008 below. But one of the most relevant bits of information is that of the disgorgement date.
So what? You might ask...
The reason why disgorgement is important all comes down to the science of maturation. There are three phases to the life of the juice that eventually makes its way into your glass.
1. The Vessel
The first occurs during and immediately after the initial fermentation. This is where the wine picks up aromatics from the vessel that it sits in, be it steel, oak etc and interacts with the oxygen that is inevitably within that space.
2. The Vin Clair
The second, and most important period of maturation, occurs once the vin clair, (juice that has been vinified) enters the bottle. At this stage the sugar and yeast is added, the byproduct of which are the bubbles that we so love. It is after all that sugar is munched by the yeast, and the yeast eventually die that the real magic starts to happen. The process of autolysis. During this period the yeast acts as a guard against oxygen, absorbing it for decades. This means the longer the wine is held in the phase the fresher it is. We have seen producers use this to great effect with cuvees like Dom Perignon Plenitude 2 and Bollinger RD. Thankfully, many growers have joined the fray and in fact we will be the first to offer one such bottle from Legras et Haas on release in March 2021, (more details soon!).
3. The Disgorgement
The last phase occurs with the process of disgorgement and ends with you opening the bottle. The yeast is pushed to the neck of the bottle by the process of riddling and then ejected either manually or by machine. Sugar is then added to define the dosage from Brut Nature, (no sugar) to Doux, (lots of sugar!). It is important to understand that it is at this point that wine starts to “mature” in the classical sense that we understand, as oxygen very much becomes the enemy of the wine’s freshness as the yeast is no longer in place to protect it. Much can be said about increasing the amount of sugar to prolong the wine's life, (as can be seen from a number of very old wines with high sugar levels), but that is for another article!
This is the reason why understanding the disgorgement date is so important. Most, if not all of our producers, display the disgorgement date of their wines on the back label. So, armed with this data, you can open a bottle safe in the knowledge you know just how fresh or mature it is!
How is disgorgement done?
Disgorgement can be done one of two ways:
1. A la volee
This is the process of removing the sediment by hand. It is still used to this day by a number of producers and almost always used for large format disgorgements. The bottle is riddled as per usual. It is then held down with one arm. The bottle is then slowly brought up to the horizontal and, as the first bubble starts to creep past the shoulder of the bottle the cap is removed using a disgorgement key. Done properly the cap is removed along with all the sediment with very little wine being lost in the process.
The mechanical process starts with a similarly riddled bottle. The sediment is then frozen by submerging the neck of the bottle in a solution that is at below –25 degrees! The bottle is then rotated and the ice plug ejected under pressure when the cap is removed. This process is used by most Champagne producers as thousands of bottles can be disgorged in a single hour.
Want to sample wines with interesting disgorgements?
Although each Champagne that we offer is exceptional in its own way, how long the bottle has been on the lees can make a real difference. The below are examples of Champagnes that present different profiles because of this.