People tend to ask the same sort of questions about Champagne. For example, do the wines of kings benefit from being aged in extra-large bottles? And if yes, then why? How does the contents affect the ageing of Champagne? Is there a particular reason why we let it age? Thomas Aquin famously said that “time is nothing”, but in Champagne the opposite is true: “time is everything”. Here’s why. 

Ageing Champagne: An Ode to Time

It’s a fact: wine evolves naturally over time, regardless of the contents. This process is called ageing. 

Champagne wine undergoes two types of ageing. 

The first one takes place in the bottle, directly after the prise de mousse, when the bubbles form. Following the secondary alcoholic fermentation, the yeasts trapped inside the bottle gradually die off and autolyse (self-destruct). The active agents in their membranes (nitrogen compounds, mannoproteins, macromolecules, aromatic compounds and lipids) then dissolve, enhancing the wine’s aromatic qualities. We call this ageing on lees or ageing on laths. 

The second stage of the ageing process starts after disgorgement, once the dosage has been added. The so-called resultant liqueur d’expédition, whose production methods remain a closely guarded secret, then determines both the final profile of the Champagne and the House style. Leaving the liquor to rest for a few extra months allows it to blend seamlessly with the wine and enhance the overall aromatic structure. 

French law regulates minimum maturation times of 15 months from bottling to shipment, including 12 months on lees. Vintage Champagnes, on the other hand, must be aged for a minimum of three years. Champagne is the only wine that requires such extended ageing. Indeed, European legislation stipulates a minimum ageing period of just 90 days for sparkling wines.  

The importance of the stopper… 

Alongside autolysis, oxidation occurs at a slow rate due to the porosity of the Champagne stopper. Cork is a natural material containing gas, azote and oxygen, which makes it liquid-tight but permeable to air. 

This gas exchange is required for the wine to age. Over the years, the compression of the cork stopper reduces, and as it retracts it lets air pass through. When wine comes into contact with air, it oxidises. To make sure the wine retains its freshness, it must be protected from oxidation (NB: the carbon dioxide inside the bottle is not an oxidising gas). In the past, a basic sealing tool fulfilled this duty, but Champagne stoppers have significantly evolved in recent years. Although the materials used vary from one manufacturer to another, today these stoppers are specially designed to ensure the optimum preservation of Champagne wine.

…and the size of the bottle

Wines that are stored in large bottles age better, it’s true. Magnums are the ideal container for amateurs seeking to store their wine in the cellar for several years because they offer greater ageing potential than regular 75cl bottles. For one simple reason: bottlenecks are identical regardless of container size. This means that the wine oxidises at a slower rate. 

Another factor also comes into play here, and that’s the date of disgorgement. Two cuvees from the same vintage, both bottled in a magnum but disgorged on different dates, produce markedly different results. Wines with a more recent disgorgement date will be fresher. 

The importance of ageing at the time of tasting 

Studying how the fruit develops as it ages is particularly useful. Over the years, it moves from “youthful radiance” to “balanced maturity” before reaching optimum “complexity and fullness”. While young Champagnes are very easy to grasp with their fruit-forward and lively aromas, older Champagnes in contrast deliver an incredible olfactory odyssey. Vintage Champagnes offer better ageing potential: between 10 and 20 years, versus five years on average for a non-vintage Champagne. 

>> To continue reading about Champagne’s good practices, read our article: 
How do you store Champagne, even without a cellar?

Cover photo © Louis Terran