“It all depends on what you want from your Champagne,” said the Anima Figure, my dinner companion, as we watched the Vintage 2004 being decanted at a tasting of Billecart-Salmon Champagne, held at The Modern in New York to celebrate François Roland Billecart’s first visit to the United States in 25 years. It was a lovely golden color, with a mousse on the surface of the decanter that dissipated fairly quickly. I know that some producers have recently been talking about decanting Champagne, but I confess that I have not myself seen Champagne decanted previously, so I was more than curious about the rationale on this particular occasion.
François Billecart had recommended that this vintage should be decanted around 45 minutes before serving, because it is still quite tight. As poured from the decanter, it was full of flavor, round and nutty with notes of brioche, and a deep texture. What about the bubbles? Well it was definitely a sparkling wine, but the fizz was not very aggressive. As served, it was a perfect match for the lobster in smoked vegetable broth.
The 2004 was the initial year of the new “Vintage” range. It’s two thirds Pinot Noir from Mareuil, with 20% vinified in barrique. When I first tasted it, at Billecart Salmon last summer, winemaker François Domi said, “This has brought ampleur. We changed the philosophy a bit. ” My recollection from that tasting was that the wine was rounded, but not oaky, with the effect of wood showing more in the creamier textured impression on the palate. The richness belies its Extra Brut status.
Based on my memory, this Champagne seemed pretty flavorful on opening, so I prevailed on the sommelier to pour me a fresh sample the next time a bottle was opened for decanting. The comparison was like night and day. Against the food, the bubbles seemed quite aggressive, hiding the flavors that were such a good match in the decanted sample. But at this point, more than hour after the initial decantation, the decanted sample was beginning to become a bit flat.
Later I had the opportunity to ask François Roland Billecart directly about the recommendation to decant. We agreed that you lose freshness but gain flavor by decanting, and the question is the best compromise. “It depends on the occasion,” François says. “If it’s for an aperitif, you should open the bottle and serve, but if it’s with dinner, decant before.” I continued to compare the two samples as they sat in the glass—they were served incidentally in wine glasses as opposed to flutes, another statement of purpose—and I felt that the ideal compromise between sparkle and flavor was reached somewhere between 30-45 minutes after opening.
Older wines at the tasting were also served in wine glasses. My favorite was the 1997 Blanc de Blancs, showing a lovely balance between developing fruits and nuts and truffles. With great depth on the finish, it outshone the Nicolas François Billecart 1997. The Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 1990 was most impressive, actually seeming less developed than the 1997 vintage Champagnes. Here is the full delicacy of rosé for which Billecart-Salmon is famous, with the subtle development of age.
I’m not sure I would go to the full extreme of decanting, but there is certainly a case to be made for opening a young vintage half an hour or so in advance to allow flavors to emerge that you would scarcely suspect if you guzzled it all immediately on opening.
I have often thought that the later glasses in a bottle had more taste, but ascribed it to two factors: (1) the bottle was less frigid than when it was opened, since most restaurants serve it too cold, and (2) I had been primed for more sensory awareness by drinking Champagne.
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