Vin de réserve explained

Brown Paper Bag Club’s annual pre-Christmas Champagne dinner line-up. (Photo: Huon Hooke)

Most Champagne drunk by Australians this past festive season was non-vintage, and nearly all non-vintage Champagne relies to some extent on ‘reserve wine’. But what exactly is ‘vin de réserve’, as the Champenois call it?

Reserve wine is wine held in store from prior vintages, which is added to the most recent vintage before bottling to increase its complexity.

Simply put, reserve wine is wine held in store from prior vintages, which is added to the most recent vintage before bottling to increase its complexity. Some houses such as Charles Heidsieck use a lot of reserve wine (40%); some use very little (5 to 10%). Hence, reserve wine is a useful tool for influencing the ‘house style’. Compare Charles Heidsieck with Piper-Heidsieck, for instance, to see the difference.

Reserve wine is normally stored in stainless steel tanks, but some houses keep their reserve wines in oak barrels to add extra character. Some, such as Krug, use very old reserve wines; some, such as Ruinart, use only the immediate prior vintages.

Some have their own practices, and these can be complex and painstaking.

One of these came to light at the Brown Paper Bag Club’s annual pre-Christmas Champagne dinner, where the members pull out all stops to find interesting bottles. Last December’s wines included 2004 Louis Roederer Cristal and Dom Pérignon, 2002 Bruno Paillard Ne Plus Ultra and Bollinger Grande Année, a wonderful magnum of 2008 Deutz and a stellar 1999 Salon Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs.

Most wines were vintages – which in Champagne must be 100% of the declared year. But there were two superb non-vintage wines, and we were reminded that non-vintage need not mean a lesser, cheaper or younger wine. Most are, but these two were exceptions. Egly-Ouriet Extra Brut VP (Vieillissement Prolongé – or extended ageing), and Jacques Selosse Lieu Dit ‘Sous le Mont’ Mareuil-sur-Aÿ Extra Brut Blanc de Noir. Both had been aged on lees for about six years, so they were certainly not young wines.

The Selosse is especially interesting from the reserve wine angle. Winemaker Anselme Selosse, one of the gurus of ‘grower’ Champagne, has his own rather individual – if not unique – approach.

He makes several Lieu Dit (named place) wines, from special sites, this one from the premier cru village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Each is just a single barrel (225 litres or 25 dozen bottles), so they’re extremely rare.

This is how he assembles the wine.

Non-vintage Champagnes are bottled in the spring following harvest, so in France, that’s March-April. For this particular bottle, that harvest was 2010. Selosse selected his best barrel of the 2010 vintage from that vineyard, and put it in a tank. For every Lieu Dit wine, he has a single barrel of reserve wine. He also empties that barrel into the same tank. He then has two barrels worth of wine, which he mixes thoroughly. He then puts half the blended wine back into the reserve wine barrel, which is put back in the cellar till next year. The remainder of the tank, which is also exactly one barrel, comprising 50% of 2010 wine and 50% every vintage from 2009 back to the first vintage Selosse began doing this, is bottled.

These bottles then undergo their secondary, gas-producing fermentation and are matured in the same bottle for six years. My bottle was finally disgorged, and sold, and came into my hands in 2018. So at the time we drank it, the youngest wine in that bottle was eight years old. But the average age was much older – and gave the wine much of its depth of character. This is the glory and beauty of reserve wine.

Selosse wines aren’t to everyone’s taste. They can polarise drinkers, and my tasting note reveals why!

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