After tasting the Piper-Heidsieck Hors-Série 1971 ($499), a rare, late disgorged Champagne that spent 49 years resting peacefully on its lees, I was inspired to delve deeper into the role yeast autolysis plays in the flavor development of sparkling wine.
The wine, which is the first release of the new Hors-Série range, was made by then-cellarmaster Claude Demiere; an equal blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that was sourced from 12 different Grand Cru villages and did not undergo malolactic conversion, it is characterized by concentrated aromas and flavors attributed to
the low-yielding vintage.
Émilien Boutillat, who was appointed chief winemaker in 2019, disgorged the wine in February 2021, selecting a 2019 Chardonnay for the Brut dosage of 10 grams per liter. Describing autolytic characteristics in wine that has undergone lengthy periods of aging on the lees can be tricky, largely because these aromas and flavors aren’t part of a routine sensory experience and are inherently more challenging to pin down as a result.
Because Boutillat and I were tasting different bottles that showed slight variations, we compared notes during our Zoom session to compile a summary of descriptors for the wine: delicate yet complex aromas of honeysuckle, golden hay, dry garrigue, hazelnut, quince paste, and caramel; beautifully balanced and intense flavors of toast, baked apple, nutmeg, orange zest, and prune; and chalky minerality with lemon pith that persists through an incredibly lengthy finish. For this taster, it was the epitome of mineral expression.
In addition to the Hors-Série 1971, I also tasted the Telmont 2006 Blanc de Blancs Vinothèque ($209) with Telmont president and shareholder Ludovic du Plessis. In a joint partnership with Rémy
Cointreau, du Plessis is reviving a house he describes as “a sleeping beauty” by reducing the winery’s carbon footprint and converting the estate to organic viticulture by 2025.
The 2006 Vinothèque, which spent a minimum of three years on the lees and another 12 in the cellar, is a vinous wine with miniscule bubbles and notes of marzipan, brioche, young pineapple, and lip-smacking Granny Smith apple that culminate in a toasty, savory, umami-driven finish.
While du Plessis is planning comparative tastings to zero in on the sweet spot for lees aging at Telmont, which he believes is highly dependent upon vintage, this wine is a prime example of what researchers in Tasmania and South Africa have discovered about lees aging post–secondary fermentation: namely, that the base wine plays the dominant role in determining the complexity of a late-disgorged sparkling wine and that overall wine age has a much greater impact on the development of the characteristic flavors most commonly associated with sur lie aging.
While lengthy aging on the lees contributes to sensorial changes, enhanced foaming properties, and the development of the characteristics that winemakers refer to as autolytic, these researchers found that aging base wine on or off the lees produced similar aroma profiles irrespective of grape variety.
To better understand the impact of lees aging on flavor development, expert tasters participating in the trial were asked to evaluate base wines and tiraged wines for six sensory characteristics: autolytic, spicy, toasty, honeyed, nutty, and earthy.
Chardonnay base wine aged without lees showed significantly more intense nutty and honeyed flavors and, after 24 months of aging, its concentrations of compounds associated with malty, cooked, potato-like, honeyed, and floral aromas were more than 99% higher than those in the base wine aged on the lees.
While Pinot Noir aged on the lees had intense honeyed character and positive aromas of nuts and vanilla, it didn’t fare as well over time, showing increased levels of sweaty, cheesy, and rancid notes after 24
months. Having focused only on yeast-derived volatiles, researchers are now calling for further study on the effects of fruit-derived volatiles on the perception of flavor in sparkling wine.