I had a rare glass of Champagne for breakfast last week. The rarity had nothing to do with the bubbles-before-noon part; I’m accustomed to that. I mean the Champagne. It cost $1,000 – for a glass; a full bottle is worth $8,000. Made in 1911, the wine predates the Titanic disaster, the First World War, television and even Lloyd Robertson’s hairstyle. It is history for the mouth.
Access to the occasional old gem is a perk of jobs like mine. I usually decline to write about them, mostly because they’re not available for purchase, but also because they often don’t live up to the hype and insane prices. This experience merits a mention because there was a blatant message in the bottle: Good Champagne can age better than most reds.
The juice in question was Moët & Chandon 1911 Grand Vintage. To be sure, it was a grand vintage for grape quality, but not so much for ailing grape farmers in France’s great sparkling-wine region, who had revolted violently that year in what came to be known as the Champagne Riots. My sample came from a tiny lot that had been resting in Moët’s cellar ever since. Just 66 bottles will be released – in cases of six – through 11 auctions around the world this fall.
The only Canadian sale took place on Friday after my tasting as part of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario’s Vintages Auction. The six-pack sold for $50,000 to Michael Barnstijn, a former software engineer and vice-president of Research In Motion, the company behind BlackBerry, with proceeds going to Rare, an environmental reserve based in Waterloo, Ont. The first and only other auction so far, in Hong Kong last month, pulled in $100,000 (U.S.). Moët was mum about that buyer too, but it is rumoured to have been Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing.
Although I’m a fan of Champagne at almost any age, I was taken aback by the quality of the 1911. It possessed what most people would consider a fatal flaw: no bubbles. Aficionados lucky enough to have sampled Champagnes made before 1945 would not have been surprised. Over time, the effervescence slowly diminishes in bottles sealed with cork, as this one was. Modern champagnes now are laid to mature under tight crown caps, similar to those on beer bottles, until it’s time to package them with a mushroom-shaped cork.
The bottle I sampled was one of only a few extras. Moët had a total of 1,500 left of the original bottling, and after the 66 bottles go, there will be no more. That’s because cellar master Benoît Gouez uncorked all 1,500 in January and deemed just a few dozen worth drinking. The good ones were topped up and recorked. The rest were reportedly destroyed (or, more likely, guzzled by cellar hands).
So, yes, there was considerable attrition. But I marvelled at the resiliency of the fruit in the demo bottle, akin to candied citrus. I also detected notes of ginger, honey and baked apple as well as a pleasant nuance of mushroom, a hallmark of good, old white Burgundy. Lively bubbles would have been nice, but in their absence was a gloriously silky texture.
One of the most estimable tasters I know, Rob Jull, owner of the Toronto-based importing agency Vinifera Wine Services, was also treated to a sample, courtesy of Moët. A veteran cellar consultant and wine appraiser who has tasted Champagne from the 1930s and 1940s, he, too, enthused, offering this note from his tasting book: “Medium-bodied but lithe, with flavours that largely echo the nose: baked pie fruits, primarily apple, agrumes (citrus), fresh mushrooms and subtle floral-vanilla flavours. Mounting richness despite delicate complexity, with penetrating, sneaky length and a chalky, mineral finish. Remarkably fresh and youthful. Highly memorable.”
Like Mr. Jull, I was taken aback by the vivacious light-gold colour. Most whites turn rusty-brown after decades in bottle. Champagnes are largely protected from the ravages of oxidation by lees, the spent yeast sediment that not only adds rich, dough-like flavour but also acts as a sort of anti-aging booster shot. Champagne starts life as a sharply acidic still wine, then gets bottled with added yeast and sugar to introduce a secondary fermentation. As the added yeast feeds on the sugar under pressure of the sealed bottle, it generates carbon dioxide, which turns from liquid to gas once the cork is popped – natural carbonation. Before sale, the wine is “disgorged” to expel the sediment and gets topped up and resealed.
But even a Champagne that has already been disgorged can improve in the cellar thanks to protective acidity, developing notes of honey, brioche pastry and nuttiness. This is especially true of expensive cuvées labelled with a vintage date, such as Dom Perignon. Regular non-vintage Champagnes, the entry-level labels popped by millions at celebrations, also tend to settle into their own a year or two after they land on shelves.
“If you can afford it, you should take your bottles of non-vintage Champagne and store them for a year,” says Andre Saint-Jacques, owner of Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, B.C., which has one of the largest Champagne selections in the world, from as many as 180 houses, depending on the season. “It softens them and tones the acidity down a bit.” He extends that advice to include good non-French sparkling wines, such as Sumac Ridge Steller’s Jay Brut from British Columbia.
Mr. Saint-Jacques will travel to Paris in November for his own exclusive tasting of Moët 1911 with a view to bidding on the six bottles coming up for auction in France. He says he may need it to replenish his selection of rarities after Bearfoot hosts its famous bubbly-soaked November blowout called MasqueRave, which will raise funds for a charity called One Drop that brings clean water to communities in developing countries. “I hope I buy it,” he says. “Champagne goes with everything. It’s my favourite drink.”
Editor's Note: The bidder was Michael Barnstijn, a former software engineer and vice-president of RIM. The original version of this article identified him as a then-anonymous bidder.