Reflet d’antan, a French phrase that translates to “reflection of yesteryear,” and mémoire (memory) are two terms that offer clues to a specific style of Champagne referred as réserve perpetuelle.
The defining characteristics of Champagne are its origin and method of production. From grapes cultivated in the Champagne region of France, the base wine undergoes a second fermentation in bottle and is aged for as little as 15 months or up to ten years before release.
Within the category, however, are wildly different site and varietal blends, sweetness levels, aging vessels and styles. One style that has gained traction is perpetual reserve Champagne.
Large Champagne houses reserve a portion of wine from each vintage, which they store in vast cellars. They tap these reserves during years that yield small harvests, and to achieve consistency for nonvintage blends. Krug is well-known for its complex system that blends more than 120 wines from at least 10 different years to create its Grand Cuvée. It’s an art akin to a painter who blends oil colors to achieve a uniform hue.
What is Perpetual Reserve Champagne?
Since small producers grapple with space issues, they may store all their reserve wine in one vessel, a system of blending called a perpetual reserve.
“A perpetual reserve is a good way for smaller producers to maintain older reserve wines,” says Peter Liem, author of Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region (Ten Speed Press, 2017). “They may not have the space or equipment necessary to store large quantities of wines individually, or an adequate volume of reserve wine to keep individual wines fresh, so blending them together is a handy way for them to benefit from the complexity and character of older reserves.”
At the conclusion of harvest, a vintner adds young wine to the designated tank or barrel, then draws off what they need to bottle nonvintage (NV) wine. “A perpetual reserve adds complexity to a nonvintage wine and helps a grower to maintain a house style,” says Cédric Moussé, of Moussé Fils.
Over time, the blend takes on greater depth and nuance, which makes it interesting as a standalone wine.
The perpetual reserve blending system is sometimes referred to as a solera, a reference to Sherry’s maturation method. True solera systems use fractional blending across multiple criaderas (tiers of barrels).
“The two [terms] are used interchangeably in the Champagne region,” says Liem. “In general, the older people in Champagne tend to use the term ‘solera,’ whereas the younger, more avant-garde set (who often drink Sherry) will use the proper term réserve perpetuelle, in recognition that this is not a true solera system.”
Perpetual reserve wines deliver a unique perspective on Champagne by blurring the lines of vintage and offering a different reflection of site. That’s a key reason why Fabrice Pouillon, of R. Pouillon & Fils, bottles his Cru Solera Brut, a wine he makes from one designated oak vat that contains fruit only from a particular commune in Champagne. “I see it as a true expression of fruit from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ,” says Pouillon.
On the other hand, a disappointing vintage may dominate the vat and take years to soften into the background.
While some larger Champagne houses may exclude a poor vintage from a blend, the practice is uncommon. “It’s rare for a grower to omit a vintage, which makes the cuvée a very accurate reflection of the previous vintages, both good and bad,” says Moussé.
Only a handful of houses use perpetual reserve wine exclusively for a bottling. One is Henriot. Cuve 38, its limited-production, 1,000-magnum offering, is a blend comprised of 100% Chardonnay from Grand Cru vineyards in four villages.
Each year, the chef de cave adds a portion of the best blanc de blancs. The house avoids the term “solera” so consumers don’t infer an oxidative character.
“After a few years of aging in oak cask, [the wine] tasted impressive and complex,” says François Huré of Huré Frères, another producer of the style. More then 30 vintages are included in the current release of Mémoire, sourced from a perpetual reserve barrel started in 1982.
Réserve perpetuelle can be viewed as liquid history. To that end, Raphaël Bérêche of Bérêche & Fils named his version Reflet d’Antan.
“Bérêche makes an outstanding perpetual wine…from a solera started in the middle of the ’80s by his father,” says Gabriel Clary, portfolio manager at Skurnik Wines. “Huré’s Mémoire…a truly excellent wine…was started around the same time.
“Both wines bridge the gap between generations. This is true of Moussé and [Pierre] Péters as well.”
Working mostly with Pinot Meunier, Moussé makes several examples of this style from a tank started in 2003. The fruit comes from Cuisles, Jonquery, Olizy and Châtillon-sur-Marne. He keeps his wine in stainless steel, rather than wood, to protect against oxidation and aging.
Based in Villers-Marmery in the Montagne de Reims, A. Margaine’s broad, textured and bright Cuvée le Caractere M is a blend of 100% Villers-Marmery Premier Cru fruit harvested from 2002 to 2012. It’s unique because the village grows predominantly Chardonnay, due to its east-facing slopes, rather than Pinot Noir, the specialty of the area.
Why These Champagnes Matter
“It’s a style,” says Liem. “It really depends on what that producer is looking for. Some prefer younger, fresher wines, and they’ll opt for youthful reserve wines that emphasize fruit flavors. Others prefer the mature character that can only come from older reserve wines, and the perpetual reserve system is a way to gain this.”
Xavier Berdin, cellar master at Palmer & Co, tends a two-stage, 40-year-old Pinot Noir solera used in the brand’s Rosé Reserve blend. The Amazone de Palmer bottling is made from 100% reserve wine, cherry-picked from the best of 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006.
“Globally, we have seen a rise in consumers’ involvement with Champagne,” says Berdin. “With a continuing focus on all things culinary, Champagne lovers…are looking for high-quality products.”
For the consumer who buys grower Champagne, whether a wine is made from perpetual reserve matters less than its taste and complexity, says Moussé.
“There are some producers who make joyful, delicious and very gulpable Champagnes by this method, and those who make very cerebral and quiet wines using the perpetual reserve method,” he says.
In essence, these are wines everyone can enjoy.