A light lunch with Dom Pérignon

A very rare treat - the Oenotheque 1996

How well I remember my long-ago visit to Möet & Chandon in Épernay. There was the obligatory photograph at the statue of Dom Pérignon in the courtyard of the Möet Maison, a rather forbidding brick building on the Avenue de Champagne, a night at the Chateau de Saran, where the company entertains its guests, then a delightful lunch in the Trianon – two elegant white palaces and an orangerie framing a charming garden. Built by Jean-Remy Möet in 1804 they were a favourite watering-hole for Napoleon and are now used for public relations exercises. It was the same Jean-Remy who had the foresight (and the cash) to purchase the Abbey and vineyards of Hautvillers in 1823, including the tiny room where Dom Pérignon himself made his contribution to civilisation in the late 1600s. These days it is kept up as a shrine – and a most satisfactory one. A lovingly tended garden lies at its heart, circled by lichen-covered grey stone walls that draw colour from the afternoon sun. Woodpigeons coo in the trees behind the rose beds; vineyards slope steeply down the hillside, merging into meadows that reach to the placid waters of the Marne.

            Pierre Pérignon was 29 when he joined the Benedictine community at Hautvillers in 1658. His duties were those of a procurator, collecting taxes from the Abbey’s tenant farmers, some of whom paid with grapes. Dom Pérignon used these tithes in his experiments, carefully vinifying wines from different vineyards and villages and then comparing and blending them. His first great discovery was that an assemblage of various wines could be far more delicious and interesting than its separate components.

            At that time, casks of the tart, still white wine from Champagne’s cold, chalky hills were shipped to England in the winter, where innkeepers drew it off into bottles which were then sealed with corks. The warmth of the inns rekindled the incomplete fermentation and when the bottles were opened, sparkling Champagne frothed out. Dom Pérignon figured out what was going on and learned to control the process, pioneering the use of corks and strong glass bottles in France. He also developed a shallow-based press that allowed him to produce clear white juice from black Pinot Noir grapes and discovered that sheep manure was the best fertilizer for vineyards. By the time he died, in 1715, he had done enough to earn an undying reputation as the father of sparkling Champagne.

Axelle Araud, oenologue for Dom Perignon, our guide through the vintages

            Centuries later, in 1936, Jean-Remy Möet’s successor, Robert-Jean, Comte de Vogüé, was looking for a good name for Möet & Chandon’s Vintage 1921 Cuvée de Prestige, a wine created initially for the American market. Dom Pérignon was the ideal moniker. Since then it has been made only in exceptional years – 37 vintages to be precise – its personality and unique style cherished and protected by a series of winemakers who see themselves more as custodians of a tradition than creators. Any chance to taste it must always be seized, so when Franco Stalteri invited me to a small gathering in the magnificent wine cellar beneath Barberian’s steak house, and mentioned that various Dom Pérignons would be tasted and introduced by Axelle Araud, an oenologue on the team of Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon’s winemaker and chef de cave, I was down there faster than a gopher with mustard on its tail.

It was a lovely way to spend a Wednesday lunchtime. I suppose there were nine or ten of us, along with our host Arron Barberian and Axelle Araud. Her commentary was lucid and fascinating. We started with the 2002, one of the great vintages in the region when all the grapes in all 17 of Champagne’s grands crus reached perfect maturity. That, in fact, was the challenge for Dom Pérignon. The wines from that year were so intense and rich that the great Champagne’s ethereal character was threatened. You can have too much of a good thing! Dom Pérignon is always around 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and is the only Champagne to use grapes from all 17 grands crus. It’s different every time and yet it’s always the same – weightless, gossamer but round and richly flavoured with amazing length. The texture is the giveaway – “seamless and tactile,” said Axelle, “like a caress on your tongue. Never too dry or astringent.” And it’s pristine. During the winemaking and during the obligatory minimum of seven years’ aging on the yeasty lees trapped in the bottle, it is never exposed to oxygen. Other Champagnes are. Krug, for example, ages its base wines in oak. So Dom Pérignon is virginal, hinting at toast or almonds or citrus but in a subtle way – as if you walked into a room on a spring morning and the window was wide open and there was a bowl of lemons on the table – no more citrus than that.

            After the 2002, we tasted the 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé, my first encounter with this wine. In all the years, Möet has only made 21 D.P. Rosés. The first one was created in 1959 in honour of the Shah of Iran’s wedding. This too is roughly 50-50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but the blend includes red wines for the colour and for a subtle astringency. It’s more intense and vinous and there are red and black berries on the nose. “It’s amazing with meat,” said Arron Barberian. “Lamb tartare in particular.”

Arron Barberian, generous host and master of the revels

            Our third wine was a Dom Pérignon Oenotheque 1996. These are fabulously rare beasts, “ a confrontation with time” wherein the wine is left undisturbed in the bottle for a further plenitude of five years or even for another 20. The extra time doesn’t seem to age the wine at all – the yeast contact keeps it young. The 1996 was disgorged in 2008 and as we tasted it on Wednesday it was miraculously vibrant, more intense and biscuitty than the Vintage 2002 with hints of honey and dried citrus peel on the nose – a curiosity for the true collector, priced around $1500 a bottle.

            Barberian’s provided a magnificent buffet for us at that point – big fat PEI oysters (awesome with the Oenotheque), massive juicy shrimp and lobster meat, smoked salmon and charcuterie (fabulous with the Rosé), an array of Quebec’s finest cheeses, teaspoonfuls of caviar and barely seared scallops topped with a dab of house-made bacon jam. “You know what we should do?” asked Arron Barberian. “Just in the spirit of intellectual enquiry…” He disappeared into his other (even larger) wine cellar and came back with a Dom Pérignon 1978. “Who here is younger than this wine?” he asked. A number of hands were raised. He opened it and we tasted… Sure, it was showing a little age, which suited me no end – I’m English, I love older Champagnes. The colour was darker but it was still awesome, still showing pizazz with buttery notes and the scent of dried fruits. The length was formidable and that telltale texture, like the feeling of silk on bare skin, was unmistakable.

            Sharing the love, Vintages will be including the Oenotheque 1996 and the 2000 Rosé in its October Classics Catalogue. The 2002 is on sale now. For the 1978, you’d best be high-tailing it over to Barberian’s.

  1. James, did you get up to the town of Hautvillers at all when you were in Champagne? It’s a beautiful little town (where Dom Pérignon was buried) featuring plenty of spots from which to look out over the hillsides with a glass in your hand. It’s only 10 minutes from Epernay should you find yourself back there…

  2. Hi Dan. I did visit the old abbey – an amazingly peaceful spot after the bustle of Reims and Epernay – but I didn’t spend any time at all in Hautvillers town. I will make a point of exploring it next time I’m there. Thanks for the tip.

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