Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dom Perignon

Issue: October 31, 1995


300 years ago a monk named Dom Pérignon developed the essential methods still used today to make Champagne

By Per-Henrik Mansson and Ted Loos

Aweek to ten days before each harvest, the master vintner would perform a meticulous ritual. Every year it was the same: Bunches of grapes--all picked from individual sections of a 40-acre estate--were put on the windowsill overnight to cool. The next morning, always on an empty stomach, he began his tasting.

As he carefully sampled the grapes, he began to formulate the assemblage of different grapes in his mind. Then he used intuition--and maybe a bit of divine inspiration--to decide how to marry the different parcels and the proportions each site would play in the final blend.

By seeking out the best fruit for his top cuvées, he showed an unusual interest in quality. It may not be unusual by today's standards, but this vintner was a Benedictine monk who fine-tuned the concept of "selection" more than 300 years ago. Both his methods and his results were quite revolutionary for the 17th century.

Thus Dom Pierre Pérignon created the legendary "vin de Pérignon." His blanc de noirs, a white bubbly made from red grapes, became the world's first outstanding sparkling wine and changed the history of Champagne.

When he arrived at the Abbey of St.-Pierre d'Hautvillers in 1668, the area north of the town of Epernay in the Champagne region was known for sheep and cereal crops. From the age of 28, when he was named head of the monastery, Dom Pérignon spent nearly half a century as cellarmaster and administrator of the abbey on the slopes above the river Marne. By the time of his death at age 76 in 1715, he had made himself into the greatest man of wine who ever lived, according to Richard Fetter, author of Dom Pérignon: Man and Myth. "Who else can you look at who has so single-handedly changed the face of a region?" Fetter asks. "I don't think anyone else can make that claim."

Did he invent champagne? Well, yes and no. Granted, he wasn't the first to produce sparkling wine, and he didn't create the méthode champenoise now used to make Champagne today. This technique involves adding to an already fermented still wine yeasts and a sweet mixture that trigger a second fermentation in the bottle, producing the well-known bubbles. Pérignon couldn't have understood exactly how yeasts worked, since Louis Pasteur's discoveries came much later.

But le vin du père Pérignon was a forerunner of the elegant Champagnes we know today. The monk raised the making of sparkling wine to an art form. Because his product impressed the epicures of his time, he placed Champagne on the map as a region with the potenial to make great bubbly. In a sense, Pérignon helped make Champagne (the region) what it is today, even though Champagne (the drink) is now produced in a quite different manner.

Over the centuries, historians and others have wondered whether Dom Pérignon's wines were the result of a deep secret, some magic formula that disappeared when he died, just a few days later than Louis XIV. Historical evidence suggests that the monk's success in producing the first fine sparkling wine was due to a combination of factors.

Above all, Pérignon focused his efforts on improving the quality of still wines through strict vineyard husbandry and his knack for selecting and blending the right grapes. While some European winemakers already blended various wines to make their final cuvées, Pérignon assembled grapes, not just vats of wine. No other 17th-century vigneron is known to have taken the concept of "selection" as far as he did.

Pérignon's wine turned bubbly almost certainly by accident, at least in the beginning. He usually bottled his wine during the third week in March because at that time it seemed he could produce the most bubbles. Unhappy with the temperature of his cellar, Pérignon built a new one in the cool rock on the property. He apparently understood how important constant, low temperatures were for the quality of his wines.

The big difference between Pérignon's system and the méthode champenoise is that the bubbles in Pérignon's wine were the result of an interrupted alcohol fermentation. This is how it worked: The wines had only partially fermented in the fall as winter approached and the temperature dropped in the abbey's cellars, which interupted the alcohol fermentation and left some residual su gar in the wines. As warm weather returned in the spring, however, the residual sugar prompted the fermentation to resume.

Left to itself, this process often produced an oily, yellow wine that was undrinkable. It was already known that wine would referment in the spring, but Dom Pérignon managed to gain control over nature and produce sparkling wine more consistently. His genius lay in his ability to improve each winemaking step, from the pruning of the vines to the bottling of the wines.

Dom Pérignon had a sharp mind inspired by the rigorous logic of Cartesian philosophy. He had been schooled in advanced theological studies since the age of 18, when he chose to enter the Benedictine order. It has been said that nothing focuses the mind like a life of celibacy and communion with God, and Pérignon's achievements are as close to proof as we are likely to get.

As the harvest got under way, Pérignon kept firm control over the process. Sometimes pickers would make several passages in a vineyard to pick just the type of grapes needed for the monk's different blends, ensuring that they were harvested at the correct maturity levels.

Although the Church may have taught forgiveness, Pérignon was a shrewd businessman who had high standards and severely punished sloppy work. A vineyard police force vigilantly enforced Pérignon's dictates. He forbade pickers from eating grapes while harvesting them because he feared they would choose the best fruit; they were not allowed to eat bread on the job because he feared that crumbs would fall into the basket and pollute the harvest. Grape thieves received years in jail for their crime.

To obtain grapes with finesse, Pérignon demanded that vines be pruned to rise only two feet above the ground, while an average of four feet was common in most neighboring vineyards. This severe pruning lowered yields, and probably improved the wine's flavors. And he threatened to take to court any worker who pruned in the rain, because he believed it would damage the vine.

When the grapes arrived in buckets hauled on a cart by a mule or a donkey, Pérignon stood in the winery dressed in a hooded robe tightened at the waist by a leather belt, the traditional garb of the Benedictine monks. This was the most important moment of the year. For each cuvée, he made sure that the right types of grapes were placed on the press in the proportions he had determined. For his top vats, he insisted on using only tiny Pinot Noir berries. Unlike many of his fellow vintners, he refused to use white grapes because he felt they oxidized easily and produced heavy wine not to his taste.

He vinified the must from each pressing separately. Grapes were left to drop their juices lightly for a while, creating first-run juice. Then heavier pressing was applied, for the first and then the second tailles. Like today's quality Champagne producers, he refused to use the more rustic wine made from the third pressing.

The best vintners working today go to great lengths to protect their wines from having any contact with air, which could oxidize and ruin them. Three centuries ago, Pérignon and his team perfected a sophisticated contraption to minimize this contact. To rack their wines, they linked the barrels with metal pipes so that the wine would siphon from one barrel to another.

Pérignon was only able to channel his perfectionist tendencies into developing a superior wine because of the resources of the Abbey of St-Pierre d'Hautvillers. He was backed by a well-run, highly disciplined organization, the Benedictine Order. It kept him in the same monastery for 47 years, which was considered a long tenure even back then.

The prosperity enjoyed at the abbey sprang to a great extent from Pérignon's ability to make the most of his vineyards. He sold off lesser parcels or faraway vineyards to consolidate holdings around the abbey. And he discovered, as vintners after him also have, that a quality-oriented approach boosted the wine's reputation, which then enhanced its price. Pérignon's wines--identified by the abbey's symbol, a cross imprinted on the wax covering the cork--sold for much higher prices than average wines from the region, mostly still red wines.

The signs of prosperity were unmistakable: The abbey expanded its facilities, and the number of monks who resided there doubled during Pérignon's tenure. Since it was the days before sturdy, thick-glass bottles had been introduced, the abbey suffered enormous losses from bottles that exploded when the pressure built up. One year, 1,560 out of 2,381 exploded, or 65 percent of production; another year it was 1,100 out of 1,418 bottles, or 77 percent, according to René Gandilhon's authoritative work, Birth of Champagne: Dom Pierre Pérignon.

Such losses could be devastating, and they deterred many lesser lights among local vintners. According to Fetter, in the Montagne de Reims, an area of Champagne north of the Marne Valley where Pérignon lived, vignerons didn't try sparkling wine for another 100 years.

The reputation of the vin du père Pérignon, however, spread to the court of Louis XIV and to the king himself. The wines showed considerable finesse, at least by the standards of the rustic wines made back then, and became the toast of the finest tables in Europe.

But the tribute that rings most true comes in the opinion of the brotherhood that nourished Pérignon's talent. A full 100 years after Pérignon made his last wine there, Dom Gossard, the last cellarmaster at Hautvillers, described the master's ability to marry grapes this way: "Never once did he make a mistake."

A Deserved Reputation

Dom Pérignon is overexposed, expensive--and worth it, based on our tasting

By Per-Henrik Mansson

Named after a 17th-century monk, Champagne Dom Pérignon is the quintessential prestige cuvée: it comes from the best vineyards; it's produced only in the best vintages; it's expensive ($89 in U.S. retail stores for the '88); and it has an interesting story behind it.

Even though virtually every Champagne house makes a special prestige cuvée, Moët & Chandon's D.P. (as Dom Pérignon is often called), and Louis Roederer's Cristal, are arguably the two most famous.

To produce its top cuvée, Moët can draw from more than 1,100 acres of grands crus vineyards that it owns, says Richard Geoffroy, Moët's head winemaker. And within these grands crus, he chooses from the best parcels, or lieux-dits. Among them are: Saran and Les Buissons in the grand cru commune of Cramant; Les Moulins and Les Joyettes in Mesnil-sur-Oger; Les Assises and Les Dames in Bouzy; and old vines from the site of Dom Pérignon's original monastery, the Abbey d'Hautvillers.

"I just cherry-pick the best for the Dom Pérignon," says Geoffroy, who uses 25 to 50 different vineyard sites to assemble the D.P. blend. (Up to 2 percent of Dom Pérignon might be made from purchased grapes, but the great majority comes from Moët's own vineyards.)

The juice from each vineyard site is fermented separately in stainless steel vats ranging from 6,600 gallons to 13,200 gallons capacity. No wine ever ferments or ages in wood (Moët did away with the use of oak for Dom Pérignon in 1969). All wines undergo malolactic fermentation by winter, at which time Geoffroy and his team blend the D.P. cuvée to a specific style.

What that style is became clear during a vertical tasting of Dom Pérignon held in June at the Abbey d'Hautvillers for this story, a tasting that will be repeated in the United States this fall. On Oct. 27, Moët will treat attendees at the New York Wine Experience to a sit-down tasting of seven vintages of Dom Pérignon: 1969, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1982, 1988 and the newly released 1985 Dom Pérignon Rosé.

The 11 vintages I tasted in the summer displayed all the finesse, elegance and subtle complexity you could want in a Champagne. Few of the wines were disappointing, although the tasting did reveal the risks of keeping old wines, even in the best of conditions (all bottles came from Moët's own cellars). Three bottles were oxidized or fading, and second bottles had to be fetched (which were much better).

Dom Pérignon is not a fat, opulent Champagne that hits you over the head and weighs on your palate with extremely rich flavors. Instead Geoffroy's goal is to make a crisp, firmly structured Champagne that still has some roundness. The fruit shines through, uninhibited by any contact with wood, but the malolactic fermentation softens the full- bodied wine. Dom Pérignon invariably ages on the lees for six to seven years (the 1988 was released in early 1995). This long aging process makes the wine ready to drink on release and develops nuances of flavor that remind you of bread dough, spice and hazelnuts.

While Champagne benefits from contact with the lees in the bottle after its secondary fermentation, once these dead yeast cells and other sediments are removed in the disgorgement step of the méthode champenoise, the wine tends to age and lose its freshness. It's best to drink a Champagne like D.P. within a year or so after it's been disgorged. In fact, Moët releases its vintage Dom Pérignon in waves, disgorging more wine as stocks dwindle on the market. Thus the '88s released in early 1995 were disgorged in the fall of 1994, and later releases of '88s will also be disgorged shortly before shipping. The wines I tasted at Hautvillers were disgorged just minutes before being poured.

Moët's marketing team in the United States is now promoting Dom Pérignon as a wine that can age well, and this fall they released a wooden box containing one bottle each of D.P. from '66, '76 and '85. (These wines will be disgorged just prior to shipping to maximize their fresh character.) The three-bottle package should retail for around $500, and only 500 of these boxes will be made available in the United States, according to R. John Pellaton of Schieffelin & Somerset Co., the New York-based importer for Moët Champagnes.

The '85 is the better of the three wines in the box, according to my recent tasting in France. But, then again, the Dom Pérignon cuvées of the top years from the 1980s are a remarkable series for Moët, as prestige cuvées from those years are for many other Champagne houses. "We had an extraordinary string of vintages with the '82, '83, '85 and '88," says Geoffroy, 40, a former physician who has been in charge of Dom Pérignon since 1985.

The current release, the '88, is a good example of the D. P. style: crisp and fresh, with a citrus undertone and a long, beautiful finish. Wine Spectator's tasting panel in New York recently rated it 91 on the 100-point scale and described it as creamy, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture (see July 31). That wine had been disgorged at least six months earlier, while the wine I tasted in Hautvillers was disgorged right in front of me. The D.P. I tasted was tighter and firmer, and the exercise proved that by the time Dom Pérignon arrives in retail stores--following shipment from France and storage in the United States--it's become a rounder, smoother wine than when it started out from the cellars in Epernay.

"Like all '88s, it was closed and should open up with time," Geoffroy said at the tasting. The '88 was made from 45 percent Pinot Noir and 55 percent Chardonnay. While it's delicious now, the '88 D.P. is a vintage Champagne that actually should improve and gain complexity for a couple of years in the cellar.

My favorite wine in the tasting, the '82 (60 percent Chardonnay, 40 percent Pinot Noir), was a joy to drink, so seductive, every sip revealing nutmeg, spice, chocolate, toasted bread, butter and vanilla flavors. Despite a large crop, the grapes that year reached, in Moët's words, "perfect balance between the acidity and sugar." Typical of a great D.P., the '82 is both crisp and caressing in texture. Wine Spectator editors have rated the '82 Dom Pérignon from 93 to 98 points in various tastings over the past eight years. This is one of the greatest Champagnes ever made.

Wines like the '82 prove that Dom Pérignon is not just some flashy marketing creation, although the marketing of the brand has helped carve out a special image for D.P. in the Champagne category. While several other Champagnes often score as high as D.P. in Wine Spectator's tastings, none is as well known.

In 1935, Moët decided to create a special bottle of Champagne from wine of the '21 vintage. The first D.P. shipment to the United States was 100 cases of 1921 in 1937. Since 1921, Dom Pérignon has been produced in 27 vintages.

Like virtually all Champagne houses, Moët officials refuse to reveal specific production and sales figures for its prestige cuvée. They again refused to give figures for this report. This policy creates a perception of scarcity in the marketplace and, therefore, helps support the wine's high price. Insiders in Champagne estimate the production level of Dom Pérignon at around 200,000 cases. (For comparison, Louis Roederer produces from 17,000 to 50,000 cases of Cristal a year.)

For nearly 60 years, Moët & Chandon has relentlessly pushed through the message that its Dom Pérignon Champagne is one of the greatest wines. That so many people want to toast their achievements and special moments with Dom Pérignon is testimony to a remarkable marketing and winemaking tour de force.

Much of this success is based on D.P.'s consistent quality. "Consistency" is religion at Moët. From D.P.'s marketing team in New York to its winemakers in Epernay, no discussion about this Champagne can be held without much talk about how this luxury product must taste the same, year in and year out. You can see their point.

It is a difficult market. Sales of Champagne dropped from a peak of 1.3 million cases in 1987 to 785,000 cases in 1992, a 40 percent decrease. In such a climate, Dom Pérignon seeks to attract more than just the hardcore wine aficionados. To grow, Moët needs to rope in a broader consumer base--people who will buy D.P. as much, if not more, for its image than for the wine itself.

D.P. wants to make the same stylistic statement in every vintage it releases. "Our style must come through stronger than the vintages," says Geoffroy. "D.P. is less representative of each vintage due to the art of blending. There is this expectation among our customers, and they want to find 'their' Dom Pérignon. So never can we tell them, well, we didn't do our cuvée very well, but buy it anyway. We must always produce the wine they expect to find."

Selected Dom Pérignon Vintages 1988-1959

91 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1988 $89 A beautiful wine with a long finish. At first sip this is sharp and crisp, showing lime and citrus flavors, but it turns a bit earthy on the palate and develops yeasty, chalky notes. Try in 1997.

90 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1985 $110 Excellent finesse in this wine that is still fresh with lime and citrus, but it also hints at lovely hazelnut, nutmeg and coffee bean notes. A very long orange-peel-scented finish. A touch lighter than the '82. Drinkable now.

93 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1982 $150 Seductive and wonderfully balanced, crisp yet it caresses the palate. Has a very complex toasted bread and buttery croissant character along with some nutmeg, spice, chocolate and vanilla notes. At its peak, so drink and enjoy.

88 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1980 $135 Fresh and elegant, with characteristic doughy, yeasty flavors and a touch of honey and mocha. Smooth, supple and a touch herbal on the somewhat short finish.

90 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1978 $190 A steely, full-bodied and complete Champagne, showing a touch of honey, cedar, butter and spice. Has fruit and lime flavors, with a long finish. Drinkable now. Tasted twice; the first bottle was musty, oxidized and tired.

87 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1976 $150 A smooth, silky Champagne that's mature without being oxidized. Has floral and honey notes along with some tart pear and pie crust accents. A bit lighter than the '78, and terrific to drink now. Tasted twice; the first bottle was tired.

90 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1973 $175 Light to medium body, this is an elegant, discreet and balanced Champagne that has a creamy, smooth mouth-feel and delivers some truffle, honey, lime and hazelnut notes. Refined finish. Perfect to drink now.

89 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1969 $225 A incredibly powerful, full-bodied Champagne that needs food to show its best. It lacks a bit of finesse, but it bursts with flavor--from buttery toast and butterscotch to chocolate, orange peel and grapefruit.

85 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1966 $250 A bit light and starts out slow, but it takes off on the long finish. Hints of grapefruit and a slightly herbal character, but the honey notes are attractive.

79 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1962 $200 A hard, dry wine that has lost some of its fruit. Austere and has a chalky, drying finish. Drink up if you have any.

84 Moët & Chandon Brut Champagne Dom Pérignon 1959 $300 A nice, mature Champagne that's a bit resinous, with pine nut and vanilla notes. Shows a hint of honey on the chewy, flinty finish. Drinkable now. Tasted twice; the first bottle was oxidized.

These vintages of Dom Pérignon were tasted at Moët & Chandon in June by Wine Spectator senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. It was not a blind tasting.


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