Dom Perignon is undoubtedly one of the most iconic vintage champagnes in the world. Known by the chic bottle and shape of the label, Dom Perignon tops the list of respected, sought after and highly desirable prestige cuvees. Chef de cave Richard Geoffroy is an elegant, intelligent winemaker producing wines, as he says, of duality – “between youth and maturity, complexity and balance, rigour and seduction.” Dom Perignon is anything but a typical champagne.
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The wines of Dom Perignon are sometimes unfairly scrutinized, due to the fact the house belongs to a large company and produces a fair quantity of bottles in each vintage (the exact numbers are not disclosed). But when tasted objectively, it is a wine of exceptional quality, and deserves its place amongst the top prestige cuvees in Champagne.
According to Richard Geoffroy, there are three elements to the style of Dom Perignon: intensity, aromatics and mouthfeel. He is quick to point out that intensity does not equate to power: he is not interested in power per se. The intensity he looks for is revealed through the balance and harmony of the wine – two characteristics he considers much more important than noticeable attributes.
The aromatics are shaped by long ageing on the lees - which brings about autolytic aromas of toast, butter and nuts - and the fact that Geoffroy prefers reductive winemaking (in the absence of oxygen), which also adds dimension to the scents in the wine.
The third element, mouthfeel, is an extension of the sense of taste, to one of touch and the way the wine feels on your tongue. This sense of texture is a critical element to understanding and appreciating the wine, especially the buoyancy and the mellifluous quality.
In 1959 the first Dom Perignon Rose was made. Only 306 bottles were released, all of which were enjoyed in 1971 by the guests of the Shah of Iran in celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The first commercial release came in 1970 with the 1962 vintage. The rose is made in the assemblage style, with the addition of still Pinot Noir from Ay. Peter Liem considers the Dom Perignon Rose to be one of the finest in Champagne.
Dom Perignon also has an Oenotheque series of wines, which are held back for late disgorgement and release.
Geoffroy believes the wines go through three stages, or “plenitudes”. The first is the initial release of the Dom Perignon with between 8-10 years of age. The second plenitude (P2) is the wine in early adulthood, when its character is forming and it is beginning to shine, between 18-20 years of age. The final stage (P3) is the true revelation of the wine’s personality that comes of maturity and wisdom, at the age of 35-40. The wines of Dom Perignon are created to show their best in age, so if you have the willpower to resist, cellar your bottles and enjoy them in their later plenitudes.
Dom Perignon was first introduced to the market by Moet & Chandon in 1936. The year before, Moet had produced a special bottling of their 1926 vintage for private clients in the UK. Rather unexpectedly, it became a sensation. In order to satisfy high demand from their customers, Moet bottled the 1921 vintage and released it in 1936 as a new brand, Dom Perignon, named after the celebrated cellar master of the Abbey at Hautvillers. They sold the wine in a distinctively shaped bottle - a replica of an old bottle from the 18th century.
For the subsequent three releases - 1928, 1929 and 1934 - Dom Perignon was exactly the same wine as vintage Moet. It was transferred into Dom Perignon bottles by ‘transversage’ (the process of decanting from one bottle to another after disgorgement, which is usually used for filling small or large format bottles.) The 1943 vintage, however, was the first to have the second fermentation in the stylish Dom Perignon bottles.
Dom Perignon was a monk and the cellar master of the Abbey at Hautvillers in the 17th century. For 47 years, his aim was to create the “best wine in the world”. He was a perfectionist who held himself to exacting standards when it came to his wines – always striving to discover new techniques and increase quality. Contrary to popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent champagne, but he contributed greatly to how it is made today. He originated the use of black grapes to make a white wine, and was among the first to blend grapes from different vineyards.
The devotion to technical advancement and the pursuit of excellence that were the hallmarks of Brother Perignon are the same ones adhered to today by the current chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy. This intellectual, judicious winemaker (a former medical doctor) has been creating these wines since 1990. He is solely responsible for the blend of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Grand Cru vineyards, and he alone decides whether or not a vintage will be declared.
The grapes used to make the wines of Dom Perignon originate mainly from eight Grand Cru villages. The Chardonnay comes from Avize, Chouilly, Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger (all in the Cote des Blancs); the Pinot Noir from Ay (Vallee de la Marne) and from Bouzy, Mailly and Verzenay (Montagne de Reims). They also use Pinot Noir from the small Premier Cru vineyard at Hautvillers. However, one guiding principle at Dom Perignon it is that there are no strict rules. So depending on the vintage, Richard Geoffroy can choose grapes from up to 17 Grand Crus, thanks to the large vineyard holdings of parent company, Moet & Chandon.
Geoffroy usually prefers slightly more Chardonnay in the blend than Pinot Noir, but again, the vintage has the final say, and the opposite has been known to occur. Geoffroy says that when he sees a Dom Perignon vintage that has 60% Pinot Noir, he knows it was an unusual year. The wines are made only in the best years, which averages around six times in a decade.
In the winery, Geoffroy employs minimalist winemaking. He uses two cultured house yeast strains, one for each fermentation. This is helpful, as he is familiar with how these yeasts perform and has more control over the resulting wine. Fermentation takes place in stainless steel, and oxidation is avoided at all costs. Geoffroy says of oxidation, “it kills a champagne’s complexity and makes it fat and heavy”.
The wines age on their lees for at least seven years prior to riddling and disgorgement, and then rest a further six months before being released to the market.