There’s sparkling wine. There’s Champagne. And then, as far as I’m concerned, there is Dom Pérignon.
Sparkling wine is simply wine that contains bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. There are four methods of infusing the wine with bubbles, which I won’t bother with here, and fizzy wine is made around the world.
“Champagne” has for a long time been used generically and interchangeably with sparkling wine. But, in the European Union and many other countries the name Champagne has been legally protected by the Madrid system as far back as an 1891 treaty, which reserved it for the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous region and adhering to the standards defined for it as an appellation d’origine contrôlée. In the early 2000s Australia, Chile, Brazil, Canada, and China passed laws that limit the use of the term “Champagne” to only those products produced in the Champagne region. Since 2006, the United States has banned the use from all U.S.-produced wine brands, with a specific exception: producers that had approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it, provided the term is accompanied by the wine’s actual origin (e.g., “California”). Hence, a wine such as “Korbels California Champagne,” is still allowed.
Dom Pérignon is named after a Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon (1638–1715), who was a pioneer in Champagne wine but who, contrary to popular myth, did not discover how to make sparkling wines*. However, he was the inventor of the second fermentation in the bottle, the Méthode Traditionelle (formerly Méthode Champenoise), that creates Champagne as we know it.
Pérignon was also the first to blend grapes in such a way as to improve the quality of wines and deal with a number of their imperfections. He developed the art of producing clear white wines from ‘blue’ grapes like Pinot Noir by clever manipulation of the presses. He enhanced the tendency of Champagne wines to retain their natural sugar in order to naturally induce a secondary fermentation. He also introduced corks (instead of wood) as bottle sealers, and used heavier bottles so that fewer explosions would occur.
The first vintage of Dom Pérignon was 1921, and was only released for sale in 1936, sailing to New York in the liner Normandie. Until the 1943 vintage, Dom Pérignon was produced from regular vintage Moët & Chandon Champagne that was transferred to the special 18th century-style bottles after extended cellaring. It was, thus, effectively an “oenothèque” release of Moët & Chandon Vintage Champagne in a different bottle. From the 1947 vintage, Dom Pérignon has been produced separately from the start.
Dom Pérignon is always a vintage champagne, meaning that all grapes used to make the wine were harvested in the same year. The wine is not made in weak years, i.e. when the general quality of the harvest is considered to be too low. Many vintage Champagne producers took a pass in 2010 because, after otherwise excellent weather during the growing season, on August 15 and 16 the region had the equivalent of two months of rain, greatly increasing the chances of damage to the fruit. Chef de cave Vincent Chaperon explained how they took a massive gamble with the Pinot Noir – leaving 20% of their plots to ripen knowing they would lose most of it to botrytis.
2010 had the coldest winter since 1996, followed by the warmth of July and August that came with rain. The combination of humidity and heat is rightly feared in vineyards, but Chaperon noted that “this phase really allowed us to have the perfect condition for the vines to nourish the grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” leading to a “dynamic maturation.”
Chaperon said, “There were not many 2010 vintages declared [in Champagne], so why in those perfect conditions did nobody declare it, why is it a kind of forgotten year? It was an episode in the month of August, the 15thand 16th, when we had the equivalent of two months of rain, torrential rain. This amount of water really changed the psychology … with this weather came the potential risk of botrytis.”
Chaperon noted, “that the rot did not appear right away but much closer to harvest. We were able to make 2010 because we understood that there was a very dynamic development of botrytis, so we had to make a very drastic decision.”
“We understood that we would not be able to pick the Pinot Noir at the right level of ripeness in the right hygienic condition. We decided to put 20% of Pinot Noir plots aside, and pick them three weeks later, accepting that we would lose the majority of the grapes to botrytis. Taking this courageous decision allowed us to focus all out resources to be at the right moment in the right place for a good level of maturity at the right level of hygiene. This way we saved the vintage,” he said.
The final blend of this wine is 54% Chardonnay and 46% Pinot Noir. It is largely devoid of the bready, yeasty character I lean toward in a Champagne, replaced with a bracing freshness. The nose features aromas of tropical fruits, but no single one jumps out. The palate has a steely character, with ideal acidity. There is a fine mousse, a hallmark of this wine. However, I would say this is not the best expression of Dom Pérignon, but no discount on the price, of course!
And here is a little anecdote about Dom Pérignon. Years ago, a friend of mine was given a 1985 Dom, and he talked about how we would share it on a special occasion. That day finally came on December 4th, 2002. Over the intervening years, the bottle had been much abused, moving several times and even spending two years in an un-airconditioned storage locker in Dallas. But, after all of that, although a bit flat, the wine was still quite drinkable.
* In 1662, Christopher Merrett, a scientist, naturalist, physician, and metallurgist from Great Britain submitted a paper to the Royal Society that was the first official document that explained how to make bubbly wine. It detailed how winemakers in England added vast quantities of sugar and molasses to wine to give it effervescence. The paper came out six years before Dom Pérignon even began making wine at the Abbey of Saint-Vanne.
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