This series of articles will focus on the top wines from a number of Champagne Houses. In Champagne these top wines are referred to as that house’s “Tête de Cuvée”. The Tête de Cuvée will be made from a strict selection of the best barrels from the best vineyard parcels. The Tête de Cuvée is very limited in production, but it is very important to the Champagne house as it represents the best of the best, the crowning achievement that defines what the house is capable of.
The most famous of all of the Tête de Cuvées would have to be Dom Perignon. Dom Perignon is the finest Champagne made at powerhouse Moët & Chandon. Dom Perignon takes its name from a 17th Century monk by the name of Dom Pierre Perignon who was the cellar master at the Benedictine Abbey in Hautvillers and who is responsible for much of the quality improvements made in making champagne. Contrary to popular myth, Dom Perignon did not invent the method used to make Champagne. In fact, he was assigned the task to find a way to avoid having the bubbles which would sometimes occur in the Champagne wines the following spring after bottling.
Those “annoying” bubbles, it turned out, were caused by residual sugar remaining after fermentation was thought to be complete, after the harvest and bottling that occurs in the cool fall. In fact, the cool temperatures stopped the fermentation before it was complete, which would sometimes start up again in the bottle as the weather started to warm in the spring.
The appearance of the bubbles, a result of secondary fermentation in the bottle, was originally thought to be a flaw. Dom Perignon tasted one of these sparkling wines and declared to his fellow monks with joy “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!”.
While the méthode Champenoise cannot be attributed to Dom Perignon, many other important innovations can, such as blending of different grape varieties, obtaining white wine from red grapes, use of the tied down cork stopper (formerly bottles were topped with pour fitting wood) and using thicker glass imported from England to avoid the costly breakage that the air pressure inside the bottle was creating.
The first vintage of Dom Perignon was made in 1921. The wine was held back in the cellars until 1936 and it defined the benefit of aging Champagne. The first Dom Perignon was actually made by the house Champagne Mercier and subsequently the brand was gifted to Moët & Chandon, in 1927, as a wedding gift when Francine Durrant-Mercier married Paul Chandon. Was Dom Perignon the first Tête de Cuvée? Yes and no. Technically that honour goes to Roederer who made their first vintage of Cristal in 1876, but Cristal of that day was a sweet Champagne with little distribution. Consequently, many think of Dom Perignon as the first Tête de Cuvée.
Originally, and until 1943, Dom Perignon was a late-released, longer aged version of Moët & Chandon’s vintage Champagne (a vintage Champagne is made from a single year’s harvest as opposed to the much more common non-vintage Champagnes that are a blend of several different year’s harvests). Dom Perignon is only released in those vintages where the harvest has been deemed to be of a very high quality. Between 1921 and 2009, the original vintage and the latest vintage, there have been only 43 vintages of Dom Perignon produced. The 2009 vintage is the only vintage that has been released out of sequence, being released before the 2008. Chef de Cave (Cellar Master) Richard Geoffroy felt the 2008 vintage needed more time to show its best and the warmth of the 2009 vintage permitted a wine more capable of early enjoyment.
In 1959 a second Dom Perignon was created, Dom Perignon Rosé. 26 vintages of this wine have been produced between 1959 and 2006. Now Dom Perignon is made in Hautvillers separately from the rest of the wines made at Moët & Chandon.
Though upwards of one million bottles of Dom Perignon are produced from each vintage that Dom is made (guesstimates vary widely and the people at Moët & Chandon aren’t saying, though they have ceded it is more than rival Krug’s 600,000 bottles), it is still one of the most collectible wines in the world. Recently, a lot of two bottles of the 1959 Dom Perignon Rosé sold at auction for over USD $84,000. The prestige associated with this marque is unsurpassed. When Charles and Diana wed in 1981, they served their guests the 1961 Dom Perignon. It is the ultimate drink for the ultimate celebration.
Dom Perignon uses only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes in its blend (no Pinot Meunier, one of the three common grape varieties used in Champagne nor any of the five lesser grapes). Most years the blend is roughly 50/50 but in certain years where the vintage really favours one variety over the other, the percentage can go up to 60% for the favoured variety. The grapes come from the home village of Hautvillers, rated premier cru and from eight other villages, each rated grand cru. Dom Perignon typically will spend at least 7 years on the lees (the spent yeast cells), allowing for full flavour development, especially the autolytic notes. Tasting Dom is always exquisite, and the wine regularly generates top scores and glowing reviews from the major wine critics. Richness and intensity are certainly two hallmarks of Dom, yet the wine sees no oak barrels during the aging process, oak having been phased out between 1959 and 1964.
Dom Perignon is certainly not cheap (CDN $271 including all taxes at BC Liquor stores) and is quite rightly generally reserved for special occasions. But if the occasion warrants it, there is probably nothing else you could serve that says “special” than Dom Perignon.
The tasting notes below come from our recent dinner aboard the cruise ship Oceania that has partnered with Dom Perignon. This tasting showed us just how well Tête de Cuvées such as Dom Perignon pair with food. Champagne is often thought of as an aperitif, a drink to have before the meal. Vintage Champagne has a greater intensity and a deeper texture. As that dinner showed us, a top Champagne is a delicious pairing with many types of cuisine.
2009 Dom Perignon Blanc
A lot of fuss is made about Dom Perignon and it does not come cheap. Is it worth the hype and the price? The 2009 instantly tells you that it is. The contrast between it and the NV Moët is stark. Here the intensity is dialed way up. The same round texture in the Moët is here, but it is denser and has an almost creamy texture. Yet there is good acidity which gives the wine great definition and acts as a counter-point to the creamy texture. The body is full and the acidity medium. There is great elegance and finesse. The warmth of the ‘09 vintage comes through and makes this a very approachable Dom Perignon. Hints of roasted nuts add complexity as does the spice on the back end (nutmeg?).
2006 Dom Perignon Blanc
Medium gold colour with slight green hue. Notes of apple combine with minerality and slight hints of brioche. This wine is rich with less tension than the ’09, a bit more vinous, like white Burgundy with fizz. Definitely a ripe vintage which gives this wine a good deal of body. Pairs so well with food and can handle the most intense flavours with ease. Terrific complexity and amazing how it can show both sweet and tart at the same time, like a green apple pie! The minerality really comes out on the finish. Something new each time we go back to the glass.
2004 Dom Perignon Rosé
Gorgeous flavours of red delicious apple mix with hints of bread dough to create a sensational rose wine. Like the ’06, this wine is vinous and just cries out for food to pair with. Everything here is in perfect balance. There is terrific intensity with this wine, more than the other two. There is a Burgundian earthiness that goes along with the minerality. Some tropical notes also come through along with hints of plum. Very smooth with a long, spice-tinged finish. A master-class in Champagne!