We recently cruised through the Baltics on the sumptuous Oceania Marina, a 1250-passenger luxury cruise liner. A fabulous cruise with many memorable meals and wines, but from a gastronomic point of view, the Dom Perignon Experience was easily the highlight.
The most famous of all Champagnes 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 when 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 culinary team at Oceania headed by Chef Franck Garanger collaborated with the culinary team at Moët & Chandon headed by executive chef Marco Fadiga to create six courses to pair with three different vintages of Dom. Over the years of doing many different food and wine pairings, we have come to realize that food and wine pairing truly is an art. The art is attained when the food is made better by the wine accompanying it and the wine is made better by the food accompanying it. That mutual enhancement was attained brilliantly at The Dom Perignon Experience.
We began our Dom Perignon Experience as we walked into La Reserve, the small, intimate dining room on the 12th floor of Marina. La Reserve is another collaboration, this time with The Wine Spectator, the highly regarded wine magazine. La Reserve is exquisitely decorated in warm, rich wood tones on one side and floor to ceiling windows on the other that together create intimacy with a stunning view. The room holds up to 24 and was specifically created to conduct wine and food pairings. We were greeted, by name, by a host and hostess who showed us out on to the private deck outside La Reserve. There we sat and relaxed and chatted with our fellow diners in a very pleasant atmosphere as we sailed away from St. Petersburg. As we watched the coastline go by, we were offered a glass of the Moët & Chandon NV Brut. This wine is styled more as an aperitif style of Champagne, lighter in body with refreshing acidity. This was accompanied by several small plates passed around by the very professional Oceania wait staff.
We were called in for dinner and seated at tables beautifully set with the usual assortment of glasses that accompanies tasting menus. Interestingly, there were no Champagne glasses on the table. Outside on the deck, we enjoyed our Moet & Chandon NV Brut in the traditional Champagne flute, the straight narrow cylinder that rises from the stem. The flute took over in popularity from the coupe, the wide open shallow glass that was the original Champagne glass.
The problem with the coupe is that its wide mouth created too large of an open surface and allowed the bubbles to dissipate too quickly. The narrower flute has a much smaller surface area and allows the bubbles to stay longer.
However, that narrow opening does not allow your nose to get down into the glass and so does not allow you to fully appreciate the aroma of the wine. The next evolution in Champagne glasses is the tulip, a dainty bowl on a narrow stem whose shape widens from the bottom and then narrows back in a bit at the top.
To us this is the most attractive of all the Champagne glasses. The opening is wide enough to allow you to get a full appreciation of the aromas. The shape of the glass is actually designed to concentrate the aromas and is not too wide at the top, thereby preserving the bubbles. The tulips reign as the Champagne glass of choice seems to have ben short-lived and the standard white wine glass seems to be taking over, and this was the choice of stemware at the Dom Perignon Experience. The white wine glass works just as well as the tulip, but in our opinion does not have quite the same level of beauty as the tulip, and we lament the tulips waning in popularity.
We began our experience with quite possibly the best dish of the night: the utterly mind-blowing Scallops Rossini, mole negro (a Mexican chocolate sauce) and grilled pineapple. The texture of this dish was quite remarkable: rich and so tender. The flavours of the food worked so well, together on the plate, and with the Champagne. The salt of the scallops together with the sweet of the mole and the tanginess of the pineapple was pure genius. Dom Perignon 2009 paired perfectly with the dish. 2009 was a sunny, warm vintage in Champagne, not hot like 2003, but warm enough to give the wines an early approachability and an added dimension of texture. The Dom was quite different from the Moët & Chandon we had on the deck. The Dom is much fuller, definitely a food wine as opposed to aperitif style. The level of complexity of the Dom is quite extraordinary, showing pear, green apple, lemon curd, almonds and honey and just a hint of brioche.
We worried that our chefs peaked early and that subsequent dishes might pale in comparison. Our fears were for naught. Each of the remaining five dishes was just as delicious and paired brilliantly with the wines chosen. One of the more important learnings that we took away from this experience was the importance of texture in pairings. The canapés we enjoyed out on the deck worked very well with the Moët & Chandon NV Brut. But they lacked the same level of richness and intensity of the dishes served inside. Those dishes would have slightly overwhelmed the NV Brut; and the canapés would not have really stood up to the richness and the intensity of the Doms.
The servings were calibrated to be just the right size so we left the Dom Perignon Experience feeling properly fed but not over-indulged (at least not in quantity!). Six courses can be a lot of food and we have absolutely no sense of portion control, especially when it comes to food of that quality, so we were grateful for the restraint that the chefs exercised on our behalf! The staff could not have treated us better. The entire meal was choregraphed so that the guests felt pampered but not overwhelmed. There was some great education provided about the food and the wines by the Chef and the Head Sommelier.
It was fascinating to taste three different Dom Perignons side beside. We have enjoyed several different vintages of Dom, but never side by side. This was a great opportunity to compare and contrast. As the tasting notes that follow will show, each of these vintages of Dom Perignon were extraordinary. The 2009 was probably the easiest to understand, the most approachable. The 2006 was similar to the 2009 as 2006 was a relatively warm vintage, though a less even ripening season. The 2006 comes across with a bit more structure and a bit more complexity. Our second favourite. While it was a very close race, the 2004, the one rosé at the dinner would be our favourite, notable for its extra richness and intensity.
The Dom Perignon Experience costs USD $295 per person plus gratuity. While that is surely an expensive meal, this one was certainly worth it. Not only was the food delicious, many of the ingredients are very expensive to get (especially items such as Waygu beef, lobster, truffles and caviar). Our glasses were topped up frequently over the course of the evening. Dom Perignon and Dom Perignon Rosé sell for USD $150 to $300 per bottle, depending on vintage, so the cost is not unreasonable, given that context. Reservations are required and booking well in advance of departure date is recommended.
We were paired for the evening with another couple, Jared and Candice from Arizona, who we had not met before. The conversation with them was fascinating and flowed with great ease from the minute we met them. An evening in a beautiful setting, with exquisite food and extraordinary wine, with great service and wonderful company. We left the room at the end of the evening absolutely delighted.
NV Moët & Chandon Brut
Medium yellow/gold colour with a green hue. Medium body with good intensity. This is an aperitif wine, gentle and discreet, very good on its own but not really something with the substance to stand up to a main course. Medium to low acid, this is round and soft and likely to appeal to a wide array of palates. We might have chosen a slightly lower dosage and looked for a bit more cut.
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!