Part 3 of my Dom Pérignon History Series
We give the credit to Moét as the first Champagne house to introduce a Prestige Cuvée, but if the question is looked at in terms of the production of a top of the range exclusive blend for a specialised market, the accolade would have to go to Louis Roederer. The firm were producing their prestige cuvée Cristal way back in 1876, a full 59 years ahead of Moet, but it wasn’t a commercial venture. The Russian preference towards Champagne erred towards a sweeter wine, different to that of France and the rest of Europe, and this difference in style meant that any commercial sights that the company could have would be impossible to fulfil. The wine therefore remained exclusively for the consumption of Tsar Alexander II and his court, in a clear bottling – allegedly to ensure that the drink was not tainted or impaired in any way. Following the Russian revolution of 1917, the demand disappeared, and any remaining bottles were eventually sold off to South America.
Demand for Champagne in the early 1930s was muted. The after effects of the great depression reached the French economy in 1931 and, when the understandable plan of cutting retail prices to help shift bottles was put in to place, heavy financial losses were incurred by the producers. This in turn meant that some had to sell off key vineyards, and some simply went bust.
The market needed stimulation, and in 1932 English Journalist Laurence Venn suggested (in his capacity as marketing consultant to the Syndicat de Grandes Marques de Champagne) that, instead of focusing on discounting at the lower end, they needed to aim for the top end of the market. Needless to say the idea was unanimously rejected by the Syndicat, who offered that if they couldn’t move cheap bottles, how would they be able to sell more expensive ones? Venn reasoned that the aristocracy were the only people who continued to have money during the financial difficulties for such extravagances as Champagne, and a top quality wine costing twice the price of standard Champagne would be of appeal.
Following this rejection, Venn was approached by Comte Robert-Jean de Vogüé – a descendent of the Moéts and in charge of commercial affairs for the company. 1935 marked the 100th anniversary of Moét’s London based agent, Simon Bros. and Co, and Robert-Jean was looking for a way to thank their top clients for sticking with them during the hardships. In tandem, the exercise would also be a good way of Moét thanking their agent too. Many of the failing Champagne producers had naturally blamed their distribution network for failing to find suitable markets for their wine in the depression, and fired them outright.
In the anniversary year the idea came to fruition, and 150 of Simon Brothers’ most illustrious clients would find themselves receiving a hamper with 2 specially commissioned bottlings of Moét. In order to differentiate it from the normal bottlings and to add prestige, each bottle was a hand blown replica akin to one their ancestors would have seen back in the late eighteenth century. Corks were secured in the old style using string, and sealed from dust and dirt using green sealing wax. The label was adorned with vine shoot motifs (known as ‘ppmpres’) by the engraver Deletain. No brand was mentioned on the bottle – the label inscription simply read “Champagne especially shipped for Simon Bros. and Co.’s Centenary 1835-1935″, but there is no doubt that the wine in the familiar shaped bottle with the iconic shield label was clearly the forerunner to Dom Pérignon.
The vintage used was the 1926, a small but fine yield that had 9 years of maturity by this bottling. The yields for that year were small for a variety of reasons including slow flowering (which brought about coulure), as well as chlorosis, insect damage, and rot. Aside of intermittent hailstorms, September bought fine rainless weather than aided the ripening, and grapes were picked quickly, albeit slightly later than usual. As the 1926 hadn’t been released as usual in the early 1930’s due to the financial crisis, not all shippers had declared the vintage. This meant that the year was held in esteem and attracting a good price. Word of this unique bottling quickly spread from the wealthy recipients to their friends across the Atlantic in America, who were revelling in a post-prohibition frenzy. Moét & Chandon soon found themselves inundated with requests as to when the wine would be available to them.
1936 saw the first commercial bottling and, in order to maintain the maturity levels shown in the previous bottling, the next successful vintage available was chosen. As the years following 1926 had either seen poor harvests or ones that weren’t ready at this time, they had to delve further back in to their wine stores, choosing the 1921 vintage. At 15 years old already this must have been a sublime bottling, equivalent to what Moét release today as their Dom Pérignon P2 (aka Plenitude 2 – wines that have reached their second plateau of maturity). The year had begun with heavy frosts in the winter and spring which destroyed much of the crop, but this was followed by a gloriously hot summer, and when harvest commenced on September 19th, the grapes that remained produced an excellent wine. At the helm for this blend was celebrated winemaker Ernest Goubault, then in his final year with the company, and it was he who created what was destined to become the most expensive Champagne available on the market at that time (around $90 per case of 12 bottles). As the label couldn’t bear the Simon Brothers inscription from the previous year a new branding was needed. To further increase the prestige, Comte Robert-Jean de Vogúé decided to name it after the forefather of Champagne – Dom Pérignon. Interestingly the brand name was previously owned by Champagne house Mercier but went unused. It was gifted to Moét as part of the dowry on the marriage between Francine Durand-Mercier and Comte Paul Chandon-Moét in 1927.
New York received 100 cases (1,200 bottles) of the Dom Pérignon 1921 in the November of 1936 just in time for Christmas and New Year celebrations, shipped across courtesy of the French luxury liner ‘The Normandie’. Needless to say, it was a huge success, to such an extent that France didn’t even get an allocation – it all went to quench the thirst of the important American market. 16 bottles which had belonged to Doris Duke (daughter of James Buchanan Duke, and heiress to the billionaire fortune of the American Tobacco Company) were famously sold at a Christie’s auction in New York City in June 2004. Showing her importance as a wine buyer in the 1930’s, Duke was able to be allocated 100 bottles from this limited first shipment just for herself, and in the years following her death her cellars and its pristine contents of many memorable producers and vintages were sold off for well over the pre-sale estimates.
In order to keep the quality level of Dom Pérignon at its peak, there would be another few years of maturity required to ensure the next successful available vintages – the 1928 and 1929 – could be enjoyed. In the end, due to the running seam in the Champagne story of success mixed with hard times, it would be post-war palates that would have the pleasure of drinking them.