Dom Pérignon; New Dawn (part 1)

Part 6 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Much like the distinct social and economic differences between the 1950’s and the 1960’s, the 1959 Dom Pérignon is the dawn of the current era for the brand. Vintage conditions were better than excellent, bordering on rare, and the year is still amongst the top French vintages of the entire 20th century. Indeed, the 1959 Dom was chosen as one of the inaugural vintages for the Oenothéque library series in 2000, meaning that it was still available to buy in certain boutique stores decades after its’ release. This availability marks a clear distinction from all prior releases as, unless you had access to an extremely well preserved cellar or bought a bottle at auction, you would be extremely unlikely to ever taste them.

The harvest of 1959 began on the 10th September following perfect summer conditions which allowed grapes to fully ripen and give the relatively high alcohol level of 14%. The tasting notes for the 1959 Oenothéque describe it as full of liquorice, tobacco, figs, chocolate and coffee, with a fresh and long finish. James Bond would enjoy the release vintage in the 1967 film ‘You Only Live Twice’.

Another reason that this was a memorable year was that it marked the first time that Dom Pérignon Rosé was produced. Never commercially released to market, the near majority of the production (either 306 bottles or 863 magnums, depending on sources) went exclusively to the Shah of Iran to be served to his 600 guests at the opening night of his celebrations to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire. The event, held between October 14th and 16th 1971, and billed as ‘The greatest party in the world’ took more than a decade to plan and orchestrate. Given that the planning went as far back as the year of the vintage, it is likely that the Rosé was initially undertaken as a request to create a unique blend/bottling for this special event.

The spectacular wine list from the first evening included the 1911 ‘Champagne riot’ vintage of Moét, Haut-Brion Blanc 1964 and Lafite Rothschild 1945. The Dom Rosé was kept back to pair with the dessert of glazed Oporto ring of fresh figs, with a cream and raspberry champagne sherbet. Dinner took over five and a half hours to complete, and film director Orson Welles said of the event “This was no party of the year, it was the celebration of 25 centuries”! In a rare tasting note for this wine, it was described as having delicate bread and caramel to the nose, with white chocolate, minerals and richness on the palate.

The first ever public sale of the 1959 Rosé (which was disgorged in March 1969) came in April 2008 when auction house Acker Merrall & Condit listed two bottles, obtained from the Champagne-loving real estate executive Robert A. Rosania. The astonishing winning bid was £43,000 ($84,700) against an estimate of £2,500-£3,500 ($5,000 – $7,000) and the wine remains an enigma: one that Dom Pérignon winemaker Richard Geoffroy describes as a ‘rare, superlative, mythical vintage’. He also confirmed that the Moét cellars only hold a handful of bottles of this rare wine.

The 1960’s saw the most declared vintages of Dom per decade at this time: The 1920’s, 1940’s and 1950’s had seen 4 releases per decade, and the 1930’s just 1 release. This rate would increase to 5 releases from the 1960’s, and then up again to 6 releases from each of the 1970’s and 1980’s. From these figures it is clear to see that both production and consumption of Dom Pérignon were clearly increasing as the war and austerity years faded away.

The weather in France in 1960 had been universally poor, and so the next declared vintage came from the great year of 1961. Sadly, quantities were relatively small and this meant that it only saw an initial limited release and no later Oenothéque release. The vintage is, however, perhaps most famous for being the wine that was served in 1981 at the wedding of Lady Diana to Prince Charles (1961 being the birth year of Diana). Magnums of the rare wine were commissioned by the Royal Family and Moét obliged with a special botting, including a special front label and box reading: “Specially shipped to honour the marriage of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer 29 July 1981”

      DP1961

Those lucky enough to have tasted the wine describe it as being fleshy and toasty as good Dom should be, with a long oaky aftertaste of several nuances, but primarily showing distinct coffee notes.

The weather of 1962 began badly with an extended cold winter followed by a spring season beset by thunderstorms and hail. Summer began cool pushing flowering back, but September managed to pick up warmth, and harvesting was delayed until the 4th of October. The resulting wine, although elegant and refined, shows drying characteristics and wine expert Michael Broadbent described the wine as “elegant (with) excellent flavour (and) good length”.

1962 saw the first commercial bottling of a Dom Pérignon Rosé – a wine described by Champagne expert Richard Juhlin as paler than many of the darker Rosé’s of the year, and “perhaps a little too full bodied and rounded”. He goes on to note that it lacks acidity, and is almost chewy on the palate.

Perhaps they were still finding their way with the Rosé wine? What is certain is that wider factors were afoot, and the next vintage (1964) would see a bigger change for Dom Pérignon winemaking that continues to this day.

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