Part 7 of my Dom Pérignon History Series
At the start of 1963 Britain was in the grip of the coldest winter for nearly 300 years. Conditions in France didn’t fare much better and, after a harsh winter, summer was cold and damp, leaving a crop blighted by dilution and rot.
Highlighting the true spectrum of vintage variation, weather conditions in 1964 were excellent. A mild and dry winter punctuated by periods of severe frost continued until the end of April. An unusually hot May prompted the vines to flower around the 12th of June, and the rest of summer continued to be warm and sunny, with little rain. Harvest began on September 16th, and the resulting wines proved to be one of the great classic vintages in champagne. It would also mark the end of an era for the brand, as it was the last vintage to use small wooden casks and concrete vats for the first fermentation.
Winemaking techniques were progressing significantly in the early 1960’s with pioneers such as Emile Peynaud pushing the virtues of using stainless steel containers, which had proved successful in the dairy industry. Along with the standard benefits of steel being inert (thus avoiding oxygen spoilage) and giving the winemaker the ability to accurately control the inside temperature of the vat (controlling spoilage through extremes), the changeover also had one significant side effect. Replacing existing equipment with newer larger vats meant that they could begin to raise production levels in line with the growing demand.
Fittingly, for the final vintage seeing wood, the 1964 is described as a dark and dense wine, albeit still fresh and not over-bearing. The nose contained hints of raisin, alongside toast, vanilla and hazelnut. The palate contained arabica, and musky accents of new leather and sandalwood, giving way to vanilla, spices, nutmeg and dried fruit. Tasted in 2004, the wine continued to show the nutty tones from age and the freshness of its youth, but the palate was now joined by persistent butterscotch running throughout the exceptionally long finish.
The vintage was released on to the market in 1971 and, as was now becoming the norm, a Rosé vintage was also produced.
The weather pendulum swung back the other way in 1965, and winter and spring were mild and cloudy. Temperatures stayed moderate throughout summer, leading to a late and unremarkable vintage, picked from the second week of October.
1966 was a landmark year in many ways. The swinging sixties were in full swing, and England finally managed to win the World Cup. The French also had something to celebrate as the year produced another excellent vintage. A warm and consistently dry summer ensured that there were no issues with disease or rot, and picking of the fully ripened fruit began on September 22nd. The good weather conditions continued throughout the harvest.
The wine produced was mineral and smoky on the nose, and vanilla blended with honey, gingerbread and dried apricot on the palate. The Rosé from this legendary vintage had meringue, tea, roses and fleshy Pinot Noir flavour.
Away from the wine now being produced in stainless steel for the first time, the 1966 Dom Pérignon also saw other changes. First was the introduction of a bespoke capsule (the small metal cap that protects the top of the cork and adds structure within the metal cage). Up until this time a standard Moét capsule had been used (see picture below), but from now on, the capsule used would be specific to Dom Pérignon. The original design was black in colour with the brand name written in red, within a red circle. This design would comprise part of the packaging until the 1988 vintage.
A further change came in the presentation of the bottle, and the custom box that it came in (see picture below). Vintages from the 1950’s had been presented in thick double-walled cardboard bottle covers for protection, but that packaging now evolved in to an oblong box with varying designs for the next few vintages. The plain gold coloured box was used in stores such as Harrods for the rarer magnums, whilst the green boxes used for the standard vintage were adorned with pictures of Jean-Remy Moét and Pierre Gabriel Chandon.
The final declared vintage of the 1960’s was the difficult 1969. Weather conditions throughout the year had been wet and unstable, leading to significant mildew, and late flowering. September finally provided the dry sunny spell that the grapes needed, and the slightly delayed harvest began on the 1st of October, but gave a lower yield than usual.
With a subtle nose, the palate of the wine was full of stone fruit and preserved citrus fruits, twinned with notes of caramel, undergrowth and faded flowers. The wine was quite restrained on release and took some time to show its full depth of palate. The vintage, classed by many as great but not excellent, was released to market in 1976.
One final thing of note is that the 1969 was the first vintage to use pewter foil to dress the top of the bottle, covering the cork and capsule. To protect the seals from invading dirt and dust, traditionally, bottles were dipped in to a wax sealant which quickly dried and formed a protective layer. True to its 18th century style origins, Dom Pérignon had heretofore been sealed this way, but made the subtle change as new covering options became available. Bottles of the 1969 have been seen with both styles of seal, and so the changeover happened at some point during the production of the vintage. The Rosé, which was released two years after the vintage wine, therefore tended to have the pewter seal.