Dom Pérignon; cold Spring, warm Summer

Part 8 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Following on from the packaging changes and the declaration of the 1969 vintage, the following two years provided another first for the brand. Although the ever-changeable weather influences at such a northerly latitude were still present, the eventual declarations of the 1970 and 1971 vintages gave Dom Pérignon its first ever hat-trick.  This may not sound such an incredible achievement today (having just come off the back of two such instances), but when you consider that up until this point Dom had only been produced in two consecutive years on just three occasions (1928/1929, 1952/1953 and 1961/1962), getting three consecutive years was unheard of.  In a world of uncertain production where something as simple as a badly timed hail storm could wipe out an entire years work, it was also very welcome.

Following the difficult 1969 weather and the subsequent late and lower yielding harvest, the weather in Champagne throughout 1970 wasn’t looking to fare much better.  Cold temperatures throughout spring pushed flowering back, perhaps helping the vines miss the worst of the storms that hit in June.  Once the rains had passed, a warm summer buoyed along the vines and harvesting began on the 27th of September.  After the small crop of 1969, the harvest of 1970 thankfully provided both quality and quantity.

The resulting wine was fresh and vibrant, with grapefruit, floral and flowery hints to the nose.  The palate was more austere being characterised by caramel, toasted almonds, brioche and white chocolate, and described as savoury, yet elegant.  The finish, whilst described as ‘haunting’ was also noted as being fairly short.

No 1970 Dom Pérignon Rosé was produced (being more Pinot Noir dependant than the vintage wine) meaning that, unlike the vintage wine, it didn’t achieve the hat-trick of releases.  At the time of writing it still hasn’t managed to achieve this feat, coming closest only with the consecutive vintages of 1985/1986, 1992/1993 and 1995/1996.

The year of 1971 presented something more of a challenge and, after a cold dry winter, spring frosts arrived and inhibited new bud and shoot growth across most of the vineyard.  The vintners could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking the year would be a write-off when heavy storms arrived in May and June, just when the vines were beginning to flower, but drier conditions in July and only minor storms in August started to turn things around.  Harvesting took place from the 18th of September in sunny and warm conditions, and produced another sizeable crop.

As if being rewarded for their hard work battling against the elements, the wines produced were superb, with prominent wine critic Michael Broadbent hailing the Dom 1971 as better than the great Dom 1961 (and even as good as the renowned 1928 Krug).  The vintage wine was full of the toast and sweet honey citrus that defines a good Dom, as well as earthy tones of mushroom, undergrowth and warm notes of wood smoke and vanilla.  Marked acidity, a good depth and long finish completed what was close to being a classic Dom Pérignon.  The Rosé was characterised by its Pinot Noir content, being a deep pink in colour, and full of smoke, spice, coffee and chocolate.

The following harvest of 1972 had it all – but not in a good way.  A cold spring led to late flowering and, whilst there was some warmer weather in July, it was far from what was needed.  This was further hampered by a cold and wet August, and a lacklustre September and October.  Harvests were late and unremarkable.  This poor year wasn’t, however, lamented by Moét too much at the time thanks to the previous three years.  These had ensured that between 1976 and 1978, and further beyond, the marketplace was full of exciting new vintages to try.

The spring of 1973 saw little frost thanks to evenly spread warm temperatures throughout, and the sun continued to shine all the way through summer and up to harvest time.  Conversely this warmth worried the winemakers as much as the years when poorer weather prevailed.  Vines need a good supply of water to grow, develop, and aid the growth of the grape clusters, and the limited irrigation from low rainfall was potentially as detrimental to the vines as any damage caused by a hard frost or bad storm.  After a nervous wait in September the heavy rains arrived and the grapes were ready to be picked from the 28th.

The harvest went on record as the 2nd largest Champagne vintage of the 20th century, so the key for producers was to carefully sort the rotten grapes from the ripened ones, and handle well the diluted juices swelled by the rain.  Moét winemaker Dominique Foulon described the vintage wine as characterised by honey, lemon and lime, preserves and plums.  Powerful on the palate, with vanilla characters and a marked roasted coffee and spice finish.  The Rosé was again a Pinot Noir influenced deep pink, with clean red fruits on both the nose and palate.  The palate delivered a fruity persistence, and a good acidity to balance out the alcohol.

Whilst it is honour enough to be declared in the first place, the 1973 ended up being a ‘middle of the road’ Dom vintage, and the following rain hit harvest of 1974 would go undeclared.  These, however, wouldn’t be the only worries for Moét to navigate at the time.  They coincided with the worst recession since the 1920’s, signalling the end of the post-war economic boom.  Widespread unemployment, high inflation, spiralling oil prices and a stock market crash ensured that the key export markets of the UK and the USA were tightening their belts, and Champagne sales slumped accordingly.

This was exactly the world that Dom Pérignon had been launched in to in the 1930’s, as a glamorous respite to the austerity.  The question emerged – could it do it again?

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