Champagne in the 1890’s (Part 2)

In this fifth and final part of my historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the end of the 1890’s.

The vintages of both 1894 and 1895 were poor, but whilst the former year went universally undeclared, several of the better growers attempted to salvage something from the latter.

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From a weather point of view growers would have been glad to see the back of the damp dismal spring conditions which saw much of the crop blighted by mildew.  By harvest time the sun was shining again and spurred some of the better growths to attempt a Vintage wine.  Many of the lesser growths avoided the exercise, probably all too aware that there was still a substantial amount of the massive (and better quality) 1893 Vintage still in the market place.  In time they would be the ones shown to be vindicated.

Only those who purchased and quickly consumed the wine would manage to avoid a sediment that many of the bottles gave off, even with just a small amount of ageing time.  The particles and their associated ‘smoky’ quality completely ruined the crystal clear aesthetic that consumers had come to expect and, even though the wines tasted fair, in the end much of it was returned to the shippers as ‘faulty’.

One London entrepreneur, keen to capitalise on the situation, was reported as foregoing his opportunity to return the bottles for a full refund (plus interest) and sold on the 1895 vintage as either ‘thick’ or ‘clear’.  With the thicker wine sold at a slightly cheaper price-point to acknowledge the quality difference, this was a very early example of giving the customers the option of tasting Champagne in varying styles.  The experiment worked and despite him technically only having half of his stock in saleable condition he soon sold out of his allocation completely.

1896 provided a yield as prolific as the 1893 but unfortunately it did not have the quality to match and was not offered as a vintage Champagne.  1897 was an even worse failure being only of average quality and with a tiny yield akin to the low level of the 1892.

Whilst 1898 saw an average sized yield, quality ranged from very good to very poor which created something of a mixed final product.  Only those shippers who were prepared to sacrifice any harm to their reputation in favour of having a product in the market after several lean years shipped this as a Vintage year.

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As if to save the best for last, the final year of the decade (and indeed the century) saw wines of great quality produced.  The 1899 was a spectacular return to a quality not seen since 1892, but like this earlier vintage it also only delivered the quality in a small yield.  The forefather of modern wine writing Andre Simon described it as having the greenish tint of ‘Australian gold’ (as opposed to the reddish gold of a UK sovereign), and that it had a finality of expression unlike any other.  In addition, due to the fact that good quality Champagne had been some years in coming forward, merchants were happy to keep prices realistic and even swallowed a duty rise of 5 shillings per bottle up to 7 shillings per bottle so that they could keep their allocations.

Due to a strange quirk of fate and in spite of the demand it wasn’t just the limited number of bottles available that meant that this great wine would disappear from shelves fairly quickly. As they sat ageing in the cellars the Vintage of 1900 came along and being of equal quality and of much greater quantity it was widely favoured over the 1899.

At this point in time, due to the varying weather conditions seen from year to year, in was unlikely that you would get a Vintage release in consecutive years.  It even became something of an unwritten rule in the industry that consecutive vintages would not be released as it would help to preserve the notion that any declarations reflected the pinnacle of a growers offerings.  It seems unthinkable today that such a good wine would be kept aside when there was a perfectly good market awaiting it although it does occasionally happen (the 1990 over-shadowing the also great 1989 vintage is one recent example).

This side-stepping of a Vintage could have marked a somewhat muted end to the century that had seen Champagne come of age, but with exports to the UK higher than ever before (10 million bottles shipped across), producers would have been content enough.

The following century, which saw Phylloxera finally taking hold and the physical destruction and financial instability caused by both World Wars, was now only just a blur on the horizon.

That, as they say, is another story.

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Champagne in the 1890’s (Part 1)

In the fourth part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne at the start of the 1890’s.

Perrier Jouet Car

The final decade of the 19th century was known by some as the ‘gay nineties’, a time of peace and prosperity where the notion of care-free enjoyment spread throughout the population.  Catering for people who were keen to see and be seen, London was a vibrant hive of new restaurant openings including the Savoy in 1888 and the Trocadero in 1896.  The thriving rail network was also growing in expanse and prominence, opening up socialising opportunities to an ever growing number of people in the provinces.  When celebrating the good times there was only one drink to be seen with; Champagne.

If this all paints a rosy picture in England, for the French the beginning of the 1890’s would see their worst expectations realised, and the beginning of a battle that would haunt them for many years to come.

They would have begun the decade in an optimistic mood.  The 1889 had been the best wine of recent times and, although it had only yielded a small crop, this scarcity led to higher prices achieved in the market which was clearly good news.  In the end, they would need this extra revenue to carry them through the poor harvests of both 1890 and 1891, neither of which were considered of vintage quality.  This process of taking the rough with the smooth was very much part of daily life for wine producers at this time, but there would have been one additional problem lurking in the back of their minds.

Thus far Champagne had managed to avoid the widespread devastation caused by Phylloxera (the vine destroying louse).  Although most of France had already succumbed, the louse had yet to affect the northern French vineyards of the Loire and Champagne, as well as those in the lower half of Germany.  Many believed that it was the cooler climates of these northern European sites that kept them safe but, as they would soon find out, they were wrong.

The Marne was the first area to report a problem.  Champagne giant Moét & Chandon immediately bought the affected vineyard and burnt every last vine in an attempt to curtail the outbreak but it was too late.  The only let-off they would get would be that the louse took it’s time with the Champagne vines, attacking at a much slower pace than elsewhere.  By 1897 only 13 acres of vines had been affected but this figure would quickly rise to 90 acres the following year and balloon to 237 acres by the close of the decade.  This meant that for all the usual struggles vignerons went through to get bottles of Champagne to the market, there was a constant backdrop of trying new pesticides, vineyard flooding and numerous other witches brews to drive the Phylloxera away.

1892 was one of the smallest vintages on record with only 12.7 million bottles produced.  To put this in to context the yearly average at this time was just over 24 million bottles, so it was virtually half of what they needed to survive.  Once again, this scarcity had an effect on bottle prices which steadily rose up as consumers continued celebrating the ‘good times’.

Quantity would be more than catered for with the harvest of 1893 which brought in a whopping 74 million bottles.  Both the 1892 and 1893 were of vintage quality yet each completely distinct in terms of profile.  Whilst the 1892 showed more under-ripe fruits and had a steely acidity, the 1893’s were well ripened and described as ‘luscious and delicious’.  Over time though the 1892’s softened down and went on to be considered the better of the pair, with the 1893’s gaining a beeriness and dark gold colouring.  It seemed as though their muscle had soon turned to fat.

The unwanted consequence of such a large volume of Champagne hitting the market at the same time meant that the price per bottle changed again – this time downwards.  The persistent warm weather that had well ripened the fruit of 1893 had caused a drought in many of the Champagne vineyards, with the wells in some smaller villages drying up completely.  With small farmers having little else to barter with it was said that if you were to deliver water supplies to these remote areas you would be paid with bottles of Champagne.

It may seem like a dream, but there truly was a time and a place where Champagne was cheaper than water.

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Champagne in the 1880’s

In the third part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1880’s.

Old Champs

The previous decade of the 1870’s had seen some fundamental changes to the landscape of Champagne production and consumption.  No longer were people craving a sweetened heavy drink mighty enough to withstand the production process, but were now demanding a style similar to that which we enjoy today: light and refreshing and capable of expressing the subtle differences of a particular year.

Demand had begun to rise and producers were therefore enthusiastic to keep up the pace.  The vintage of 1880 granted them the quality but, with only a small quantity being produced they were unable to capitalise on its success.  Further disaster lay before them with the vintages of 1881 and 1882 as both were deemed failures.

All hopes were resting on the vintage of 1883, and with initial weather reports being of a positive nature, the summer sunshine was warmly greeted.  It was, however, not enough to ripen the fruit to a point where it was considered to be of vintage quality.  Under severe pressure from the lack of recent success and lack of available product, both producers and merchants went in to panic mode and were quite happy to receive and push through the ‘sub’ vintage of 1883 in order to keep the market stimulated and well fed.

As a juxtaposition to this side-lining of quality, an interesting parallel was the introduction of vintage branded corks.  Even today this simple piece of the packaging jigsaw endorses a bottle of Champagne, acting as a guardian of quality and prevents any fraudulent activity in trying to pass off an inferior vintage as something more special.  Perrier Jouét were one of the first producers to recognise this as a symbol of quality, branding the corks of their 1870 vintage and giving their customers a clear sign of provenance.

Many other shippers soon followed suit, with Heidsieck Monopole finally jumping on board with their 1892 vintage released in 1889.  As a statistic worthy of the best pub quiz, the last shipper of them all to adorn their corks with the vintage year was Pommery who finally adopted the scheme with their 1892 vintage.

This shift to total product transparency cannot be understated.  Up to this point wine connoisseurs were used to judging a wine by its visual quality and, as such, an 1874 would exhibit a mahogany streak, or an 1889 would have a golden green sheen.  As production standardised and the quality between each vintage became less pronounced, many Champagnes looked increasingly the same from year to year.

After the run of poor harvests, the year of 1884 ended the bad spell and produced wines of the same excellent quality as 1880 but, in a welcome turn of events, in a much greater volume.  Indeed if 1880 had been seen as the benchmark of the decade, 1884 would soon usurp it and, unlike the ‘flat’ long term ageing of the ‘80’s, the ‘84’s would see the century out.

Sadly though, just as the quality had been revived, the weather played its cruel twist and the next three vintages were deemed unsatisfactory and irregular.  Although each of the vintages would have its own champion, the 1885 and 1886 both suffered from quantity and quality issues.  The 1887 saw a step up from both of the previous years but still failed to make the ‘vintage’ level and rounded out a miserable trio for producers.

The quality of the 1888 grapes were only deemed as moderate and the size of the vintage recorded as the smallest on record.  Producers had spent the best part of a decade weathering a particularly harsh storm and could probably well sympathise with Napoleon who was once quoted as saying “In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it”.

In the true tradition of the peaks and troughs of the Champagne story they went from disastrously bad to fortuitously good.  The vintage of 1889 with its distinct balance, colouring and ageing potential was deemed the best wine of the decade.  Even though small in quantity and coming as it did after several years of scarcity, this brought about a renewed vibrant market all of its own.

It wouldn’t be long before bottle prices would rise again.

I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.

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Champagne in the 1870’s – A double-edged sword

In the second part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1870’s.

Champagne in the 1860’s saw the roots of style and prestige sown, and customer interest began to grow once producers had managed to deliver larger volumes of a sustainable product.

What they still hadn’t managed to crack though were the natural weather elements that winemakers now routinely correct with a standard toolkit.  This runs the gamut of the entire growing process beginning with different trellising systems to help the vines avoid frost damage, the use of chemicals and pesticides to keep fungus, disease or pests away, all the way through to the tinkering that can be done in the winery to ensure a balanced product is achieved year after year.

Bleak Champs

At the start of the 1870’s, winemakers would have been optimistic for the new decade.  Although 1869 hadn’t been an impressive vintage they were still basking in the success of the classic 1868, and the changeover from the old fashioned sweet Champagne style to the now classic dry style had begun.  Added to this sales were steadily beginning to rise, helping to keep their businesses ticking over in times of poor harvest.  The year of 1870 was one of those harvests where vintners would have been perturbed as, through careful selection to remove blighted grapes, they were able to produce wine of a good standard, but in only limited quantities.

When producing less volume whilst continuing to have all of the associated costs of a large crop it was a natural first step to increase bottle prices; after all, the market seemed to be increasingly buoyant.  There was one further factor to consider though, and this was the Franco-Prussian war which had broken out in the July of that year.  This uncertainty threatened the economic stability of the country and there was the real chance that, having now managed to bring a product to market, demand would be hampered with people tightening their financial belts.  Happily, the scarcity of the wine and a general understanding on the public’s part of the production risks in a time of war, meant that the market bore the higher prices regardless.  The smaller crop had come to the rescue.

Although they would be quite unaware at the time, this would be where their luck ended, and this smaller volume of higher priced wine would need to support their businesses for some years to come.  1871, 1872 and 1873 were all poor years, getting gradually worse with each harvest, and ending with a poor crop that was only one third of the size of a standard year.  Those growers and producers who managed to weather the storm desperately needed a good vintage, and they were rewarded with the magnificent 1874.

The sun was constantly shining throughout the summer and the resultant grapes were so ripe that the wines took on a deep, dark texture.  It was said that this ‘mahogany streak’ meant that it was easy to spot when the 1874 vintage was served to you, so distinctive was the colouring.  Being the first excellent vintage of the decade, this was also the turning point (see previous article) where the sugar levels were not heavily topped up and the drier style was born.

RueDlaAbbeye

The good times continued with the 1875 vintage which turned out to be the most prolific of the entire 19th century.  Approximately 98 million bottles were produced in the entire Champagne region (2.5 times bigger than the 37 million bottles of excellent 1874), and with most of it being of a good quality, it certainly held its own.

Conversely this bumper crop was both the making and the undoing of the year as, with such a deluge of grapes having been picked, the prices that the growers could achieve from them was severely diluted.  What this meant in real terms was that the winemakers were actually getting roughly just under half as much money per gallon as they had been paid for the 1873, and that was a significantly poorer wine.

Both 1876 and 1877 continued to give larger than average crops but they were not of vintage standard and deemed as failures.  The overall quality of the wine was thin and overly acidic in nature and therefore wouldn’t fare well in the ageing process.  Perhaps it is a little ironic that, at a time when Champagne had turned its back on a sugary sweet style, this may have been the one thing that could have saved the thin year?

Continuing the fluctuation between good and bad, 1878 was a healthy crop in both size and quality, but was followed by the 1879 which turned out to be the smallest vintage on record (at that time).  Although the quality of the wine was deemed as moderate, the scarcity of the product (less than 10 million bottles for the whole of Champagne!) came to its rescue again and resulted in both higher prices and strong market demand.

As the next decade loomed, growers and producers would have been no more certain of what fate awaited them, still being entirely at the mercy of the elements, continual political tensions, and a market that may finally be broken by price.

I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.

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Champagne in the 1860’s – The birth of ‘Style’

In the first part of this historical series, we look back to the world of Champagne in the 1860’s.

When we think about a ‘Vintage’ Champagne, we are not merely assessing the product of one particular year, but a whole host of stylistic factors, such as the ability to age well, the price-point, the availability and the prestige.  In the latter half of the 19th century a handful of events would shape the way that Champagne, particularly Vintage, is still made and sold today, well over 100 years later.

The roots lie somewhere buried in the 1830’s, when science caught up with understanding the maximum sugar levels that a bottle of Champagne could withstand during fermentation.  Losses due to a too-effervescent mix and the subsequent bottle explosion from the pressure build-up could affect as much as 20% of production in some years, which was obviously catastrophic for producers.  Once science intervened and the process was understood, losses were reduced to levels of around just 2%, meaning prices could be stabilised and the availability of the product maximised.  Skipping forward 20 or so years, youthful vintages such as the 1857 were soon jostling against celebrated ‘older’ years such as 1842 and 1846.

VinChamps

The next key step came courtesy of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone who, in his hotly anticipated 1860 budget, made radical changes intended to strengthen the British economy.  There were several prongs to his strategy, including reducing Government spending, but it very much hinged on removing the burdens on the working classes and stimulating economic growth.  To do this he pledged to introduce free trade between other countries – crucially in this case, between Britain and France.

Circa 90% of inter-country duties were scrapped completely whilst the remaining few were fully revised.  Duty on wine (and brandy) was reduced, but Champagne, not viewed as part of the daily life of the working classes, was singled out for a higher rate of tax.  Whilst this additional duty realised a very inconsequential amount for the Chancellor, the seeds were sown to ensure that Champagne was viewed as a luxury product in a class of its own, and something saved for celebrations.  It’s an image that continues to define it to this day.

Despite the strides in science, producers still hadn’t gotten to grips with outwitting Mother Nature and great years were still few and far between (the 1860’s only produced two vintages that were well rated; 1865 and 1868).  The 1868 Vintage was also a landmark year as it was the first time that many houses shipped Champagne as a ‘dry’ wine, in the style close to what we now consider normal.  As a bit of background, Champagne at this point contained very high levels of sugar and, whilst these sugars were the cause of the bursting bottles mentioned above, it was also its saviour as the high levels of sweetness would cover up the raw taste of youth.  Due to the volatility of the bottles, they needed to be produced, shipped and drunk quickly and there was no time for ageing them, or indeed, improving them.

A few experimental ‘dry’ bottles had been produced once sugar levels had been understood and, as early as 1848, Perrier Jouét reluctantly agreed to supply a cache of their 1846 to a determined merchant.  The drier taste proved to be somewhat ahead of its time, falling foul of the London set and leaving the merchant who requested the consignment having to drink it all himself (he apparently enjoyed every bottle!).  It didn’t deter him, and despite several knock-backs from Roederer and Pommery he continued to push the idea.  By the mid 1870’s the so-called ‘cult of candy’ had all but died out completely and, as fashion changed and the new dry style was considered an improvement and step-up in quality, Champagne houses and shippers were actually able to put their prices up.

Sales of Vintage Champagne would start to improve dramatically from this point as producers could now utilise much more of their overall production and feed whatever demand came their way.  Merchants were also happy to take on larger consignments as they were no longer under pressure to sell whatever they had as quickly as possible.  This growing volume also allowed the Champagne houses to build up their own stocks and reserves which, now there was no sugar covering the shortfalls of youth, would allow them to start realising the potential of storing and ageing a wine for several years in the cellars.  This allowed the bottles to gain complexity from time on their lees (yeast), and be presented to the customer when they were ready to drink, not when they were desperate to sell.

The birth of what we now consider Champagne had arrived.

I am indebted to the works of Mr. Andre Simon for inspiring the bringing of this historical information back to the public eye.

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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 1)

Being that its now 50 years since the death of British war time Prime Minister Winston Churchill, it seems a perfect time to consider a retrospective on what was his adoptive brand of Champagne – Pol Roger.  The below notes will act as a background to a tasting I attended in London on the 7th November 2015.

Pol Mast2

Winston was introduced to Champagne fairly early in his life and, even though he was born in 1884, he was recorded as purchasing Pol Roger as early as the late 1890’s.  The first serious receipts kept in the Pol Roger archive show that in 1908 Churchill bought a stack of the 1892 and the 1895 vintages and was already on the road to being a very good customer. These records, rather unfavourably, also show that Churchill was incredibly bad at paying his bills – sometimes up to 3 years late!  Champagne in those days was different to that which we know today, with a high dosage (sugar mix) added and an element of cognac also present to provide the sweetness (the dry Brut style of Champagne is a post-World War 2 phenomenon).

When asked why Churchill had immediately turned his head towards Pol Roger, our host Hubert de Billy (5th generation family member) stated that drinking good Champagne was the character of the Victorian gentleman and it could have gone one of three ways.  At the time the available Champagne was largely split between the 3 P’s – Pol Roger, Pommery and Perrier Jouét.

The Pol Roger story begins in 1849 when he received a few vineyards from his mother, primarily with a view to produce fruit to sell to other producers.  In tandem with this production, some grapes were held back in order to produce wine made purposely for the consumption of the family.  It wasn’t long before this ‘family’ wine was gaining more plaudits than that of the wines produced by the people he was selling his grapes to.

As time went on, further land was acquired.  As he couldn’t sell the wines in France (being in direct competition with the producers who were selling his other grapes), he looked to the UK.  The first bottle was sold here in 1874, and production sat at circa 3,000 bottles in total.  Even today the firm only produces 1.6 million bottles each year.  To put this in to perspective, the total amount of bottles produced annually in Champagne is circa 300 million, of which Moét produce 30 million bottles on their own.  This clearly shows that the bottles produced by Pol Roger are only a drop in the ocean.  The nearest family owned producer, in terms of volume, is Bollinger.

Churchill had a penchant for older wines as opposed to getting his hands on the latest vintages and, after somewhat exhausting supplies in the mid 1950’s of the heralded 1928 vintage, he moved on to the equally wonderful 1945.  He then progressed on to the 1947 which lasted him until his death in January 1965.  It’s estimated that throughout his life he managed to work his way through something like 42,000 bottles.  That’s a lot per breakfast, lunch and dinner, and it was said that during the austerity of the 1930’s he had to limit himself to one bottle per day!

The first Cuvée Winston Churchill vintage was the 1975 and comprised a blend of mainly Pinot Noir (an 80/20 split with Chardonnay).  Normal vintage Pol Roger is split 60/40 in Pinot Noirs favour, but in order to be true to the style of Champagne that Churchill favoured (Chardonnay was only a small part of the blend until the 1930’s), the Pinot heavy blend was retained.  In a further step towards authenticity, the Cuvée also only uses grapes from vineyards that would have been available to Pol Roger in Churchill’s lifetime.  The essence of the brand remains ‘the heart of the best’, and a wine that needs breathing like the best white wine.

Pol Mast1

The true rarity of Pol Roger comes from the fact that they are one of only a handful of all the Champagne producers still in family ownership and, prior to beginning the tasting, Hubert was asked to take a few questions from the floor.

Q.What’s the strategy of the house?

A. They are able to take a long term view instead of pleasing short term shareholders or trends. The company are always working for their children’s future and, whilst the famous saying is ‘time is money’, they are able to say ‘time is quality’.

Q. How do they guarantee the quality of the grapes from external growers?

A. Hubert confessed that they are in 5 year contracts with their grape growers so, in some respects, short term variations in quality are unable to be addressed. The net result of this is that they must maintain an element of trust with their long term partners.

Q. Which is the best bottle he has opened?

A. The ‘one that he is selling!’ As an aside to this joke Hubert did express a penchant for a recent Jeroboam tasting of the 1988.

In the two articles that follow I will describe the wonderful rundown of 10 wines from the producer that culminated in two vintages of their very rare Winston Churchill Cuvée.  What came through very clearly was, buy this wine when you see it, as the low quantities and high qualities make it a rare purchase indeed.

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Dom Pérignon; Parking the points

Part 11 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Renowned wine critic Robert Parker may have started his meteoric rise to fame praising (albeit for Bordeaux) the wines of the year 1982 as ‘superb’, but for the residents of Champagne the year had started off with a bleak outlook of frosty weather which, in turn, led in to a cooler than average springtime.  Vines awoke in April and flowering began in June in tandem with warmer weather arriving, which crucially stayed throughout the harvest.  Summer was ideal with its unbroken run of sunshine and warmth, and the lack of later damp weather in August saw off the threat of yield loss through disease and swelling/dilution.  Grapes were ripe by the start of September, at which point a mere sprinkling of rain appeared giving the vines the final irrigation that they needed to be strong and full, and ready for picking from the 17th.  The result was that, not only did they produce gloriously ripe fruit of a uniformly high quality, they also provided an abundance of it. In the end, the yield would turn out to be three times the size of the previous years (admittedly small) harvest.

The vintage wine was characterised with hints of green to its dark golden appearance, notes of lemon, honey and tart almond to the nose, adding pear, green apple and digestive biscuit to the palate.  The wines were described by Moét winemaker Dominique Foulon as being “elegant with a firm finish”.  Like the 1980 vintage before it, the blend leant heavier on the Pinot Noir grapes, and was a 60%/40% Pinot/Chardonnay composition, as opposed to the standard 50%/50% mix.

The 1982 vintage Rosé was evocative of wild strawberries and ripe fruit with light spices, quickly developing into mocha and nutmeg.  The finish provided gamey notes much reminiscent of a red wine, and highlighted the well ripened Pinot Noir content.  It too was described as elegant on the palate, and the vintage wine was released in early 1988, with the Rosé following in 1991.

Moving on to the year of 1983, this also began with poor weather which Moét would later admit made them initially think that the year would be a write-off.  Harsh weather in the winter had not improved by the time spring arrived and conditions remained cold and damp, which once again pushed back on the onset of flowering.  In a positive twist of fate conditions quickly picked up and suddenly became as good as they had previously been bad, with flowering finally beginning in late June.  Both July and August were warm, giving just enough rain to keep the vines watered and healthy, and once again the Champenois were blessed with a bumper vintage.  This one, however, was one step further than the previous years large vintage, and the Champenois were greeted with the largest yield ever recorded (at that time).  Cooler weather at the start of September and some last minute heavy rain had slightly delayed harvest, which commenced later than usual on the 26th of September.  Due to the overall size of the crop, picking carried on well in to October.

The resulting wines were golden in colour, with traces of green.  The nose evoked toasty and nutty flavours along with some vanilla, which then gave way to the characteristic traits of brioche and honey.  The wine, nicely plump on the palate with good acidity driving through it in to a long fresh finish, was characterised by dried fruit.

1983 box

The vintage was released at the beginning of 1990 and, as if to usher in the new decade, the release of the 1983 saw several packaging amendments.  For the first time, the outer box made reference to the specific vintage contained within on both the lid and the ends of the package.  There were also changes inside the box, with the neck brace that supported the bottle removed, and the generic insert books evolving in to full year-specific tasting guides.  Although still written in French, you were now able to read about the weather conditions of the year, hear Moét’s thoughts about the harvest, and glean information as to what the wine should taste like.  The vintage 1983 book made mention of the wine being comprised of 58% Chardonnay and 42% Pinot Noir, and that you can clearly discern what each variety brings to the palate.  It also suggests drinking the wine as an aperitif, being that it will harmonise well with delicate foods and lunches!

Finally, there was one tiny change to the bottle packaging itself, although it was such a small amendment it would easily have gone unnoticed.  The capsule (the metallic cap placed on top of the cork) edging was updated to include the words ‘Muselet EPARNIX’, and a copyright symbol, simply indicating that this part of the packaging (the Muselet is the wire cage that surrounds the cork and capsule) also formed part of the trademarked brand property.  Two variations, (N° 181 and N° 182, as seen in the below picture), were issued.

1980s Capsules

No Vintage Rosé for 1983 was declared.

1984 also began with terrible weather conditions, but on this occasion things didn’t improve.  Flowering was delayed by a cool and damp spring and, although July saw warmth from the emerging sun, stormy weather arrived in August and remained throughout September.  Thus the grapes did not develop fully and retained high acidity.  Happily though, another classic vintage was just around the corner.

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Dom Pérignon; By Royal Appointment

Part 10 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

The 1979 vintage hadn’t been declared by Moét, the wines deemed as not having the necessary structure to age like a classic Dom Pérignon should.  It’s perhaps surprising then that the very next vintage they did declare suffered exactly that fate.  Skipping forward a year, the 1981 harvest had only realised a small crop yield and, whilst the not-perfect 1980 sat in the cellars at the start of its maturation period, the prospect of a muted 1981 release may have forced them in to a tough decision.  Well aware that they hadn’t declared the 1979, if Moét then skipped straight ahead to the 1982, a large gap would be left in their market presence, not to mention their profits.  Certainly, the last time that they had gone with a gap of 3 clear years between vintages had been as far back as the late 1950’s.

The 1980 harvest was smaller than usual due to the climatic conditions which saw cold and humid weather as late as June and July, and resulted in late and uneven flowering.  The weather heated up and sunshine in September allowed the grape clusters to swell, but everything was on the back-foot and the harvest began much later than usual, on the 9th of October, in cold and wet conditions.  The net result of this was that the wines tended to lack the full body of well ripened grapes, and the uneven higher acids came through on the palate.  Dom Pérignon vintage wines tend, in the main, to be a 50/50 mix of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.  In a move tailoring towards the unkind weather conditions, the vintage blend here was adjusted to be 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay, the idea being that more fruit, structure and backbone would come from the red grape variety.  The tweak only seems to have been partly successful.

The final wine was described as being the colour of golden straw, with a nose of toasted brioche, clear preserved citrus, and slight menthol and autumnal fruit.  The palate was described as both clean and pure, with a floral, fleshy fullness, a lovely persistence and citrus freshness.  Despite what sounds quite a promising blend, respected Champagne expert Tom Stevenson noted it as “too simple and ordinary to warrant a Dom Pérignon vintage”.  A Rosé was also produced, being a deep pink in colour, with touches of blueberries to the nose and floral characters to the palate.

The 1980 vintage was released in 1987 with the Rosé following in 1988, and now included within the presentation box was a brief leaflet proudly informing you (see picture below) that the sealed cabinet it comes in is the guarantee of the protection and the quality of Dom Pérignon, and that you should insist on it! Also included were some words on Hautvilliers, Moét and the monk Dom Pérignon, but these leaflets (note they are not vintage dated) were exclusively produced in French, which made it difficult to read for anyone not fluent in the language.  At the time it may actually have been perceived as foreign and unknown, making the purchase that much more interesting and alluring?

1980 booklet

Aside of waiting for the small crop of 1981 to be harvested, Moét were kept busy with the issue of a back vintage.  This was the first time that the company had released a library wine, but the event for which it was being prepared was historic enough to warrant it – A Royal wedding!  In the UK alone over 70 producers created something like 150 different commemorative beverages to celebrate the marriage of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer, but it is doubtful that the Royal couple ever tried any of these brews.  The shipment of the extremely small and limited 1961 harvest, selected as it was the birth year of Diana, would not only top the list of commemorative bottles, but was also served to the couple themselves.

Just 12 magnums of the 1961 were produced, six of which went to the Royal household for their personal consumption.  The other six were distributed amongst UK drinks trade charities, including the Society of Licensed Victuallers, which looked after retired landlords.  These magnums came with a specially commissioned label commemorating the Royal event (see image lower down).

A further 99 bottles were provided to be served at the wedding reception, which took place on Monday 27th July, ahead of the ceremony on Wednesday the 29th.  There has been some confusion as to when the couple were served the Dom 1961, with many assuming it was the wine that they celebrated with on their big day.  The drinks ceremony at Buckingham Palace that followed the marriage ceremony at St Pauls Cathedral on the 29th was known as the Wedding Breakfast (a nod to it being the first meal of a married couple’s life).  As can be seen from the below image of the order of service for the Breakfast, the Royal couple actually drank Krug 1969 as their Champagne refreshment on the day.

wedding-breakfast-menu v2

It might be assumed that, with so little bottles available in the first place, that every last one would have been consumed throughout the event, however, some did make it through to resurface on the secondary market to collectors.  Notable bottles that have hit the auction circuit include one from Roy Mayes, the retired chairman of the Luton branch of the Society of Licensed Victuallers, who sold his bottle to his successor Brian Minnighan.  Another bottle which later surfaced came from Princess Diana herself, who gifted one in 1988 to the Director of Harrods, Brian Ames, on his 50th Birthday.

1961 Box

As has been alluded to, 1981 produced what would have been the smallest post-war yield, if it hadn’t been for the tiny 1978 harvest.  A mild winter and summer had promoted premature growth, but this was then mostly blighted by heavy frosts in late April and hail in May.  Cool weather in July was followed by a warmer August and September, and most grapes were picked before the rains fell again at the end of the month.  What vines had survived the rollercoaster conditions produced fruit that had seen a long season of growth with sunny weather when it mattered to finish off the ripening.  Sadly this quality was blighted by the small quantity and most houses didn’t declare a vintage.

As it transpired, producers wouldn’t be worried about it for too long.  The 1981’s hadn’t been in the cellars for a year when it became clear just how good the wines of 1982 would be.

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Dom Pérignon; Phew…..what a scorcher

Part 9 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

Whilst sales of Champagne may have been widely slumping, James Bond was still enjoying the finer things in life and the December 1974 premiere of the film ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ contained a typically glamorous scene where Bond is offered the Dom 1964, only to retort “I prefer the ’62 myself”.  Little did he know that he wouldn’t be drinking Dom for much longer…

Weather conditions in the early part of 1975 had been unpredictable, with the winter being damp and snow falling in March.  This seriously delayed the bud break of the vines, but temperatures improved towards the end of April and flowering was achieved as planned.  August saw stormy weather set in, but otherwise the summer was sunny and warm and continued until the harvest commenced on the 29th of September.  From a fair weather start the weather quickly deteriorated, delaying picking until the start of October, and forcing it to be completed quickly.

The resulting yield was smaller than usual but the wines were nothing short of fantastic and widely lauded as one of the Champagne vintages of the century.   Extremely fresh acidity balanced the fruit filled palate and complex creamy blending.  Alongside the characteristic toast, brioche and hazelnut of a Dom, red fruits, vanilla and gingerbread rounded out the fleshy palate.  An extremely long length signalled a vintage wine with the ability to age for many years to come.

The 1975 Rosé, like the previous few vintages, was extremely dark in colour, in this instance giving a sweet confectionate nose of flowers and peach. A low acidity allowed the full fruit palate to come to the fore, with wildly varying notes of strawberry, redcurrant, blackcurrant and plum.  A full and rich feeling in the mouth supported the long finish carried by concentrated sweet fruit.

Genericgreenbox

The vintages would reach the market in 1983 and 1985 respectively and were, like the 1973 vintage, presented in revamped packaging to stimulate the flagging market.  The green hinged boxes that stood out on shelves and kept the wine protected would continue to be used (with variations) up until the 2002 vintage.  Two variations were still in use at this time (pictured above and below) – the first a card gift box with simple red interior, and the second the classic hinged box with beige interior and neck brace to secure the bottle.  Whilst the shield logo sticker securing the box would refer to the vintage within, the actual boxes didn’t contain any reference.  This meant that they could be used over multiple years, and it wasn’t until the 1983 vintage that the box itself provided the vintage year.

Late70sbox

1976 represented the 40th anniversary since Dom Pérignon had been launched commercially.  After a cold spring the weather changed completely and the sun came out and stayed until October.  The memorable long hot summer resulted in an extremely ripe and extremely early harvest.  Traditionally the gap between flowering and harvesting is 100 days, but the process was completed in just 84 days, commencing on the 1st of September.

The pale straw yellow colour of the wine hinted at the wealth of aromas on the nose which, alongside honey and butterscotch, added darker hints of raisin, mushroom, new leather and blond tobacco.  The palate was full, deep and warming, beginning with bitter orange and melting away to toast, nutmeg, walnut, and some light spice.  Due to the warmth of the weather throughout the growing season the well ripened grapes lacked acidity and the 1976 will be remembered as powerful and austere with a great length.

The super-ripe grapes weren’t deemed fitting enough for a Rosé vintage, and so the normal vintage was the only expression of the year.  After 8 years maturing in the cellars, it was released in 1984 to a market beginning to surge with the Champagne excesses of the 1980’s.

Following two years of triumph came a year of damp and dismal weather.  Not only would 1977 be a write-off in terms of wine production, it would also mark the end of the on-screen association with James Bond.  The July release of “The Spy Who Loved Me” marked the final time the two brands were seen together on film (they did partner together again in 2008 to mark the centenary of Ian Flemings birth).  Breaking with tradition, Bond didn’t drink the latest vintage available, instead opting for the 1952.  This was the earliest vintage that Bond had expressed a preference for (excluding the false 1946 vintage tasted in the Moonraker novel).  His switch to a preference for Bollinger Champagne was never fully explained, but it was reported at the time that there had been a falling out with film producer Cubby Broccoli.  As the switch from one brand to another came at the same time as product placements in films began to take off, it’s more likely that Bollinger were willing to pay for the privilege of association.  Certainly Bollinger take out print adverts for each new collaboration, which is not something that Dom Pérignon ever played upon.  If Bond was after the finest Champagne he naturally gravitated to Dom Pérignon.

The vintage of 1978 nearly went the same way as 1977, only to be saved at the last minute by a warm September.  Harvesting commenced on the 9th of October for the Pinot Noir and the 11th for the Chardonnay.  Due to damp and cool weather for the majority of the growing season, uneven flowering, rot and under-developed grapes were all an issue, resulting in strict grape selection and a low overall yield (at the time of writing, still the smallest of the post-war years).  As an additional note, the yield was so small that, many years later when Dom were releasing back vintages for their Oenothéque range, they had to skip the 1978 as there simply wasn’t enough.

Upon release the vintage was characterised by both high acidity and higher alcohol Pinot Noir grapes.  Champagne expert Tom Stevenson described the vintage as “luscious, silky soft (with) creamy vanilla fruit”.  Both the high acid and distinct Pinot notes also characterised the 1978 Rosé adding to the powerful and concentrated fruits.

The busiest decade for the brand so far ended on a quiet note.  The start of 1979 had been extremely cold, and was followed by a spring plagued with frosts.  During summer the temperatures perked up and some short lived, but respectable vintage wines were crafted by a small number of Champagne houses.  Dom Pérignon wasn’t among them.

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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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