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; 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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