Part 13 of my Dom Pérignon History Series
Fireworks sparkled over the Champs-Elysees on the 14th of July 1989 as France celebrated the bicentennial of the French Revolution. At a glittering dinner under the illuminated Louvre Pyramid Dom Pérignon Oenothéque 1959 was uncorked for the first time, revealing a complex wine drawn exclusively from one of the finest vintages of the previous 50 years. This ‘wine library’ concept wouldn’t be fully explored until the end of the new decade and so, for now, the public would be making do with the 1983 vintage, which was released at the start of 1990.
Before looking at the vintage conditions of the year, it is worth noting that 1990 was the first time that current Chef de Cave extraordinaire Richard Geoffroy joined the brand. Starting with Domaine Chandon in Napa in the mid 1980’s, it wasn’t long before his potential was spotted and he began working with the pinnacle of the Moét portfolio. In a transition that took a full six years to complete, he acted as deputy to the then Chef de Cave Dominique Foulon. Beginning with production of the 1990, he spent his time learning, absorbing and understanding the technicalities and philosophy of producing Dom Pérignon.
Picture Credit: Creating Dom Pérignon
Since taking over the reins Richard has become almost as much a symbol of Dom Pérignon as the bottle design and shield label, such is his commitment to extolling its wonder. He travels continually for virtually half of each year conducting numerous tastings and launch events, and is incredibly approachable and knowledgeable. On his artistic vision for the brand, he had this to say: “The unique personality of Dom Pérignon champagne is born of this creative commitment: the always unexpected, paradoxical tension between the distinctive qualities of a year and the timeless spirit of Dom Pérignon, the sensation that gives it its charisma; weightlessness with an airy richness and suppleness, from the first impression to the long-lasting finish.”
Moving on to the weather conditions of the year itself, a humid winter had seen the flowering of the vines beginning promptly, only to be hit by spring frosts in April. The persistent cold weather and rain throughout May and June prompted uneven ripening and inhibited grape development. These deficits were, however, offset by a good sized crop which would prove valuable should strict grape selection be required. In the end, the vintage was saved by a persistent summer heatwave that saw little rain and lasted from July all the way through to September, and the overall crop for Champagne ended up being the 3rd largest on record. Picking for the Chardonnay began on the 11th of September, with the Pinot Noir following shortly after on the 24th. All of the harvest was completed in the continuing perfect weather conditions. The well ripened grapes took on a mature flavour, and Chardonnay was blended in a higher proportion (58%) than usual (50/50) to add freshness to fruity Pinot Noir.
The official tasting guide describes the wine as having “an initial, almost floral impression (that) gives way to aromas of acacia honey, culminating in notes of dried fruit and brioche. On the palate the wine is round and complete with a long refined and fresh finish – a feeling of simple perfection”.
Other tasting notes describe the palate as having almond and apricots amongst the dried fruit, and having a silky finish reminiscent of preserved citrus. A Rosé wine was also produced, described as having copper and orange hints to its colour. On the nose there were touches of gingerbread, cashew nuts, dried figs and candied orange peel, and these continued on to the palate culminating in a smooth and precise blend. The 1990 Rosé was released in the year 2000.
The release of the Vintage 1990 in the September of 1996 (alongside the release of the 1986 Rosé) saw some amendments to the packaging of the brand. Of course, the iconic bottle and shield label remained intact, but the capsule protecting the cork saw its first change since the 1966 vintage. Gone was the black and red colour scheme of old, and in came a subtle olive green background with the shield logo and black scripting.
The presentation box remained the same on the outside, but internally the simple plush lining was replaced with a moulded plastic tray for the bottle to lay in. The tasting guide also now featured a proper depiction of the shield logo, as per the label on the bottle, instead of the line drawings seen previously.
The 1990 Rosé release was now presented in a dark rose coloured box, although this new style had been introduced with the 1988 Rosé, which had been released in the period between the 1990 Vintage coming out and the release of the further matured 1990 Rosé. This new coloured packaging ensured that it stood out on the shelf, added an extra level of prestige, and differentiated itself from the standard releases. The capsule for the Rosé was equally updated to the new design, but in a rose coloured version.
Like 1990 before it, the harvest of 1991 also saw damaging frosts leading to late and uneven flowering, and a hot summer following on behind but, unlike 1990, it wouldn’t get a Vintage release. Late rains in mid-September delayed picking and swelled the grapes, resulting in juice with a low acidity, and therefore robbing the palate of one of the key aspects of a sparkling wine. With a recession in full swing in many parts of the world, but hitting the UK (one of the leading countries for Champagne exports) very badly, sales were also slumping. As a result of these numerous external factors the wines of 1991 went, in the main, to topping up reserve stocks for future non-vintage blends.