Laithwaites Vintage Festival 2017

Laithwaites recently opened the doors on their 38th Vintage Wine Festival and, fittingly for the ever expansive world of wine, it was bigger than ever before.  Not only were they showing over 380 wines on the day but they had representation from Turkey from the first time and were now including their incredibly popular sensory session ‘Tasting in the Dark’.

2017 Laithwaites Vintage Festival

The Fine Wine room was once again in place meaning that, along with the tasting theatres and other assorted activities (including an ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ influenced pairing of jungle critters to wine), there was a seriously wide array of activities to cover off in the time.

Having been a Laithwaites customer for many years and having been to other portfolio tastings of theirs I decided that the general tasting room would be tackled only where time permitted.  In the end, aside from a handful of English wine producers (including Ridgeview), I simply didn’t get the time.  How curious to attend a wine tasting and spend virtually no time at all in the main wine tasting!

To be fair though, the Fine Wine upgrade is a complete and absorbing experience in itself and in many ways equal or better than some standalone tasting events I’ve been to.  Mildly saddened that they hadn’t used the Willy Wonka-style glass elevator from last year, this year’s entry was via an equally glamorous private staircase complete with red carpet.

2017 Red Carpet Laithwaites

Now split over multiple rooms the Fine Wine experience is bigger than ever and more of a Fine Wine floor.  I spent two full hours tasting through the majority of the 67 wines and spirits on display and, perhaps mischievously, tried a couple of them more than once.  My first three pours were all very much double-tasters, with my perennial favourite Dom Pérignon (2006, £120) to start me off.

Alongside this was the ever reliable Krug Grande Cuvée (£130) and the Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995 (£120).  Having been an award winning stalwart for at least 10 years, my host informed me that the stocks of this exalted 1995 wine are now running down and Heidsieck are heading for the new vintage.  Although she wouldn’t confirm which year this would be, she did say there would be a leap forward, and my money is on the powerful 2002.   My only regret here was that the Roederer Cristal wasn’t on display as per last year even though they have moved forward from the 2007 to the 2009 vintage.

2017 Laithwaites Vintage Festival Fine Wine Room

Other rare wine highlights included:

  • Cháteau Gruaud-Larose 2001 – £80. Black cherry fruit with woody touches.  Seriously good length
  • Cháteau La Tour Carnet 2010 – £45. Extremely floral nose, light tannin, silky soft fruit
  • Prunotto Bric Turot Barbaresco 2013 – £45. From Italian genius Antinori.  Subtle but intense, fragrant and feminine
  • La Rioja Alta Gran 2004 Reserva 890 (served from Magnum) – £145. One of the last bottles remaining from this vintage, it was soft and retained a vibrant acid whilst having tertiary coffee notes and almost the character of a tawny port

Following my Fine Wine session I headed off to the tasting theatre for a 30-minute session with ‘Mr Wine’ himself, Oz Clarke.  Whilst always being a part of the Laithwaites brand, at this festival Oz was almost omni-present, to the extent of a camera following his every move around the event.  This session though caught the raconteur at his relaxed best and gave us a canter through some of his ‘Desert Island Wines’.

Hosted by Master of Wine Justin-Howard Sneyd, the session was a rollercoaster of wit and repartee, running well over time as Oz discussed wine, film (he was in the first Superman film if you hadn’t spotted him), train trips, TV co-host Jilly Goolden (he still won’t confirm if they are or aren’t married!), and how he found his love of all things vinous.

Oz Masterclassjpg

His choices on the day included:

  • Support for English vineyards through a Rosé from Wyfold Valley (I’ll be visiting here shortly so look forward to a vineyard review in due course)
  • A classic Bordeaux 1969, amazingly still available through Laithwaites from producer Château La Tour du Roch-Milon
  • A fine example of stalwart Australian producer Penfolds and their classic Bin 311 Chardonnay 2015
  • A nod to the well-respected wines of Spain with the Altos de la Guardia Reserva 2011

As hinted at earlier, Oz could seriously talk for hours such is his passion and wealth of experience on the subject, and he did run over by some 15 minutes.  Nevertheless I was able to have a quick catch-up with him at the end of the session to gauge his thoughts on the possibilities of him bringing wine back to mainstream TV following the success of The Wine Show.

As well as confirming that James May is still too much of a man in demand following the Top Gear decampment to Amazon and, as full of praise as he was for Wine Show host Joe Fattorini, Oz was just beginning to convey to me his view as to why the new show hadn’t been a complete success in his eyes when a bunch of four ladies mobbed him for a photo opportunity.

Frustratingly that was the last I heard on the subject from him.  How I would have loved to have finished off that conversation!

Due to the session running over and the impromptu Q&A after, my time at the event was now drawing to an end.  I scarcely had time to match a dried bee to an Aussie Shiraz at the ‘I’m a Celebrity’ stand before it was time to go.

Once again this was a wine event not to miss and, although I scarcely spent any time in the main arena at all, pound for pound on the samples tried in the Fine Wine room, I certainly covered my fair share of ground and came away with many taste memories.

With thanks to Laithwaites for providing the tickets used in this tasting.

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Dom Pérignon 2006

The release of the 2006 Dom Pérignon marked the first time in their history that a 5th consecutive vintage was declared.  In recent times Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy has been very open about the fact that he is steering the brand away from only releasing a prestige Champagne a handful of times each decade, as has historically been the case.

Writing on his own website ‘Creating Dom Pérignon’ Richard reflected that the declaration of 5 consecutive and unique expressions was “maybe my proudest moment in 25 years at the head of Dom Pérignon”.  Even so, with the 2007 not making the grade and the 2011 also unlikely to be declared, it may be at least another decade before we see this feat equalled.

DP 2006 Label Images

2006 saw irregular weather in the vineyards, with a warm and dry spring climaxing in a scorching hot July.  The temperatures then dropped away somewhat and August was both wet and humid.  The vintage was saved by the strong summer weather returning in September, both drying out any patches of botrytis (fungus leading to mould/rot) and driving a good ripeness in the grapes.

Beginning on September 11th harvesting was methodical and protracted to allow each parcel of vines to ripen in turn.  Taking just over 3 weeks to complete, it has gone down as one of the longest on record for Dom Pérignon.

The patience required in the vineyard was also required in the cellars, with Richard Geoffroy noting that the maturation of the wine also took much longer than usual, only starting to show the harmony and finesse just prior to its release in October 2015.

Comprised of 55% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay, the official tasting note tells us that the nose gives an immediate impression of its bright and airy bouquet, followed by “a floral, fruity pastel tone (that) quickly darkens into candied fruit, ripe hay and toasted notes, along with hints of liquorice”.

On the palate it is “complex and edgy, silkier than it is creamy”.  “The whole eventually melts into an exquisite bitterness tinged with the briny taste of the sea”.  Richard Geoffroy went on to add that the high PH level of the vintage had proved problematic for him: “It needed to be turned around, so I had to stretch it out to achieve the signature DP harmony. The vintage is about brightness and the art of blending.  Despite minimal dosage 2006 is lush and ample, fleshy without being fat and has an intricate, mother of pearl-like gliding texture. It’s one of the most complex vintages at the time of release that I’ve ever made,”.

My own tasting note largely followed these lines, particularly picking out that, whilst toasty and bready, the palate lacked the characteristic creaminess usually found in a Dom.  On the palate the liquorice came through clearly, as did notes of confection (parma violets) and a light nuttiness.

Dp 2006 Bjork Bottle

As was now tradition for the brand, a limited ‘Creators Edition’ was produced.  For this vintage the design was a collaboration between Icelandic singer Bjork and British filmmaker and music video director Chris Cunningham.  Explaining the choice, Richard Geoffroy said “We try to align the artists with the character of the vintage.  She’s been on our minds for a while and 2006 was the right vintage for her as it’s all about brightness and light”.  Bjork and Chris were already long-time collaborators on various pieces including one of her music videos.

The creation, titled “From Earth to Heart”, featured an earthy green light shining down on the bottle from above, seemingly piercing the glass with its glow.  The imagery was there to evoke the illumination generated by the new vintage as it meets the world, creating a link between earth and emotion.  This limited design was released in October 2015 at the same time as the standard vintage bottles.

A further limited bottling was released a year later in October 2016, designed by contemporary German artist Michael Riedel.  Having a similar creative approach and affinity for transformation and transcending the original material, his additional collaboration was also seen as a natural fit with the brand.

DP 2006 Riedel

Deconstructing the letters D and P and layering them across both the box and bottle label, Riedel designed an optical metaphor inspired by the passing of time, signifying the transformation of Dom Pérignon during its time spent ageing on the lees.

The standard edition bottles were housed in the usual black display boxes, with one small change to previous releases.  The small embossed lettering stating the vintage was not present as in previous years and the only reference to the year was now to be found on the shield sticker.

DP 2006 Box Image

Bottles were secured with the standard vintage branded corks and the dark green capsules used in recent vintages.

Magnums of the 2006 were readily available, and a ‘flute’ set was also released.  In the UK this was merely the addition of 2 Dom Pérignon branded flutes in a separate box, but for the US market a custom designed box that housed both bottle and glasses was produced.

A 2006 Rosé is currently scheduled for release in 2018.

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‘Dom Pérignon 1998 – The Collection’. The world’s most expensive cookbook

Over the years Dom Pérignon have found ways for the consumer to experience the prestige of their brand, even if they’ve never opened a bottle of their Champagne.  As well as the more standard accessories such as glassware and Champagne buckets, official merchandise has ranged from Bento boxes (used to serve Sushi as an ideal accompaniment to a bottle), cigar cases, and even a chess board.

One of the most curious items to appear though must be the cookery book that was released to tie in with the June 2005 release of the 1998 Vintage. ‘Dom Pérignon Vintage 1998 – The Collection’ (published by Ptarmigan) came in at a whopping 292 pages and was likely never intended to be something that you would keep in the kitchen to idly flick through for inspiration on a weekday night.

Indeed, in the written introduction by Dom Pérignon Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy, he describes the tome as “not in fact a book but a great work of art”.  He goes on to add that “whilst containing no more than bound sheets of high quality paper…recipes and images have been woven into a rich counterpoint, like…(those) which great opera and symphonies depend”

Stirring stuff but, as of the time of writing, this release remains the only time the brand has attempted to produce such a companion piece.

The volume pulled together 35 of the best chefs working in the UK at the time, each working for a famous restaurant such as Le Gavroche or Les Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.  Many well-known names were included such as Michael Caines, Angela Hartnett, Michel Roux Jr, and Tom Aikens.

The record temperatures of the 1998 vintage had provided grapes that were succulent and full of flavour and each chef had been invited to provide a recipe that they believed would pair exquisitely with the final blend.  In addition, some chefs even included the wine as part of the ingredients.

Alongside a clutch of starters and desserts, the core of the book featured many fish-led main courses, and included:

  • Andalouse of sole – Jean-Christophe Novelli
  • Tartare of sea bass with dill – Michel Roux Jr
  • Caramelised lobster and Wagyu beef – Tom Thomsen
  • Salmon ‘mi-cuit’, spiced lentil, foie gras ballotine – John Campbell (who, incidentally, was then the head chef at my nearby eatery The Vineyard at Stockcross)

dom-p-cookbook

Art was also very much a key part of the book, and it contained exclusively commissioned pieces from three major artists:

  • Charles Saatchi favourite Sophie von Hellermann provided a series of vignettes of the ‘glitterati’ including Joanne Harris, Philip Green, Sir Roger Moore, Theo Fennel, Lord Lloyd Webber, Meredith Etherington-Smith, Karl Lagerfeld and Helena Christensen. These sat alongside short interview pieces for each of the subjects, captured by journalist Lucia van der Post
  • French illustrator Stephane Gamain provided stylised illustrations of each featured chef to sit alongside their biographies
  • Japanese photographer Yukata Yahamoto produced still life images for each recipe, based on the key ingredients

dom-p-cookbook3

Also included was a nod to fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who at the time was collaborating with the brand on the artistic vision of their 1998 Vintage release (featuring Helena Christensen).

In keeping with the prestige tradition of Dom Pérignon, two different versions of the book were available to purchase.  Retailing for £1000 and listed as the most expensive cookbook ever produced, the premium edition was a limited run of just 30 copies and came bound in sea-green galuchat leather, harvested from the hide of a rare Japanese ray.

dom-p-cookbook2

Each of the 30 sleeves were individually hand polished giving them a distinct and unique appearance and, in addition to this exclusive sleeve, the commissioned prints were signed by the artists involved.  In a generous move by the brand, the highly positioned retail price wasn’t to be swallowed up simply as vast profit; all proceeds from the sales were donated to a selection of UK charities.

For those that couldn’t stretch to the deluxe version, the same (unsigned) hardback edition was produced in a wider print run of 1500 editions housed in a dust jacket containing a printed image of the galuchet leather effect.  The retail price for this version came in at a more modest £40.

‘Dom Pérignon Vintage 1998 – The Collection’ was released in November 2005.

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The Wine Show Chelsea & Sparkling Masterclass

Building on the success of the inaugural event last year the Wine Show Chelsea returned to London last week and I decided to pop along to try it out for myself.

chelsea-logo

Held over three days in the historic Kings Road Chelsea Town Hall venue, the show was devised by wine trade publication The Drinks Business to bring together the best that London merchants have to offer.

Having been to many wine shows in the past I was initially a bit worried as there were only twenty exhibitors in place, but this doubt was unfounded and in the end, I only managed to visit eight of them such were the diverse offerings and knowledgeable experts on hand.

Firstly though a diversion, and I was signed up to a Sparkling wines masterclass pitting England against the rest of the world.  Hosted by not one, but two (!), Masters of Wine (MW’s) this was a rare insight in to the critical tasting approach at the top level of wine appreciation, as well as being a good refresher of the ‘why’ you are tasting what you are tasting.

Hosted by the editor-in-chief of The Drinks Business Patrick Schmitt MW, we were invited to blind taste and rate the 10 sparkling wines on offer, giving our own thoughts on grape variety, climate and key taste indicators.  Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW then worked us through our reasoning; guiding, correcting and validating our theories as to the origins of what we were drinking.

The general winners on the day were the English wines which, hedging the bets somewhat, comprised 3 out of the 10 wines.  Also showing well was a Loire Valley Brut NV and the ‘curve-ball’ Canadian sparkling from Benjamin Bridge.  Having reviewed this wine only a few months ago, I was a bit annoyed that I didn’t recognise it (although that was the whole point of the curve-ball), but it did make my top 3 wines of the session along with the aforementioned Loire Brut and a Champagne de Castelnau NV Brut Reserve.

Masterclass completed it was then off to the exhibitors at large and I kicked things off with producer and re-seller Caves d’Esclans and their array of French rosé.  We were able to taste from both 75cl bottle and magnum to compare, and I concentrated on working my way up towards the Chateau d’Esclans Garrus 2014.

This small production wine has a retail price of circa £80 and is known by some as the ‘Dom Pérignon’ of the rosé world, which of course piqued my interest.  It was a lovely pale, creamy yet spicy drink, but I couldn’t say that it justified the high price tag.

Now that I had warmed my palate up I moved on to the Finest Fizz stand, and a clutch of £30+ Champagnes (including 2 from Hautvilliers, the birthplace of a certain Dom Pérignon – sorry, I’ll drop the links now!).

Highlights here included their ‘skinny’ rosé (£40) which has just 275 calories per bottle, equivalent to one large glass of an average red wine, and the Bernard Pertois Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru NV (£34) which was a creamy dream likened to Krug (and probably a hint as to why Krug are trying to get the winemaker to work on their team).

Next up were my friends from boutique merchant Friarwood who had a lively selection of reds and whites from across the globe.  The team were so full of stories, anecdotes and general wine knowledge that I probably did more talking than tasting at this stand, but I did manage to try a velvety organic Super-Tuscan from Conti di San Bonifacio (£18.50) and a delicious 2010 Chateau Fonplegade GCC from Saint Emilion (£47.50).

I then crossed over to iDealwine, an international wine auction site who had the wine that was probably the highlight of the show for me – a 1989 Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes (£64).  Tasting as fresh and inviting as the day it was made, this 27 year old sweet wine was a rich nutty, honey and caramelised taste of greatness. Delicious.

Wine importer Hard to Find Wines gave me my first taste of a wine from Luxembourg.  From the far right east coast of the country, the vineyards straddle the Moselle (as it is called here) and gave off a very similar experience to the Germanic wines from the Mosel.  Made from the Auxerrois grape, the wine was lean with a very direct acidity.

Also on show was a Malbec from Franschhoek in South Africa.  A grape more akin to other countries, Malbec is beginning to be planted in many other countries for the first time and it was interesting to try this blood-red variant full of bitter chocolate and mocha notes.

The above notes really only scratch the surface of my time at the show and I can easily say that it was phenomenally rewarding, giving me access to a really great masterclass, some stunning wines, and some truly great people.

With thanks to The Drinks Business and Unionpress for the ticket used for this tasting.

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Dom Pérignon Vintage 2005

The release of the 2005 vintage was announced in the May of 2015.  With a good decade of ageing already under its belt the declaration was a standout for a number of reasons.

dp-2005

The yields gathered from the harvest were markedly down on the usual volumes seen for a Dom Pérignon release.  With only 50% of the average sized haul making the grade this was the smallest recorded vintage since 1971.  Such was the scarcity of the bottles, the 2005 was the ‘current’ vintage for a mere 6 months, being replaced by the 2006 in October.  In November the Dom Pérignon website had sold out at source and were no longer offering the 75cl bottles for sale (magnums were still available).

If the small overall volume released was a hint that the weather conditions in 2005 had been challenging, another indication came from the blend which was usually split 50/50 between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

In the case of the 2005, Chardonnay would account for a record 63% of the blend.  With the exception of the 1970 vintage that’s the highest proportion of Chardonnay ever used for a Dom Pérignon.

The release also marked the 4th consecutive vintage of Dom Pérignon in a row – the first time ever in the brand’s history that this had occurred, and a phenomenon that would be extended to an unprecedented 5 releases with the upcoming 2006 vintage.  It was also one of the handful of years where the vintages released did not mirror those of the overall Champagne house Moét & Chandon, who moved straight from the 2004 to the 2006.

Critics were now starting to ask the question as to whether a Dom Pérignon vintage still equated to a rare cuvée released in only exceptional years.  Throughout its history, a particular decade would see perhaps only 3 to 4 declarations, but in recent times there had been 7 vintages declared out of the last 8 years (since 1998 only the 2001 vintage hadn’t made the grade).

Explaining his motives for persevering to produce a vintage, especially in years that offered up such difficult climatic circumstances, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy explained “I come from a medicine background so there’s a sense of bringing things to life. I don’t think regular releases devalues the concept – luxury can’t be artificial.  Some houses limit themselves to three vintages a decade but that makes no sense to me, plus they might pick the wrong three. It’s just not practical”.

The weather conditions had been warm throughout the spring and summer, with both heat and drought being on the minds of the winemakers.  Such was the intensity of the sun that, at times, the year was described as the hottest in a decade and compared to the famous drought of 1976 (the soil humidity levels in 2005 were even lower than that landmark year).

Conversely, the little rain seen throughout the year had been building with equal intensity and September was cool and wet with the early part of the month seeing torrential downpours.  These damp conditions blighted the grapes just when they were getting ready to be picked and rot/botrytis began to set in, particularly affecting the Pinot Noir grapes (hence their lower inclusion in the blend).

A short break in the weather allowed harvest to begin on September 14th for the Chardonnay and the 17th for the Pinot Noir.  As the rains returned to the vineyards it was only through drastic grape selection that a wine of vintage standard could be achieved.  Richard Geoffroy would describe the 2005 vintage as having “exceptional quality” and being an “iron fist in a velvet glove”

The official tasting note tells us that the nose offers up “intense fruit, more black than red, which then melts into silvery minerality.  Notes of praline and coriander compliment the whole”.  The palate has “a strong character and a powerful presence” with an almost physical aspect.  “It is structured, focused, firm and dense.  Its intriguingly spicy, flowery finish remains present in each sip”.

Stepping away from the highly stylised official note, respected Champagne palate Tom Stevenson described it as being “toasty and chocolaty” with “coffee-infused red and black fruit”.  My own tasting note also picked up on the toasty and darker characteristics, adding a green-skinned fleshiness to the nose and a streak of lemon to the forefront of the palate.

With Pinot Noir responsible for much of the body and backbone of a Champagne it has been suggested that the reduced amount of the variety in the 2005 blend will prevent it having the weight and structure to age as long as other Dom Pérignon releases.  Time will tell, but with only limited volumes available in the first place, it will probably be harder to get hold of as time goes by.

dp-05-corks

Upon release the bottles were housed in the standard black presentation casing containing the bi-lingual information guide, and topped with the same dark green capsule as the 2004.

Whilst a small number of magnums of the 2005 were released, due to the limited nature of the vintage no special editions or flute packs were issued.  Despite the low availability of Pinot Noir grapes, a Rosé edition was released in June 2017, but it is yet to be seen if the overall grape availability will allow for a Vintage or Rosé P2 variant.

DP Rose 2005

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Dom Pérignon Reserve de L’Abbaye

Part 14 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

As my Dom Pérignon retrospective reaches the release of the 1992 Vintage, it seemed an appropriate time to step to the side somewhat, in to a place where the 1992 is the current release.

RDLA Labels

I’m referring to Dom Pérignon Réserve de L’Abbaye (also known as Dom Pérignon Gold, or simply Gold Reserve).  This is a stand-alone series of vintage releases for the Japanese market only (also available through Hong Kong fine wine merchant Ginsberg + Chan), and a product that you rarely hear about in the UK/Europe unless you go hunting for information.  Consequently, very little is written about it and, where it is talked about, it invariably isn’t written in English.

As alluded to with the use of the term ‘Gold’ (itself based on the fact that the labels and covering foil on the bottle are coloured gold), this brand offshoot is intended as an ultra-deluxe product that has seen extended cellar ageing, and is only available in limited quantities.  The vintages are released at circa 20 years of age which puts them on a vague par with the P3 releases (Plenitude, formerly Oenothéque), but I say vague as the 1990 RDLA was released in 2009 whereas the 1990 P3 has only recently hit the shelves.  There is also a passing resemblance between the two products as the 1990 P3 also has a gold style label.

Other packaging difference to note on the RDLA is that it has its own distinct capsule atop the cork, the back labels are all in Japanese and, more interestingly, that they also include a ‘Limited Edition’ serial number.  Dom Pérignon are well known to be evasive on the subject of how many bottles they produce each year but, do these serial numbers give us some hint towards production runs?  As you can see from the below image, the back label for the 1992 is only 5 characters long, ergo a top limit of 100k bottles, however the back label for the 1988 is 6 characters long taking us up to a potential 1 million bottles.

RDLA Backlabels

Champagne experts have repeatedly made guesses at the production levels for Dom Pérignon and put it at somewhere around 5 million bottles (based purely on the juices produced from the number of vines they have access to), so allocating anywhere near a million bottles for a niche Japan only product seems a tad much.  It’s more than likely that the serial number level has been inflated for the 1988 Vintage, and we’re not much the wiser after all.

The bottle comes packaged in a lovely wooden case, not unlike the style used for the first releases in the Oenothéque series, and comes with a tasting booklet that has the serial number stamped on the back and doubles as a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’.  All the bottles in circulation are the standard 75cl bottles, with no magnums or larger formats in production.

RDLA76

It’s unclear as to whether RDLA is the same base blend as regular Dom Pérignon and the bottles are simply partitioned for the Japanese market, or whether it is tailored to the market taste.  I did find one review from that rare someone who had tasted both the standard 1992 and the 1992 RDLA and they noted that it seemed sweeter in taste than usual.

The first vintage that I can find reference to is the 1976, which has been followed up by the 1978, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1990 and most recently the 1992.  Reflecting the fact that these late releases have spent a serious amount of additional time resting on their yeasts (lees) in the cellars, the prices for the older vintages run from £1200 per bottle, down to circa £800 for the latest two releases.

Noticeably absent are the vintages of 1980 and 1983, and this brings with it some interesting conclusions.  It’s understandable that 1980 may have been skipped due to the fact that it was a small harvest and probably sold through at the time (although this didn’t stop the equally small 1978 vintage becoming an RDLA), but 1983 was a huge crop and the largest recorded at that time.  Technically this should have meant that it was available, but its absence from the range is probably down to the weather conditions of the year, which were damp at harvest time, and this meant that the large quantity of grapes lacked the structure to age satisfactorily (indeed no Rosé was produced for 1983 either).  Interestingly, both the 1980 and 1983 received Oenothéque releases, but the 1978 did not.  Perhaps the two lines were sharing allocations?

Overall the RDLA is a curious aside in the Dom Pérignon story, and a product that I hope to taste myself one day, not least as a Dom Pérignon enthusiast, but if only to be able to judge if the blend is in any way different to the standard vintage.

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Dom Pérignon 1990

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.

RichardGPromoPicPicture 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.

1990 images

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.

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Dom Pérignon; Going it alone

Part 12 of my Dom Pérignon History Series

January of 1992 saw the release of the much lauded 1985 vintage – a wine of great distinction characterised by aromatic intensity and a balanced constitution.  The harvest had begun on the 30th of September in what could only be described as ideal conditions, but the year hadn’t started out as obviously prosperous.  The winter, January in particular, had been exceptionally cold and a lingering hard frost throughout the entire spring had caused the loss of several thousands of hectares of vines.  It wasn’t until July that the weather finally picked up and, when the sun came out, the flowering managed to pick up pace and recover from the slow start.  In the end, the harvest was started only a couple of weeks later than usual.

DP85

The blend was split 40% Pinot Noir and 60% Chardonnay with the Pinot grapes contributing body and structure to the subtle and persistent aromas of the Chardonnay.  The wine was described by Moét as being complex and warm, toasted and sweet, with hints of almond and walnut.  Tasting the wine in late 1991, winemaker Dominique Foulon described his creation as giving a floral attack to the nose, with added honey and preserved fruits.  On the palate he described it having the darker notes of figs, raisins and undergrowth, and a finish that was long and precise.  In addition to the vintage release a Rosé was also released at the beginning of 1995.  This was again characterised by the vegetal notes and the candied red fruits from the ripe Pinot grapes, and added hints of brioche and lemon citrus.

The year of 1986 saw a first for the brand and, at the current time of writing, is still the only time that a Rosé Dom Pérignon has been released without a vintage wine being made as well.  The answer as to why this anomaly occurred lies in the weather for that year which has been described as both unpredictable and dramatic.  A cold winter led in to an equally poor spring, but the vines remained healthy and bud burst occurred around the 7th of May, just a few weeks later than usual.  Warm sunshine soon arrived and the rising temperatures in June saw flowering begin on the 25th of the month.  Summer remained modestly sunny and warm, but heavy rains hitting from the 10th of August until early September ensured that the possibly high yielding crop was now subject to rot and strict grape selection.  A last burst of dry weather from the 18th of September pushed the harvest back slightly to ensure that grapes could maximise their ripening time and was commenced between the 28th of September and the 2nd of October, depending on variety.  With the Pinot Noir grapes faring better than the Chardonnay (which hadn’t fully ripened and were a touch too acidic) it was felt that the flavour profile better suited a darker Rosé release than a short living and (perhaps) harsher vintage release.  The final blend was 60% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay.

The official tasting guide for the wine references these attributes and describes the wine as being pale rose in colour, with gentle shades of copper and very fine bubbles.  The aromas were of fresh cherries and redcurrants and gave way to notes of mirabelle plum and toasted bread.  On the palate, there was the sensation of roundness, purity and concentration, perfectly balanced by an almost youthful liveliness.

Available in September 1996, one final thing to note about this unique release was that it was the last Rosé to come in a green coffret identical to that of the vintage release (which may have been a touch confusing in a year where no vintage 1986 was released).  From the next Rosé vintage onwards (1988) they would come in pink/rose coloured coffrets more befitting of their contents.

DP86

As if to herald the long seen phenomenon that Dom Pérignon was rarely released in three successive vintages (and certainly continuing the trend for Dom vintages not to be released in years ending with a 1 or a 7), 1987 saw poor weather and resulted in no wines being released.  A wet spring was followed by a wet summer with the weather perking up for just 3 weeks in August.  This late sun wasn’t enough to stop what was an average harvest producing a small crop suitable only for topping up reserve stocks.

Next up was the ‘very good’ vintage of 1988 which would prove to be extremely long lasting wine and one which was very much in demand.  An extremely mild winter saw early and rapid flowering of the vines, but only produced a limited number of potential bunches (quantities were down approximately 10% on the moderate crop of the previous year).  Summer was marked with heavy rains alongside sunny weather and high temperatures but, conversely, the rains helped to swell the grapes available.  The sun returned in August and picking began on September 26th for the Chardonnay and the 27th for the Pinot Noir, with the final vintage being comprised of 55% Chardonnay and 45% Pinot Noir.  On the nose it was described as floral, citrus, toasty vanilla, graphite and walnut.  The palate added almond and bitter marmalade, culminating in a long and fine finish.

The Rosé release for 1988 showed dry figs and candied cherries to the nose, adding spice and vanilla to a palate described as dense, vigorous and precise.  The vintage release would come to market in the early part of 1995, with the Rosé release following in 1998.

Initially declared to be a great year but steadily reduced over time to ‘very good’, the harvest of the 1989 was generous in yield and declared by many Champagne houses.  Noting the quality and extra time needed for the 1988’s to fully realise their potential, some houses released the youthful and early drinking 1989 first.  Moét decided to hold back and, in a curious mirroring of the start of the decade where patience with the tempting 1981 vintage gave way to the superb 1982’s, the 1989 grapes were still young in their bottles when the superb quality of the 1990 vintage was spotted.  The 1989 vintage was ultimately skipped in favour of the upcoming potential presented by the new decade.

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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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