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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Champagne Deutz Masterclass

Champagne Deutz were in town recently as part of the Gonzalez Byass 2017 portfolio tasting, and commercial director Etienne Defosse was on hand to guide us through a masterclass of eight of their wines.

Founded in 1838, much of their production is consumed domestically in France and so this session was a rare and welcome opportunity to taste through their standard Brut NV, their Vintage Champagnes, and their prestige Amour range.

deutz

Producing a mere 2 million bottles per year (a drop in the ocean compared to the annual 300 million bottles produced in the Champagne region), Deutz have 42 hectares, 80% of which are classified at either Grand Cru or Premier Cru level.  This accounts for 20% of their grape needs (a fairly high amount by Champagne standards), with the compliment bought in from the Cru status vineyards of local growers.

The house has 150 individual vats each containing one particular component of their wine.  This distinct and high level of separation gives them absolute control and flexibility when blending their final cuvées, and their NV, for example, contains the grapes from up to 40 different sites.  40% of their annual production is kept as reserve wines for future blending.

The big take-away from this tasting was just how rich and vibrant their wines are, from the classic and classy NV’s through to the rich, layered and yet fantastically ‘alive’ Amour vintages with 10+ years of age already under their belt.

Champagne Deutz Brut Classic NV ~ £30

The base of the current Classic NV is comprised 50% of grapes from 2013, with the compliment made up of 2012 and a touch of 2011.  The NV Champagnes account for 85% of Deutz production and Etienne enlightened us with a good level of detail of the costs involved (€6.50 per kilo of grapes and each bottle needing 1.5kg of grapes to make).

Composition is split evenly between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the house style is accessible, fresh, lively and crisp for immediate pleasure.

Champagne Deutz Rosé NV ~ £40-45

The current Rosé NV is comprised of 50% reserve wines, mainly from the 2011 vintage.  Fully refreshing and bursting with strawberry and cranberry fruit, this showed a good complexity at this level.

Champagne Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2009 ~£55

Hailing from the great year of 2009 this Blanc de Blancs had a wonderfully layered texture throughout.  The nose was full of bread and brioche, cream and a touch of smoke to the citrus.  The palate followed this up with lemon curd, a twist of lime, and blossom florality.

No oak is used in the ageing process and so the density and complexity here is fully achieved through the detailed blending.  Etienne did mention that one very large barrel had recently found its way in to their cellars, with the Chef de Cave clearly trying out a new cuvée!

Champagne Deutz Rosé Vintage 2009 ~£55

With 80% Pinot Noir in its composition, the Rosé had a fragrant nose, immediate strawberry and then headed off to the darker notes of raspberry and redcurrant.  To achieve the precise colouring and fruit characters a vat of red wine is added; at just 5 to 7% of the overall blend.

As a point of interest Etienne disclosed that the same red wine vat is used for the colouring of both the NV Rosé and the Vintage Rosé but, even so, the difference between the two Champagnes was obvious.

Champagne Deutz Brut Vintage 2007 ~£50

I’m pretty sure that this was my first tasting of a 2007 Vintage Champagne, with the wet summer weather and uneven ripening resulting in many houses side-stepping the year.  When quizzed on this Etienne responded that they almost always try to make a vintage expression, only recently failing to do so in 2011 due to vegetal characters in the Pinot Noir.

Etienne also divulged that the bottling was smaller than many vintages and so is already becoming harder to find.  Using a greater compliment of Pinot Noir than usual (65%), this had a very distinctive nose (fennel, apparently) and followed it up on the palate with biscuit, ripe green pear flesh, and honeyed citrus.

deutz-amour

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2006 ~£100

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2005 ~£100

Amour de Deutz Blanc de Blancs 2003 ~£100

First produced with the 1993 vintage, we were treated here to a trio of the most recent Amour releases.  Many characteristics were present across all three vintages, not least the distinctive, almost luminescent colour (Imperial Gold, so we were told).

All three featured developed noses full of bread and biscuit, with a touch of nuttiness to the older two years.  They were also all able to show off a freshness and vibrant mousse that showed no signs of dulling down any time soon, and the layers of cream and butter were a true treat.

The 2005 and 2003 both showed what felt like a small amount of tannin, and there was an identifiable smoky quality to the 2005.  The 2003 had a particularly great depth and character.  All were wonderful and long lasting on the palate.

We ended the session with one fun anecdote surrounding the Amour range.  Since the 1999 vintage Deutz have produced a limited bottling of 365 numbered Methuselahs; one for each day of the year (and yes they do make 366 in leap years!).  One particular customer who is an avid James Bond fan has block-reserved the bottle number 007 for all future releases.

With thanks to Gonzalez Byass for the tickets to their portfolio tasting and Champagne Deutz masterclass.

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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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Laithwaites Autumn Press Tasting – Standout Sparklers!

One of the suppliers I rely on for my wine consumption is Laithwaites.  Having been a customer of theirs for several years and liking to taste widely I was comfortable that I had tasted a good portion of their wines on offer.

I found out how wrong I was at their recent Autumn tasting, held at their flagship London store near to London Bridge.  My pre-tasting strategy was originally going to focus on tasting familiar wines in a critical environment and trying the wider ranges of my favourite producers but, as it transpired, I had only tasted a mere handful of the wines presented.

laith-press-taste

Upon arrival I was warmly greeted by wine buyer Beth Willard who has been responsible for sourcing some of my previously blogged about favourites from Romania (Paris Street) and I spent the afternoon tasting alongside such luminaries as Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, Julia Harding MW and Victoria Moore (wine correspondent for the Telegraph).

With 155 wines on show I managed to taste just over half of them over the course of several hours.  I won’t go too far in to detailed tasting notes as these can be a chore to read if you’re not a Laithwaites customer and think you may never ever taste the wine, but I will pick out my highlights; wines that I felt privileged to taste or producers that I think you may consider to follow in the future.

In this first half of my report I will list my favourites amongst the Sparkling wines on offer.

Laithwaites Theale Vineyard Chardonnay 2011, Berkshire, England, 12%, £24.99

These vineyards and the Laithwaites head office are only a short drive away from where I live in Berkshire and so I will always be a big supporter.  The 2011 vintage in the UK was something of a roller-coaster with a great start followed by a lack-lustre summer followed by great harvesting conditions.

This pure Chardonnay had a lovely light and airy palate, a fresh and quaffable mousse and focussed on the citric forward lemon qualities.  With a touch of nice bitterness on the back palate to add some substance, this was at once immediate and yet structured enough to see some mid-range ageing.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV Champagne, France, 12%, £42

Charles Heidsieck continually win award after award and so I naturally gravitated towards this bottle.  A lovely gold colour in the glass and a rich bold lemon flavour on the nose, this blends complexity with a light quaffability that just evaporates in the mouth.

Given that 40% of this NV blend comes from reserve wines that can be over a decade old it’s easy to understand how they marry such depth with such immediacy.  Long-lasting finish.

blanc-des-millenaires-95

Charles Heidsieck Blanc des Millénaires 1995, Champagne, France, 12%, £120

Moving up the quality ladder and on to their prestige offering I must admit that I didn’t spit this wine out as tasting etiquette would dictate, and I also went back for seconds!

There is the customary biscuit and bread notes of a lees aged Champagne on the nose. With 21 years under its belt this wine manages to retain an awesome freshness with a lush acid that makes the palate almost evaporate.  As well as the customary citrus notes there is a lovely moodiness that permeates throughout.  Delicious.

I’ll leave it there for the Sparkling on show (with a small apology that the above doesn’t even touch upon the myriad of different levels of Prosecco available), but a final honourable mention must go to the:

Lanson Noble Cuvée Brut 2000, Champagne, France, 12.5%, £90

I’d personally had two bottles of this previously and the first showed wonderfully, being both fresh for 16 years old, as well as deep with honeyed ageing characters.

The second bottle that I opened, which I did with friends on a special occasion, had an over-whelming blue cheese nose that carried on to the palate.  I hastily retired the bottle believing it to be something of a fault but, when trying the Vintage again at this tasting, the blue cheese note was once again evident.

I chatted this through with wine buyer Davy Zyw who could detect what I was referring to but felt it was a natural part of the overall evolution of the wine as opposed to a fault.  It was certainly interesting to compare them but I remain unconvinced that the cleaner wine was the odd one out.

Checking the official Lanson tasting notes it certainly makes no mention of it, and offers up traits of honey, pear and spices instead.  It therefore remains a mystery to me at this time as to which bottle wasn’t showing correctly.  Intriguing.

In my next piece based on the tasting I will go in to the best of the whites and reds that I tried and would recommend.

With thanks to MHP Communications and Laithwaites for inviting me to this event.

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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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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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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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Pol Roger Champagne Masterclass (Part 3)

Presented here are the second half of my tasting notes from the recent Pol Roger masterclass in London, presented by 5th generation family member Hubert de Billy and managing director of the Pol Roger portfolio, John Simpson MW.

A few notes on the wines:  Pol Roger had been using concrete vats since 1930, introducing cask barrels in 1975.  Stainless steel came in to play in 1985 and their entire operation moved to steel in 2012.

Vintage Pol Roger is a blend of 30-40 villages.  They have 92 hectares of their own, but have access to 33,200 hectares in total.   They have stated that they will happily buy up any adjoining land to their vineyards that comes up for sale but, as the average cost of a hectare of land is 1.4 million euro’s, they are sometimes adding plots the size of an average UK back garden.

Pol Mast4

Pol Roger Brut 1999

This wine is the colour of dark hay but carries with it a lovely golden rim.  The nose is dense with a good intensity and leaves a full and rich impression.  This begins with dried yellow fruits, honey and light brioche, and moves in to darker tones of old wood and candied burnt sugar.  The palate manages to retain vibrancy whilst showing the signs of good ageing.  A mellow acid glides you through burnt toast, herbaceous notes and a clear biscuit character.  These give way to dried apricot and pineapple, and a clear long finish extremely reminiscent of toffee.  This is a well-structured wine which wasn’t hugely respected at the time (coming straight after the great 1998 and just prior to the millennial vintage), and is ready for drinking now (although will last for a further 20 years).  For me, it was probably the highlight of this masterclass.  Wonderful stuff.

Pol Roger Brut 1996

I may have been imagining it but there were almost hints of red in the dark gold colour of this wine.  A distinct ‘high’ nose spoke of a wine just starting to oxidise and tire, it gave off touches of wet undergrowth, leather and coffee.  The nose was also distinctly yeasty (it took me right back to visiting the Guinness factory in Dublin).  The palate was still vibrant although also showing age with over-ripe and dried yellow fruit, a light tannin and slightly cloying candied sugar.  Dark and brooding with coffee and nuts, a light cream and the persisting acid mean that it is an austere wine that can still give pleasure, but needs drinking up soon.

Pol Roger Rosé 2006

This was the dark colour of wild salmon, but the nose was light, floral and expressive, with red cherry and smoky, savoury characters.  The cherry leads the palate, followed up by strawberries and cream.  There’s a clean medium acid running throughout which glides you through some smoky characters and just takes the edge off the underlying sweetness of the wine.

Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2004

Released this year, this grand cuvée is deep golden yellow in colour.  The nose gives off fresh citrus lemons and ripe yellow melon before heading off in to sweet coffee and rich cream, toast and a popcorn-like buttery character.  There was also some fleshy green apple and pips hidden amongst the darker notes.  The palate is dense, nutty (certainly walnuts), ground coffee, savoury (some cheese), with sweet spice and mellow acid.  A lovely long finish, and somehow ‘golden’ in taste.

Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill 2000

Even darker gold in colour than the 2004, this wine also has amber hints to it.  The nose begins with stewed green fruit, and a slight oxidised character.  The herbaceous, sweet woody notes tell you that this is a wine that has seen some good ageing.  The palate is full and round, very dense and very creamy.  Guided with a medium acidity, the lemon citrus and apple flesh lead on to dried pineapple, peach skin, milky coffee, and nuts.  Despite these later darker tones the wine retains a vibrant and refreshing mousse and is a juxtaposition of light and dark.  Wonderful for drinking now or keeping.

These tasting notes round out my blog on what was an extremely pleasurable and memorable event.  The first part of my tasting notes from this event can be found here.

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