Champagne Radar

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A Trip to Dom Pérignon, Hautvillers

Just over a week ago I took an early morning Eurostar to Paris and on arrival did the short walk to change stations and boarded a train to Reims and in no time, plus a couple of glasses of DP later, after leaving Islington we were in Champagne, somewhere you can’t visit too much! Reims, the capital of the Champagne area is also well known for its majestic cathedral complex Reims Cathedral completed in 1516 and it has been the site of the coronation of French Kings since 816 and today survives as a stunning example of gothic art. The reason I do a little scene setting will become apparent, so please hold on tight. With such a Cathedral on the doorstep it did mean the then still wines of Champagne had long been produced by the local abbeys were elevated to “royal wines” and used at the many royal events at the Cathedral.From Reims our trip took us a short journey to the village of Hautvillers and to its Abbey which sits high up on the hillside with a stunning view back down over nearly all of the Champagne region. Something miraculous happened here sometime after 1688; one of the Benedictine monks at the Abbey Dom Pierre Pérignon was appointed cellar master and charged with improving the quality of their wine, at a time when most wines of the time were red and Champagne being so northerly, it wasn’t really warm enough for red wine production.

At the time this cooler area of France saw later harvests and so the wines often hadn’t finished fermentation before the cold winter set in. So this meant the wines which needed bottling to prevent spoiling often still had sweetness. Spring came and warmed up the bottles and the fermentation started again in bottle, often bottles exploded and the fizz was seen as an imperfection. Dom Pierre Pérignon at the time tried hard to improve a number of vineyard practices, grape pressing techniques and brought in stronger glass from England and by default produced cleaner white wines with a light fizz, sealed with a cork, firmly tied down! The Abbey at Hautvillers became an important supplier of wine to events at Reims Cathedral and to the Royal Household.

It was nearly 100 years later in the early 1800 before this process was perfected closer to what we see today and know as Champagne, but much of the practices we see today in making Champagne trace their origins back to Dom Pierre Pérignon’s time at the Abbey.In recognition of his work when Dom Pierre Pérignon died in 1715 he was granted special rights to be buried in the abbey, space normally reserved for the Abbots.So there we have it a quick scene set of what took place here just over 300 years ago and today the reason we are at the Abbey is to taste some Dom Pérignon with the winemaker and how lucky it turned out we were! After seeing the Abbey, the only other remaining part of the original building complex is the library which sits up majestically on the first floor above vaulted ceilings and an arched walkway, the location of our tasting.

If you wanted to capture the essence of a brand there is no better place to taste Dom Pérignon and with the assistant winemaker to guide us, its time to explore the bibliothèque and taste some Oenothèque!

Dom Pérignon is released at what the winemaker calls its first plénitude, after seven years in the cellar, the Oenothèque or “wine library” is simply the same wine left longer in the cellars still on the lees and yeast and in bottle for 12 to 15 years, released at its second plénitude.

Dom Pérignon 2004, 2003 & 2002.

The 2004 is the current release and these 3 couldn’t be more different; the 2002 still seems very young, bursting full of personality and rich fruit, this wine is going to be great to taste in a few more years; the 2003 from a difficult year is surpringly good, quite different in personality to vintages either side, still quite tight and lean, again seems young right now. The 2004, my favourite of the three right now, it is classic DP, rich forward fruit and delicious toasty notes and just so open and youthful at this time.

Dom Perignon Oenothèque 1996 & 1995

These two are both sublime, both have a mass of fruit and complex toastiness; I preferred the 1996 due to its fresh acidity and amazing fruit profile. I invested heavily in the 1996 since I rate it as one of the best out there. I will write about this seperately over the coming month or two.

Dom Pérignon Rosé 2003 & Oenothèque Rose 1993

I thought the DP rose was great, then I tasted the older Oenothèque and couldn’t believe how fresh and fruity it was, its 20 years old and had layers of attractive red and dark berry fruits flavours and crisp acidity, just stunning, upfront but with real subtlety. A real surprise that needs to find its way into my cellar!

Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1982 & 1970

I have tasted DP over the years that has been up to 20 years old, but never had the luxury of perfectly aged Champagne like these two. The 1982 was from a fantastic warm vintage and yet this wine 31 years old, is still full of life and has amazingly rich fruit and such lovely lingering flavours that just go on and on. You would think the 1970 would be getting too mature, but none of that, such a bundle of life in the glass. This just goes to prove the best champagnes, kept in ideal conditions age and age and what a tribute these are.

I have drunk a lot of DP in my time, it has always been a favourite, probably because it has a relatively high amount of Chardonnay versus the Pinot Noir grape and that to me makes it versatile and more perfect for lunch time!

Having tasted some of these great older vintages I now have a new respect for aging potential of some of the best Champagnes.
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