I visit the Champagne region in France at least once every two years. It's my favorite wine region to visit, for two main reasons. The obvious one is that I love Champagne and the region; the other is that nowhere else in the world can I taste so many mature Champagnes that have been kept so well, and are still so fresh and lively. A third reason could also be that, for me, the Champenois are the most welcoming and friendliest wine producers in France. Also, the Champagne region is only a little over an hour's ride by car or train east of Paris, making it a convenient stop.
On my bi-annual pilgrimage to Champagne, I always stop at the Abbey of Hautvillers (Hautvillers is a village just north of Epernay, the town which is the center of the region). The history of Champagne really started at this abbey, when a 29-year-old Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon arrived in 1668. He was made cellar master of the Abbey, which was a wise move by the abbot, as it turned out. Pérignon remained cellar master at Hautvillers until his death in 1715 (He was totally blind in his later years). During his reign, Dom Pérignon, the original "master blender" of Champagne, basically established Champagne as the sparkling wine we know and love today (I spell out the entire story in Chapter 2 of my book, Champagne for Dummies).
Moët & Chandon first released its premium Champagne, named in honor of Dom Pérignon, in 1936, beginning with the brilliant 1921 vintage (At least I have been told that the 1921 was brilliant, but very few bottles exist today, even at the winery). I was fortunate enough to taste the second vintage of Dom Pérignon, the 1928, and it lived up to its reputation. I tasted it when it was about 60 years old, and it was still lively, and totally fantastic (1928 was one of the greatest of all Champagne vintages). Other great Dom Pérignon vintages since World War II include the 1955, 1959, 1961, 1964, 1966, 1982, 1985, 1988, and 1990. A Dom Pérignon Rosé is also produced; the current vintage in the U.S. is the 1995 DPR, soon to be replaced by the 1996.
Champagne Dom Pérignon's current cellar master (known in Champagne as the chef de caves) is Dr. Richard Geoffroy. In fact, Geoffroy was trained as a medical doctor, but chose Champagne as his career; as he explains, it was in his blood, because his family were growers in the region for many generations. In fact, Geoffroy is now the head honcho of all Moët & Chandon winemaking operations since July, 2005; I think so much of his knowledge and his ability to communicate that I asked him to write the Foreword of Champagne for Dummies. I asked Geoffroy, or "the monk" as fellow Champagne producer Christian Pol Roger calls him (a good nickname, because there is something wise and reverent about him), if he were going to give up his duties as Chef de Caves of Dom Pérignon now that he is chief winemaker of all Moët & Chandon Champagnes, and he quickly replied, smiling, "No way!" Richard Geoffroy is a man who loves his work, and this love is reflected in his Champagnes.
Geoffroy's first vintage as Dom Pérignon's cellar master was the 1990; he began with a winner! Cuvée Dom Pérignon's current vintage is the 1998, which Geoffroy loves even more than the much-heralded 1996 vintage. His reason? According to Geoffroy, the 1998 DP is perfectly balanced and harmonious, the style he is looking for in Dom Pérignon. For Geoffroy, the 1996 vintage, which is very concentrated, and possesses the unusual combination of extra ripeness and very high acidity, doesn't have the balance of vintages such as 1998.
Champagne Dom Pérignon is always made up of a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, roughly 50 percent of each, depending on the vintage. All of the grapes are from Grand Cru vineyards in the Côtes des Blancs (for Chardonnay) and Montagne de Reims (for Pinot Noir), but a little bit of Pinot Noir from the Premier Cru village of Hautvillers is also always in the blend, perhaps for sentimental or historical reasons.
One of the many innovations that Geoffroy has institiuted at Moët & Chandon is the creation of a library collection of mature Dom Pérignon vintages, called Oenotheque, in which Moët & Chandon releases three vintages of perfectly-aged Dom Pérignon to the market, when Geoffroy has determined these vintages have developed the secondary characteristics that make them particularly attractive to drink. For instance, the current Oenotheque vintages available are the 1976, 1973, and 1964. The one overriding truism of any great prestige cuvée Champagne, such as Dom Pérignon, is that it must be given aging to truly appreciate its greatness. Only time (a minimum of ten years, but often 15 to 20 years or more) allows the complex flavors of prestige cuvées to really develop.
On the eve of Bastille Day, July 13, 2006, I tasted seven Cuvée Dom Pérignon vintages, beginning with the 1998 and ending with the 1962. The first five of the Champagnes were tasted at Champagne's "home," the Abbey of Hautvillers, and the last two were tasted in Epernay, with dinner. The following are my tasting impressions:
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1998 ($140, Moët Hennessy USA): The 1998 Dom is the current vintage available, and it is a beauty: creamy, gentle, all finesse and elegance. It is perfectly balanced and harmonious, which makes it enjoyable to drink even now, which at eight years old is truly young for this great cuvée. Cellar master Richard Geoffroy loves the 1998, and I can understand why, because it has no rough edges. I don't personally believe that the 1998 will be one of the all-time great Dom Pérignons, but it will age very well, I am sure. (We also tasted the 1998 in magnum, at dinner, and it had even more energy and liveliness; from the magnum, I would have rated the 1998 two points higher). 94
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1996 (about $140 where available): The 1996 DP is atypical for Dom Pérignon in that it very powerful, intense, and concentrated, and has greater acidity than usual, because of the nature of the vintage. In a previous column in Wine Review Online, I have gone on record stating that 1996 is one of the great all-time Champagne vintages. Although winemaker Richard Geoffroy agrees that there are some great 1996s, including this one, he cautions that not all 1996s will be great, because the over-ripeness of the Pinot Noir grapes that year will cause early oxidation. I do believe that the 1996 DP has 40 years or more of life, if stored properly. Right now, the 1996 Dom is rather closed, and I rate it 95 at this time, but with the potential to deserve 98
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1995 (about $140 where available): The 1995 Dom Pérignon, another great vintage, is broader and even more powerful than the 1996 DP at this moment. It is very rich in flavor, very Pinot Noir, and undoubtedly will last for many decades. It should be at its peak in another ten years or so. A current controversy in Champagne revolves around which is the better vintage, 1995 or 1996. Dom Pérignon's Richard Geoffroy favors the 1995; I do agree that the '95 DP is tasting better than the '96 at this moment, but I believe that the '96 DP will be the better vintage in the long run. 96
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1988, magnum (not currently available): I am a big fan of the 1988 vintage in Champagne, preferring it to the 1990, which was more highly rated by most critics. The problem is that quite a few 1990s (a precocious vintage) are now falling apart, while the 1988s haven't even reached their peak. The 1988 DP is typical of the vintage in that it is lean, a bit austere, with excellent acidity and a rather intense mushroomy aroma. DP's Geoffroy states that not all '88s are great because many are imbalanced. But if you prefer leaner wines to ripe, fatter ones, 1988 is your style of vintage. Certainly this 1988, especially in magnum, is glorious: young, crisp, and vibrant, with years to go before it reaches its peak. 96
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1973 Oenotheque (about $475, Moët Hennessy USA): The 1973, recently released in the library Oenotheque program, was the first Dom Pérignon of the tasting to be perfectly ready to drink. It is spicy, mushroomy, toasty, quite rich, and totally delicious. I find it rather amazing that this 33-year-old Champagne from a good but not great vintage has aged so well. DP's Richard Geoffroy pointed out that weather conditions in 1973 were exactly the same as 1988, which means that the '88 should have at least 15 more years in its future. 94
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1966 (not currently available, but to be released as part of the Oenotheque program shortly): The 1966 (one of the all-time great Champagne vintages) lived up to its reputation, and then some. It was the pinnacle of this great vertical tasting: concentrated in flavor, perfectly balanced with firm acidity and lovely texture, it almost brought tears to my eyes that any wine could taste this good. Amazingly, it still tastes a bit young, although in a wonderful stage right now; it should age well for quite a few more years. 99
Moët & Chandon, Champagne (France) Dom Pérignon Brut 1962 (not currently available): The 1962 Dom Pérignon came the closest to tasting like a great white Burgundy, such as Montrachet. It is floral and voluptuous, but still fresh, and with great acidity. A superb Champagne, at its peak; one could not help but love this 44 year-old beauty. Another taster present proclaimed this 1962 the Champagne of the evening. For me, the 1962 was second only to the 1966, which possessed greater youth and balance. 98
Cuvée Dom Pérignon remains one of the great Champagnes, worthy of its price tag. No wonder Richard Geoffroy can't imagine giving up his duties as its Chef de Caves! But to truly appreciate Dom Pérignon's greatness, you really have to allow it to mature slowly and gracefully, in a cool, dark, preferably humid place. In this tasting, only the 1973, 1966, and 1962 were really at their peaks. Even the 1988 still needs time-but the 1990 (not tasted here) is at a good-drinking stage now. The 1995 and 1996 Dom Pérignons should be saved, by all means. The 1998, although drinkable now, will only get better.