The Release of a Challenging Vintage
I love Champagne and wish I was wealthy enough to drink more of the stuff. I am especially appreciative of very fine Champagne, but sadly do not get the chance to enjoy much of it. Happily, every so often I get invited into the glamorous world of Champagne.
The Launch of 2003 Dom Pérignon this week was just such an occasion. I have tasted some Dom Pérignon over the years, enough to know that it does deserve a very high reputation, but not enough to truly understand the cuvée or know what to expect. In all honesty my initial thoughts were something along the lines of bemoaning the fact that I was invited to the launch of the 2003 – of all vintages.
Ungrateful? Possibly, but you must remember 2003? It was very, very hot. So hot that in Champagne they were forced to harvest in August for the first time since 1822. I relish acidity, poise, minerality and freshness in Champagne, so have found the few 2003 vintages that I have tried to be not quite for me – this extends to other regions of France too, by the way.
Well I shouldn’t have been so graceless – if only in private – as it turned out the whole event was fascinating. I loved tasting the wine and experiencing the showmanship that surrounded it.
We were treated to an insightful presentation by Richard Geoffroy, Chef de Cave and creator of the Dom Pérignon cuvée since 1996. He likened 2003 to some of the greatest of vintages of all – 1947, 1959 and 1976 – and explained that almost from the moment the picking started it was clear they were going to create a vintage from the 2003 harvest. With very low acidity it must have seemed a brave decision and at times he almost appeared surprised by the fact himself himself, telling us that they decided to produce it, but that it was a challenge.
Based on the few 2003s that I have tasted I can see that it would be a challenge just to make a decent wine, but of course the whole point of Dom Pérignon, like Taittinger’s Comte de Champagne and Louis Roederer’s Cristal, is that it is a great wine.
Strangely enough the 2003 growing season had started with severe frosts that devastated the Côte des Blancs, before the untypical heat baked the surviving berries. This ensured the crop was pretty small, but the grapes that survived were incredibly concentrated and those selected for inclusion in Dom Pérignon really had something to say.
Interestingly it was so hot that after 20th August photosynthesis completely shut down so no more sugars built up, but flavours and phenolics did – something that shows clearly in the finished wine. This meant that the flavours had to be measured and tested in order to decide when to pick as much, or even more than the sugar ripeness. Richard explained that he had now come to trust this approach and used it ever since 2003, which is fortunate as they had very similar conditions in 2007 and 2011.
The aromas were astonishingly lifted and perfumed with fresh floral notes, lemon zest and lemon peel as well as richer tones of lemon curd and the flaky pastry that shows yeast autolysis as well as pine nuts hinting at a creamy ripeness to come. Running through the whole bouquet were strands of minerality, iodine, saline and wet stones that promise well for the acidity on the palate.
The palate was a revelation, this was not simply fresh and lively, indeed it was subtly the opposite, being textured and intense. The mouthfeel was silky with the merest hint of creamy ripeness, while the acidity was in a supporting role and never dominated. Rather wonderfully there was a twist of deep green olive bitterness to the wine’s finish, even a touch of tannin which accentuated the mouthfeel – those phenolics perhaps? This makes it a real wine to appreciate and enjoy rather than a straight-forward Champagne to frivolously guzzle. It offers soft richness and poised balancing acidity. It has ripe fruit in abundance, but nothing that overpowers or dominates as a single flavour and it has taut minerality – in short it has tension. The competing sensations vie with each other for your attention, which makes it fascinating to drink.
The finish was of epic proportions, I was still tasting it more than 2 minutes after I had drunk it. I would without doubt give it a gold medal in any wine competition I was judging, so cannot help but award it a very high mark – 94/100 points.
However, the experience was not all over just because we had tasted the wine, we now tried it again with food. Richard had created four dishes to show how wide the food choices can be to go with the 2003 Dom Pérignon. They were all interesting, but entirely different from what I would naturally expect to pair with Champagne.
The dishes were – photos by kind permission of Moët & Chandon, I took my own but these are so perfectly lit:
Oeuf Passard – an amazing creation of a complicatedly cooked boiled egg yolk (no white at all) spiced and blended with maple syrup and cream.
This was a glorious dish, I will not run out and make it, but it was satisfying and delicious and the slightly spicy, slightly creamy, runny yet viscous, warm yet not hot flavours and textures seemed to echo those in the wine and sort of fuse together to become one – it did knock the acidity off the wine somewhat too.
Saffron Risotto – seemingly simple this dish was based around superb ingredients, mainly husk aged estate grown rice and saffron from La Mancha.
Again I loved this dish, even more than the egg – this is proper food, that was a bit of fun. Again though I think they were too similar in many ways, the wine was lovely but not allowed to shine as the flavours and textures in the risotto held the wine in check, still as both things were so good it was an enjoyable combination.
Aquitaine Caviar with Hibiscus Jelly – this looked great, but was not my kind of thing, I don’t see the point of caviar – I dislike the texture and flavour – and the jelly was horribly tart.
Strangely though this really showed the Dom Pérignon off beautifully as it was a light dish that did not swamp my senses, so allowed the wine to burst through – or perhaps I just didn’t eat much of it!
Mole Sauce and Duck Foie Gras – mole (Mexican, not Wind in the Willows) is an incredibly complex and ancient dish that blends spices and chocolate with some 30 other ingredients. It had a wonderfully pungent, earthy, spicy aroma with amazing depth.
Oh my I loved this, it really made the Dom Pérignon sing, the earthy spice polished the delicacy of the wine and showed it off. Add the Foie Gras to it and the soft creaminess echoed the rich quality of the wine, leaving the mouth feeling wonderfully balanced and clean.
It was a perfect combination for me, which I am thrilled about as the few times I have Foie Gras I am one of those odd bods who does not think it goes with a Sauternes or similar as it is just too rich and cloying – unless you limit yourself to a mere mouthful and what’s the point of that?
All in all this was a fantastic experience for me and I thought the 2003 Dom Pérignon was a great wine. I hope to taste it a few more times over the next decade to see how it develops – although it is already amazingly complex and for me it is ready to drink – do try it if you can.