I love Champagne, and have many favorites, but no other Champagne impresses me more than Dom Pérignon. I’m certain that quite a few of you are surprised by my enthusiasm for the Dom. After all, it’s so "out there," so well-known, so available. You would think that a wine writer who specializes in Champagne such as I would choose a more esoteric Champagne to rhapsodize about. But my premise is based on the very fact that Dom Pérignon’s production is huge, and yet its quality remains so high that it consistently ranks among the top Champagnes, vintage after vintage.
No one except Richard Geoffroy, cellarmaster of Dom Pérignon, and a few trusted associates of Moët & Chandon, its parent house (although Dom Pérignon operates as an autonomous brand) knows the exact number of bottles Dom Pérignon produces each vintage. I try cajoling the information from Geoffroy every time I meet him, using every trick I know. But he just laughs and makes a joke. I know I’ll never find out. My guess is that at least three million bottles of Dom Pérignon are produced in most current vintages, but it could be four million bottles or more.
I understand the secrecy. We tend to equate high quality in wines, including Champagne, with small quantity. The thinking goes like this: "Only a few hundred cases of Brand X were made, and so it must be good!" But there are many exceptions to every generalization: four First Growth red Bordeaux—Chateaux Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Mouton-Rothschild, and Margaux—all have among the largest production in Classified Growth Bordeaux wines, and yet they are consistently excellent as well.
There seems to be a tendency among people to knock the big guy off his pedestal. Who receives more criticism in baseball from the media than Alex Rodriguez? The same is true of Champagne Dom Pérignon. When the topic of Dom Pérignon (or Cristal, for that matter) is brought up in conversation, often a friend or acquaintance will ask me, "Don’t you think it’s overrated?" My answer is always the same: "No! It’s a great Champagne. You probably tasted it when it was too young."
You can only truly appreciate the greatness of Dom Pérignon after it has been aged for a while. If you’re drinking it when it’s young, you’re not getting the essence of Dom Pérignon. In my experience, Dom Pérignon—or any great Prestige Cuvée Champagne, for that matter—needs at least ten years from its vintage to mature. And in great vintages, such as 1996 and 1988, Dom Pérignon really needs 20 years to fully develop.
In my book, Champagne For Dummies, I talk about the reasons for the delayed development of Têtes de Cuvée, another name for Prestige Cuvée Champagnes, which I’ll paraphrase here: These Champagnes are made from the finest grapes from the best vineyards in the Champagne region, usually either all Grand Cru-rated or mainly Grand Cru with some Premier Cru vineyard grapes. Then the Prestige Cuvées are aged for five to eight years in the very cool Champagne cellars before they are released for sale.
Prestige Cuvée Champagnes such as Dom Pérignon develop very fine, tiny, delicate bubbles as a result of the lengthy production and aging process; their aromas are more intense, complex, and elegant than other Champagnes, and they demand time to develop. You are rewarded, in time, with exquisite aromas and flavors, and a lengthy finish on the palate. And with the added bonus of greater longevity than other Champagnes, and in fact most other wines. I recently enjoyed a 1962 Dom Pérignon, which was lovely, and perfectly fresh. The oldest Dom Pérignon that I have tasted was a 1928 (a great vintage); it was one of the greatest wines that I have ever experienced.
Dom Pérignon is named after the famous Benedictine monk who was cellar master of the Abbey of Hautvillers, in the Champagne region, from the latter part of the 1600s until his death in 1715. Dom Pérignon, the man, did not invent Champagne (it was probably discovered accidentally), but he definitely did more to perfect Champagne than anyone else. Pierre Pérignon’s accomplishments are too numerous to mention here; his greatest feat, probably, was that he was a master blender, combining grapes from various villages and vineyards in order to achieve a finer wine. He was known to have a remarkable palate, made keener, perhaps, from the loss of his sight during his middle years.
Cuveé Dom Pérignon was not the first Prestige Cuvée. That honor goes to Champagne Louis Roederer’s Cristal, which was specially made for Tsar Nicolas II of Russia in 1876. But Cristal was a sweet Champagne then, the fashion of the times. Dry Champagnes really became the norm in the 20th century.
The origin of Champagne Dom Pérignon began in the Great Depression. Actually, the brand name—or marque, as it’s called in France—of Dom Pérignon had been owned by another Champagne house, Mercier. But Moët & Chandon, which had purchased the defunct Abbey of Hautvillers in 1794, saw an opportunity and purchased the brand from Mercier in 1930. Moët knew that it had a really special Champagne in its cellars from the 1921 vintage, one of the great vintages of all time. Moët released its special 1921 cuvée, which it called Dom Pérignon, at a ball in New York on New Year’s Eve, 1936. The Champagne was an immediate sensation. This event marked the real start of Prestige Cuvée Champagnes as we know them today.
Eventually, after World War II, just about every important Champagne house began to add a Prestige Cuvée to its portfolio of Champagnes, with most having two or even three (a Prestige Cuvée Rosé and sometimes a Prestige Cuvée Blanc de Blancs). The United States is Champagne’s best customer for Prestige Cuvées, and Dom Pérignon is the largest-selling Prestige Cuvée in the U.S., by a wide margin.
The style of Champagne Dom Pérignon is marked by elegance, finesse, and perfect balance. It is medium-bodied, subtle, and complex, not a powerhouse Champagne such as Krug or Bollinger. It complements dinner entrées extremely well, especially fish and seafood dishes.
I visit the Champagne region regularly to keep abreast of events there. Invariably, I visit Champagne Dom Pérignon, because I know what a great cellar of vintages it keeps, and because I enjoy the wisdom and insights of Richard Geoffroy when it comes to Champagne. Geoffroy is a remarkable man who began his professional life studying for a medical degree, but decided that he really wanted to work in Champagne (his family were grape growers in the region), and thus never actually practiced medicine. Which was a good move for Champagne lovers because Geoffroy has kept things at a very high level at Dom Pérignon.
Among other things, Geoffroy began saving a portion of older vintages and releasing them at a date when he thought they were drinking well—his Oenothèque program. This is great if you really want to enjoy a fine older Dom Pérignon, but didn’t have the foresight or means to buy it when it was released. Perhaps it’s even better than if you had aged DP yourself, because the Dom Pérignon cellars will have aged it ideally for you.
Geoffroy likes to conduct his Dom Pérignon tastings at the now-restored Abbey of Hautvillers, home of the good monk for so many years. What could be more perfect? My last tasting with Geoffroy took place on June 19th of this year; we began with the current vintage, 2000, and went back to the 1976 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque. I jotted down a few notes about each Champagne:
2000 Dom Pérignon—Big, fruity, rich Champagne, but with high acidity. Silky, concentrated, firm. Obviously, still needs time; bigger and fruitier than most DPs; very good Champagne in an average vintage. 91
1999 Dom Pérignon—This was really fine; the ’99 DP is developing beautifully, but still needs time; dry, concentrated, with complex minerally flavors of citrus peel and hints of mushroom; very long finish. 93
1998 Dom Pérignon—In direct contrast to the more subtle ’99, the 1998 DP is ready to drink, the only Dom I tasted this day that was perfectly ready other than the 1976. It’s a huge, harmonious, well-balanced wine, always a favorite of Geoffroy’s for its typicity of the Pérignon style. 91
1996 Dom Pérignon—Monumental. Still very tight, with great acidity balancing its enormous fruit and power. Firm, but with ripe fruit flavors; great silky texture. Lovely and pure; an intense Champagne, one of the great Doms. It should develop beautifully in another seven/eight years. 98
1995 Dom Pérignon—I tasted two ’95 DPs, an older release, and a recently disgorged ’95 designated for the Oenothèque program. Both 1995 DPs were big, powerful (for DP) Champagnes, with ample fruit and acidity. The recently disgorged ’95 was more complex, with great minerality. Both were readier to drink than the ’96, but will benefit from a few more years of aging. 93 and 94 (RD)
1998 Dom Pérignon Rosé—The current DPR. Fresh and young; fruity, with complex flavors; quite lush, but well-balanced by acidity. I preferred it to the ’98 DP white. 92
1996 Dom Pérignon Rosé—Oh, Yes! This will be a great DPR in time, but right now it is still tight and ungiving, like the ’96 DP white. Great concentration of strawberry fruit. 98
1995 Dom Pérignon Rosé—The best of the three DPRs to drink now. Rich and lush; still a bit young. 94
1990 Dom Pérignon (magnum)—Perhaps the best ’90 DP I’ve tasted. Rich and lush; totally enjoyable. Most 1990 DPs are now ready to drink, but this magnum from Dom Pérignon’s cellars is holding well. 95 (this bottle); from my cellar, 93/94
1988 Dom Pérignon (magnum)—Incredibly complex; great acidity, lean but balanced with minerally, fruity flavors. Still very young. The ’88 DP needs a few years, especially in magnum. 96/97
1985 Dom Pérignon (magnum)—Always a fine vintage. The ’85 DPs are ready to drink now, but this magnum was in fine shape. Wonderful, mature complex flavors. 95
1982 Dom Pérignon Rosé (magnum)—Oh, my! As good a rosé Champagne as I’ve tasted in a long time. Perfectly developed, lush, rich, and flavorful. 97/98
1976 Dom Pérignon Oenothèque—The 1976 Champagnes were fat and lush, a product of a very warm vintage. To its credit, this ’76 is showing extremely well after 33 years, and not over the top. Perfectly ready to drink now. 93
I looked at my Dom Pérignon notes from a memorable tasting on July 13th, 2003 (eve of Bastille Day) in Epernay, where Dom Pérignon is made. I recall that the two DP stars that evening were the 1962 and 1966, even better than the more renowned 1959, 1961, and 1964 DPs. I prefer leaner-styled DPs (such as the 1988). The ’59 and ’64 were a bit too fat for me, and the perfectly balanced ’61 is not quite as fresh as the’62 and ’66 at this point.
I re-learned the lesson of very necessary aging for Dom Pérignon Champagnes recently, when I opened a 1992, an average vintage at best which I never thought much of in its youth. It was amazingly good, at its best after 16 years of aging.
Retail prices for the current Dom Pérignons: the 2000 ranges from $130 to $170, with an average price of $150; the 1998 Dom Pérignon Rosé retails in the $370 to $400 range. Only a small quantity of DPR is made, and it’s always expensive.
The future? Richard Geoffroy firmly believes that the next Dom Pérignon to be released, the 2002, will be very special; in his words, "even more extra" than he originally thought. Can’t wait!
The distant future? The 2008, when it’s finally released about six or seven years from now, should be truly remarkable! Geoffroy says it has an "intensity of flavors" he has never experienced before in Champagne.