As a member of the wine trade I am fully used to and unembarrassed about hopping on a tube train reeking of booze and sporting Bride of Dracula-style black teeth. Let them think “God what a lush, and only lunchtime too, tut tut.”
Today, however, as I rode the Victoria line I wanted to shout out - “Yes, I've been drinking already, but it was Dom Pérignon! Dom Pérignon, everyone!” I have been treated to, not just a tasting, but an “experience”, a “dark revelation” even, of Dom Pérignon's latest release, 2003.
For those in the know, skip this paragraph, but if you're less than fully au fait with luxury Champagnes, read on. Dom Pérignon is a vintage-only luxury cuvée that is part of the Moët et Chandon stable (and, by extension, the LVMH luxury goods empire). There is no non-vintage version and it is only produced in years that they feel are capable of living up to its illustrious forebears. Today it was the turn of the latest addition to this select band, the 2003 vintage.
It might seem contrary even to attempt to make Dom Pérignon in such a difficult and certainly atypical year as 2003. It was incredibly hot and dry – difficult conditions to make any fine wine, but well nigh impossible, you might think, for a luxury Champagne, which relies on high acidity to give it drive, structure and ageing ability. In the UK we probably remember 2003 as one of the few hot, sunny summers we enjoyed in the last decade and perhaps think back fondly on those blistering days and balmy evenings. In France, however, recollections are more painful – 2003 was also marked by numerous deaths of mostly old people in France, due to the extreme heat.
Dom Pérignon Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy, described how 2003 was a challenge and how low the expectation was that they would succeed in making a commercial release that year. Yet, as he pointed out, great vintages of the 20th century, such as 1947, 1959 and 1976 were also a result of hot, dry conditions. 2003 may yet surprise us with its quality and longevity.
I asked Richard what happens in the years when there is no Dom Pérignon and it seems they get as far as assembling the final blend and only then make a go/no go decision. So, contrary to popular belief, the Chef de Cave doesn't get a holiday, even if there is no Dom Pérignon to show for it. In reply to the question of what happens to the wines earmarked for DP, when no vintage ends up being made, Richard said only “Nothing is wasted.”
The wine itself is a muscular, vinous mouthful, marked not by the usual high acidity, but by what Richard calls “a wall of minerality” which holds it together and gives it structure. It certainly has a very physical presence and makes a great Champagne to drink over an entire meal – if your budget stretches to it!
We tested its gastronomic capabilities with a range of dishes – a sweet-savoury eggy, mousse-y concoction was least successful for me. But the saffron infused risotto and the foie gras (no escaping foie gras with the French around) dishes were wonderfully harmonious. Most interesting was a caviar and hibiscus jelly combination. On its own it's a challenge to the palate, with the sharp astringency of the jelly fighting with the salty caviar – but good old DP managed to smooth out all those sharp points to create a harmonious and enjoyable sensation in a way that probably no other wine could do.
While I enjoyed tasting (alright drinking) the 2003 today, it feels as though this monumental wine has barely begun its evolution. Perhaps we will be looking back in 20 years' time to say what a great vintage of DP it was – and is. And I'll be able to say, “I was there”.