Where to begin with Dom Pérignon? It is a brand, a wine, and a historical figure welded into an idea that has transcended itself to become an icon of culture. Pretty much every wine drinker has heard of Dom Pérignon. Ask them and they won’t necessarily be able to tell you how. But Dom Pérignon universally means luxury, and it means Champagne. It is truly one of the world’s most revered brands.
But of course, Dom Pérignon is more than just a brand. Unlike the Nike logo, which will get slapped on everything from T-shirts to flip flops, the signature shield-like label of Dom Pérignon is only placed on Champagne made in one location, by one house, under the supervision of the cellar master or chef de cave Richard Geoffroy. You will never know exactly how many bottles of it they make, nor will you ever know exactly their winemaking regimen for assembling it each year (other than the fact that they do not use Pinot Meunier, the traditional third grape allowed in Champagne apart from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).
But what you do know as a consumer, is that when you open a bottle of Dom Pérignon, what’s inside will be good. Moreover, if you are a frequent or even occasional consumer of this pricey Champagne, you will have a very clear idea of how it will taste.
Say what you will about the fact that Dom Pérignon is a brand created by a massive corporation (Moet & Chandon) inside another massive corporation (holding company Luis Vuitton Moet Hennesey), Dom Pérignon pulls off the winemaking equivalent of a hat trick every year. Year after year, the fact that Dom Pérignon can make such consistent Champagne, and Champagne that is so consistently good, to a certain extent renders any epithet concerning corporate scale a purely philosophical exercise.
Making consistently world-class Champagne at this scale is a truly remarkable feat. As usual, it helps to start with great raw materials. By virtue of the history and bankroll of its parent, Moet & Chandon, Dom Pérignon has access to fruit from all the 17 Grands Crus vineyards in Champagne (and in particular the 8 core Grands Crus of Aÿ, Bouzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Chouilly, Cramant, Avize and Le Mesnil) as well as the historical Premier Cru from Hautvillers, the site of the Abbey where D. Pierre Pérignon perfected (but did not invent) the process we now call methode champenoise. Each vintage is a blend, or to use the proper term, an assemblage from across the Champagne region. The amount of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vary each year, sometimes up to 20% with no strict formula.
The assemblage each year has two goals — to embody the spirit of Dom Pérignon, which is to say, remain firmly within the bounds of the house style, and then to also express what the vintage has offered in Champagne. As chef de cave Geoffroy puts it “Each vintage is a unique opportunity to reinvent ourselves and unveil the harmonious dialogue between the expression of nature and style.” Geoffroy is an interesting chap. Trained as a medical doctor, but from a wine family, he eventually decided his heart belonged in the cellar rather than the hospital, and returned to the wine world as a winemaker. He became the chef de cave at Dom Pérignon in 1985, and is the fifth person to hold the title since the winery’s first vintage in 1921.
Dom Pérignon the brand began as merely the library reserve of Champagne house Moet & Chandon, which has been making Champagne since 1743. It was the world’s first prestige cuvee Champagne to be released, and in 1943 it became its own separate winemaking project.
The Dom Pérignon portfolio of wines can be confusing to the uninitiated, especially because of the existence of their reserve Oenotheque line.
Dom Pérignon makes one vintage brut Champagne blend each year, except in those years they opt not to release a wine at all. Since its inception in 1921, Dom Perignon has only been released 36 times. The wine is aged on its yeasts in the bottle for at least seven years before release. Bottles released after seven years get a greenish-gold label, and are sold as just plain Dom Pérignon.
However, not all the bottles are released after seven years. Since 1990 some bottles have been held at least three more years (and up to eight years longer) and then released as Dom Pérignon Oenotheque, with a black label. And, perhaps less well known, an even smaller quantity of wines in great vintages are held for up to 25 years and also released as Oeonotheque. Because these wines come from the winery’s library (hence the name) even though the practice was begun in 1990, vintages of Oenotheque go back to 1969.
Finally, in very good years Dom Pérignon also makes a rosé, which is created in traditional style with the addition of red Pinot Noir wine in the final blend. The rosé ages in bottles for at least ten years. Just like their regular champagne, however, an Oenotheque version of the rosé is also made by holding back bottles for extended aging.
A couple of days ago Dom Pérignon announced the release of their 2002 vintage wine, as well as their 1996 Oenotheque bottling. I didn’t get a chance to taste those, but I did get a chance to taste a bunch of vintages spanning two decades at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June. While not my favorite top Champagne, I certainly have never met a bottle of Dom Pérignon I haven’t liked, including the 1976 I found under my grandmothers wet bar and cherished until a few years ago when I opened it for some dear friends. The Dom Pérignon style is linear and precise, and a bit steelier than my true preference (which leans towards the yeasty and vinous), but the crystalline minerality that I find in every bottle is hard not to appreciate.
1988 Dom Pérignon Champagne
Poured out of magnum, this wine is light yellow gold in the glass with incredibly fine bubbles. It smells of wonderfully yeasty, butter cracker and lemon juice aromas with the remarkable perfume of marzipan. In the mouth, the bubbles are merely tickles in a soft wave of silky smoothness. Beautiful, delicate acidity lifts a fine lace skein of gorgeous tart sourdough bread and wet limestone that ripple with supple muscles of lemony goodness. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $300. Click to buy.
1993 Dom Pérignon Champagne
Light yellow gold in the glass with incredibly fine bubbles, this wine smells of sweet cream and lemon zest with butter crackers. In the mouth the wine has a gorgeous smoothness, a glassiness with a beautifully fine texture. Gorgeously balanced, a sweetness pervades the palate, counterpointed with an almost cucumber greenness mixed with a toasty sourdough quality. A beautifully long finish has a sour leafiness with white flowers. Tremendous. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $190. Click to buy.
1995 Dom Pérignon Champagne
Light to medium gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine has a nose of buttered sourdough toast, wet stones, and lemon blossoms. Honey roasted nuts emerge with some more air. In the mouth the wine has a fantastically satin cloud of mousse with lemon curd and toasted sourdough floating along on a river of minerality. Fantastically balanced and poised, the wine sings through an incredibly long finish with hints of golden delicious apple skins. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $190. Click to buy.
1999 Dom Pérignon Champagne
Light greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine has a nose of wet stones, white flowers, and a hint of warm sourdough aromas. In the mouth the wine is exceedingly silky, with wonderfully bright mineral quality of wet limestone, white flowers, and lemon zest. A long SweeTart finish lingers with citrus qualities. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $140. Click to buy.
2000 Dom Pérignon Champagne
Light gold in the glass, with a hint of green and very fine bubbles, this wine has a bright, mineral-driven nose of sourdough toast and wet rock aromas. Gorgeously smooth in the mouth with a very fine mousse of bubbles that buoy up flavors of bright lemon and crackers, with lemon zest, sourdough and sweet tarts lingering in the finish. Gorgeous acidity, fantastic balance. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $130. Click to buy.
1995 Dom Pérignon Rosé Champagne
Gorgeously coppery salmon in the glass with incredibly fine bubbles, this wine smells heavenly. Full stop. Sit back on your heels and let this sucker wash over you with aromas of orange blossoms, roasted nuts, and what can only be described as liquid limestone. In the mouth the wine has a fantastic, flawlessly smooth texture, with an incredible soft silky mousse of bubbles, and otherworldly flavors of orange peel, raspberries, wet limestone, and a fantastic hibiscus quality that lingers in a long finish. Amazingly poised, perfectly balanced and truly exceptional. A wine that I would love to drink every day of my life. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $300. Click to buy.