Dom Pérignon 2008: From The Monk’s Earliest Beginnings To The Most Glorious Champagne Vintage
by Ken Gargett
The name “Dom Pérignon” is one of the most recognizable on the planet. Ask teetotalers, prohibitionists, and even those living in that mythical cave in the mountains of Pakistan what they know about Dom Pérignon and they will very likely reply, “champagne!”
The most recent release, the Dom Pérignon 2008 (around AUD$300, give or take), is a thrilling champagne and has been dubbed as the greatest that the vineyard has ever made. That is a massive claim as there have been some superb bottles over the years. But we’ll get to that.
There are many myths and rumors that swirl around both the wine and the man.
Dom Pérignon: the monk who did not invent champagne
First, Dom Pérignon, the monk, did not invent champagne. No doubt its owner, LVMH, is not unhappy to have that particular claim out there, but it is most demonstrably untrue. The famous paper on sparkling wine prepared by Christopher Merret was presented to the Royal Society in London around four years before Pérignon even arrived at Hautvillers Abbey.
No one person “invented” champagne – rather, it is a cumulative achievement reached by incremental advances with a great many impacting in many ways. That does not mean that Dom Pérignon wasn’t an extraordinary man who certainly made an enormous contribution.
Nor did the monk exclaim, when he first found bubbles in his work, “Come quickly, I am drinking stars.” The evidence suggests that this was the work of the marketing department (or its equivalent) earlier last century. Indeed, it seems more likely that he tried very hard to keep the bubbles out of his wines.
Dom Pérignon was a Benedictine monk working at the famous Hautvillers Abbey (a must-visit for champagne fans), who was born in the 1630s (no one is sure exactly when, but he was christened early in January 1639) and passed away in 1715. At the age of 14, he enrolled in the Jesuit College at Châlons-sur-Marne for five years under his Latin name Pétrus Pérignon – seriously, if anyone was destined for a career in wine it was this man.
Next stop was joining the Benedictine monks at the abbey of Saint-Vanne at Verdun, a strict order dedicated to learning. Pérignon’s standard day involved nine hours of prayer, seven hours of manual labor, two hours of reading, and one meal a day.
After just ten years (apparently a shorter time than usual), Pérignon was made a “Dom” and sent to the abbey at Hautvillers as procureur and cellar master. This placed him as second in charge to the abbot.
Pérignon remained at the abbey for the next 47 years. As it happens, and as surprising as it might be for anyone who has visited the abbey, it was little more than a charred wreck at the time from a series of sackings and required serious renovation. That sort of work is not cheap, and Pérignon proved the man for the job, setting to work raising funds.
The wine presses were repaired and the region’s first purpose-built, underground cellars were constructed. Although such cellars, cool and with a non-fluctuating temperature, are standard today, Pérignon was a man well ahead of his time in constructing them then.
Pérignon’s successor wrote extensively about the work of his predecessor, especially in relation to the vineyards. The writings cover the work they did with respect to vine planting, fertilization, pruning, crop levels, harvesting, and winemaking. It stresses the extra attention to detail that Pérignon brought to every task.
He also more than doubled the vineyard holdings of the abbey during his tenure to more than 16 hectares.
But just what wine did Pérignon produce? Conventional wisdom suggests champagne (well, probably sparkling wine back then as all the regulations for “champagne” were yet to be introduced), but, as mentioned, it is likely that he tried hard to keep any suggestion of fizz out of his wines.
The great champagne authority Tom Stevenson has written on this in some depth, noting that we do have considerable information about the famous Benedictine monk thanks in part to patronage of the region by Louis XIV.
Pérignon himself kept extensive notes about his work and, as Stevenson says, he was “not shy in beating his own drum, claiming in 1694 to have made ‘the best wine in the world’.”
And, yet, in all his writings and other reports of the day there is not a single mention of a sparkling wine, and at no stage did Pérignon ever claim to make any. Indeed, again as Stevenson mentions, “all the evidence suggests that he spent his life trying to avoid the unwelcome fault that destroyed so many bottles of his wine.”
Remember Pérignon’s successor who wrote so extensively about his work? Again, not a single mention of sparkling wine.
The first time there is any written suggestion of Pérignon making sparkling wine is found in a letter from 1821, more than a century after his death. A letter now considered to be utterly mistaken at best.
Stevenson has listed many of the contributions that Pérignon did make. Whilst these were in respect of still wine at the time, they have also helped enormously in subsequent years in ensuring that champagne is and remains the greatest of all sparkling wines.
Stevenson notes the advances in pruning adopted by Pérignon: moving harvesting to the coolest hours of early morning; harvesting in several tries over a period of time to ensure that those grapes picked are harvested at optimum; grape selection while harvesting to ensure any unsuitable grapes do not make the winery; the use of small baskets when picking, which prevents the crushing of grapes until the appropriate time; constructing press houses throughout the vineyards to reduce the time and distance between harvesting the grapes and the arrival of juice at the winery; making white wine from black grapes (there is no recorded evidence that this occurred before Pérignon was doing it); assemblage, that is blending the different varieties and growths – this would, in time, be a massive contribution; and tasting the grapes, not the wines, to decide the assemblage.
Other myths about Pérignon that Stevenson debunks include the suggestion that he invented the Coquard press. Pérignon used the basket press, standard for the day, although it is believed he modified it into the wider and shallower style in use today. Nor is there any evidence to suggest that it was Pérignon who reintroduced cork closures to France or that he personally produced special, stronger bottles.
Dom Pérignon’s modern history
Dom Pérignon, the wine not the man, is one of the prestige champagnes from LVMH and was for many years seen as the flagship from Moët and Chandon – they have since been largely split and are now usually seen as different “brands” (at least, the winemaking and marketing teams would like you to believe that).
One of the most surprising things to emerge from researching this piece was that, apparently, chef de cave Richard Geoffroy, who arrived in 1990, was the first chef de cave to focus solely on Dom Pérignon. Previously, the role involved both the Moët champagnes and Dom Pérignon.
Dom Pérignon almost had, however, nothing to do with Moët.
Arguments abound over just which was the very first prestige champagne. Louis Roederer’s Cristal champagne certainly was the first to appear, but at that stage it was a one-off, whereas Dom Pérignon is probably the first to be regularly released.
The first Dom Pérignon was the 1921, but at that stage Moët did not even have rights to the name. Those lay with Champagne Mercier. Mercier, however, was not using the name and it was given to the house of Moët as a wedding present for a member of the family.
That was in 1927. At that stage, the 1921 vintage had not been released and it was held over until 1936 before being released in New York. There were only a few bottles. Suffice to say that your chances of finding a bottle of the 1921 that is not a fake is slim.
Also, until the 1943 vintage it is understood that Dom Pérignon was simply vintage Moët transferred to the distinctive and still widely recognizable bottle. The first Dom Pérignon made and bottled in the famous squat bottle was the 1947.
The first Dom Pérignon Rosé was the 1959, released in 1971. It is believed that the entire production of this wine went to the Shah of Iran for the celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of Persia.
So far there have been 42 vintages released, though the frequency of these releases is increasing – whether that is thanks to improvements in vineyard techniques and winemaking, the result of climate change, or a push from the bean counters is often debated.
Between 1995 and 2009 (the ’09 was actually released before the 2008 as it was more forward), the only vintages not declared have been 1997, 2001, and 2007.
Most of the wines released have been superb, making the question moot, though some like 2003 struggle to garner unanimous support. I think that it certainly isn’t the worst champagne released in recent years, but then surely Dom Pérignon should be something seriously special – “hardly the worst” is faint praise indeed, and not something one normally associates with what are usually scintillating champagnes.
Thanks to the brilliant, but sadly recently retired chef de cave Richard Geoffroy (who originally trained as a doctor), the team adopted a program of holding back part of certain vintages for extended lees aging – the Oenothèque program, now known as Plenitude.
Hence, we have P2s (more intensity and greater maturity, which have usually seen an extra 12 to 16 years on lees) and P3s (which will see an amazing 20 to 30 years on lees and will be accordingly priced).
It is worth stating that Dom Pérignon has never hit such consistently stellar heights as it has under Geoffroy. His successor, Vincent Chaperon, has worked very closely with him for a long period so the transition should be relatively painless, but the flair and brilliance of Geoffroy will be a very tough act to follow.
In many ways, he is as much a pioneer and innovator as the monk was all those years ago. To produce such extraordinary champagnes, time after time, is almost beyond comprehension given that production is supposedly around five million bottles, up from an alleged three million when Geoffroy arrived in 1990.
One of the reasons often given for this increase without any loss of quality is the company’s purchase of Pommery around that time, which they quickly sold on while keeping the legendary vineyards.
Dom Pérignon 2008: tasting notes
No matter: how nice it must be to bookend your career with two such great vintages – 1990 and the release of the 2008.
Geoffrey has taken Dom Pérignon from a product considered almost vinous bling in the early days to one of the world’s most respected champagnes. Anyone who still dismisses it because of the huge production or the celebrity image is missing out. There are very few better.
As 2008 is undoubtedly a truly brilliant champagne vintage it should be well represented in every cellar – yes, they will age for many years. The Dom Pérignon is one of the very best of them all, if not the star, and it is also perhaps the greatest young Dom Pérignon we have seen.
As for the greatest Dom Pérignons, a bottle of 1964 opened during a meeting with Geoffroy at the abbey some years ago will always stay in my mind as the finest I have ever tasted (given that the bottle in more than four decades had never moved more than a few yards, the entire experience was very exciting).
The closest challenger was a magnum of P3 Rosé from 1988, opened last year at the Helsinki Fine Wine tasting. Sublime, a champagne for the bended knee.
We have discussed the 2008 champagne vintage a number of times here, so little point in rehashing. Just know it looks very much like it will sit comfortably next to 1988 (my all-time fave).
Geoffroy was quoted in the Financial Times as saying, “It was a miracle year. The whole summer ripening period was so-so – gloomy, overcast, grey. We had accepted it was going to be average, but then, just a couple of days before picking, it became outstanding. So the strategy became to hold the picking back for it to be as slow as could be. It ended up being one of the longest harvests ever, close to four weeks. So much of 2008’s grandeur comes from working with those constraints and turning them into opportunities.” Dosage is just 5 grams/liter.
The wine itself is pretty much an equal split of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, wonderfully complex with precision, finesse, piercing length, and knife-edge balance. Notes of honey, florals, grapefruit, gunflint, stone fruit, and more. Slight hints of nuts and even sesame seeds with an oyster shell-like salinity.
This is a wine that will age for a very long time, though is glorious now. There is an entrancing, graceful power behind it. Its subsequent incarnations, P2 and P3, should be even more deserving of reverential awe, whenever they come to the market (don’t hold your breath – it will be many years).
Even the wine in its current form should be cellared for as long as it can. For me 98 with potential to go even higher.
The perfect champagne to bring Geoffroy’s glittering career to a deservedly glorious conclusion.
For more information, please visit www.domperignon.com/champagne/vintage/dom-perignon-vintage/2008.