You would be forgiven for thinking that our spectacular lunch at Louis Roederer might be a tough act to follow. Certainly anyone unlucky enough to receive us next would be hard-pressed to rise to the occasion. However, we were fortunate enough to join the irrepressible Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger for dinner later that evening at the family’s Château de la Marquetterie.
Above: Heading into dinner at Taittinger's Château de la Marquetterie
Located in the village of Pierry, just south of Epernay, as the sun slowly faded over the vine-covered hills, we arrived at what is one of the region’s last and most beautiful chateaux. We were immediately welcomed into the 18th century drawing room with glasses of 2000 Comtes de Champagne – the house’s blanc de blancs and their most famous prestige cuvée. This was just the beginning of an exceptionally memorable evening.
Anyone who has met Pierre-Emmanuel knows that he is one of the true characters of this, or any, age. Passionate, opinionated, erudite, charming and engaging, he is a sheer – and very French - force of nature.
Moreover, he has lived an interesting life as one of the scions of the great Taittinger dynasty. During the dinner, we learned of the family feuding that tore the estate apart and forced its sale to Starwood Hotels in 2006. Yet, within a couple of years, Pierre-Emmanual had heroically managed to buy it back with a number of private and public backers, including Crédit Agricole. It’s quite a tale of derring-do – given that Pierre-Emmanuel was simultaneously fending off the mighty LVMH conglomerate as well as Belgian tycoon Albert Frère.
Above: Wall of Comtes de Champagne and Artist Series bottles at Taittinger
Along with a first course of lightly cooked langoustines came a really excellent 1988 Comtes de Champagne, which was a fascinating contrast to the various blanc de blancs cuvées we’d tasted earlier in the day. This was beautifully poised, precise and utterly seductive, with layers of honey and hints of crystallised fruit. ‘The only real competitor to Comtes de Champagne is Viagra,’ quipped Pierre-Emmanuel as only a Frenchman could!
The 1988 was swiftly followed by the 1995 Comtes de Champagne which was served with a rich Volaille de Bresse à l’Etouffee. The 1995 was, as you would expect, more youthful than the 1988, with intense flavours of fresh cream and pear. It had a pleasing brightness, with a core of streamlined minerality and fabulous length.
How do you follow such a spectacular range of Champagnes? The answer, of course, is with the several bottles of 2003 Château Cheval Blanc that was poured with the cheese course. I thought it was terrific - without a hint of the heaviness often associated with what was a very hot year in Bordeaux.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening was the bottle of 1993 Pinot Noir which Pierre-Emmanuel also produced – made at Domaine Carneros in California in the estate’s very first vintage. This was a revelation – still extremely fresh, with plenty of primary fruit and classic Pinot Noir character – albeit with an American accent.
As the evening progressed and more wines were poured, the topics of discussion ranged far and wide - from the history of the French Monarchy to modern American culture. With insight on consumer trends in China provided by our guests,, it was fascinating to learn how they fully expect luxury brands such as premium champagnes to succeed in China over the coming years. Their view was not ‘if’ but ‘when and who.’
Not to be outdone by the previous bottles, one more Comtes de Champagne was still to come and it was certainly worth the wait. Served with pudding, the 2004 Rose was a fitting and sparkling end to a truly memorable evening.
Our Prestige Cuvée theme continued the following day with a visit to the Abbey of Hautvillers. The Abbey is of course famous for the being the place of worship for the legendary Dom Pérignon. On what was rapidly becoming a gorgeous morning, we gathered there to pay our respects some three centuries later on.
Although the name of Dom Pérignon was originally associated with Mercier, this fact was (perhaps not surprisingly) completely overlooked by our LVMH tour guide from Japan. However, we did get an accurate and brief history lesson about the founding of Moet in 1743 and the purchase of the brand by Moët-Hennessy (later LVMH) in 1982.
So what of Dom Pérignon the man? He first came to Hautvillers in 1668 and soon became maître de chai at the Abbey. Early on it was already clear that he had a unique talent for winemaking and he pioneered a number of innovations in the production of champagne. One of his greatest achievements was refining and espousing the art of assemblage or blending.
Contrary to popular belief and as our tour guide would have liked us to believe, Dom Pérignon did not actually invent sparkling wine. That change occurred many years later – in fact Pierre Pérignon considered sparkling wine to be a fault and called it the ‘vin de diable’, perhaps because exploding bottles were a very serious threat to his personal safety!
After some time spent admiring the beautiful view - overlooking the Hautvillers vineyards and the southern end of the Montagne de Reims - we were invited inside to a tasting in the Abbey’s cloisters.
I have always thought that the wine world is a small one and it proved to be true once again as we were seated for the tasting. Joining us at the table was none other than the head winemaker at Penfolds Grange – the delightful and hugely talented Peter Gago – which was a wonderful surprise.
Four vintages were poured for us with Dom Pérignon oenologist Vincent Chaperon leading us through the tasting.
Vincent joined Moët in 1999 and began working under Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy shortly thereafter. He is clearly very much on message as to the style and direction of Dom Pérignon as he began the tasting by explaining how the wine is made in a reductive (non-oxidative style) to preserve both its ageing ability and freshness. ‘Really, we are aiming for freshness, intensity and complexity with the distinctive Dom Pérignon texture of silkiness. This silkiness is the essence of Dom Pérignon.’
Dom Pérignon is an exclusively vintage wine, first produced in 1921. For many years the harsh northern climate has dictated whether the prestige cuvée could be produced or not. However, these days LVMH is producing the wine much more frequently. In the past decade alone Dom Pérignon will have been made in seven out of the last ten years, Vincent informed us.
Is this a product of warmer weather at harvest time, several of us wondered aloud. ‘Absolutely, yes,’ Vincent replied. ‘Since the 1990s, the natural alcohol by volume has steadily increased and the date of harvest has arrived earlier. This year is no exception as it will be only the third vintage in the history of Champagne which has begun in August. The first was in 1882, then came 2003 and the earliest of all will be 2011.’
‘The key to Dom Pérignon is also the vineyards which produce the fruit. Naturally, we own many of the Grand Cru vineyards which regularly make up the final blend.’ Champagne connoisseurs will know that there are 17 Grand Crus in the appellation and according to Vincent, 15 of them are invariably present in Dom Pérignon, ‘with 95-99% of the grapes coming from our own vineyards. However, the central core of the blend is always fruit produced in nine villages: for Pinot Noir, they are Hautvillers, Bouzy, Aÿ, Verzenay and Mailly. For the Chardonnay they are Chouilly, Cramant, Avize,, and Le Mesnil.’
On to the wines: The 2002, while still in its first flush of youth, is round, rich and effervescent with mineral apple, smoke and cream flavours. This is a really good Dom Pérignon with lovely balance, great texture and a firm finish.
Above: Tasting at Dom Perginon alongside a member of Peter Gago's Penfolds crew.
Next, we tasted the 1996 Dom Pérignon Oenotheque. The Oenotheque range are held back by Richard Geoffroy and kept on the lees for even longer than normal. In this instance, the wine had been disgorged in 2008, so it had the benefit of an additional twelve years on its lees.
This wine is clearly worth the wait and is really showing well. I picked up notes of butter, brioche, cream, pear and candied fruits from this superb vintage. Although we didn’t have the 1996 standard vintage release to directly compare it to, having had the 1996 recently, I can tell you that the 1996 Oenotheque is fresher and much less oxidative and it will age for considerably longer.
My view was also supported by the wine that followed next. This was the 1976 Oenotheque which was also in terrific shape and completely belied its 35 years. Firstly, the colour was bright and youthful. Secondly, the complex nose had a touch of oxidation, but was still full of primary fruit aromas – as well as tons of nuts, particularly hazelnuts and praline. On the palate, there were plenty of fireworks too. In particular there were flavours of cream, honey-comb, marzipan, toast, butter and hazelnut crème. The secret of this spectacular longevity? ‘There’s no question. It is the way we age the wine on its yeast lees – this protects it from oxidation and keeps it fresh,’ commented Vincent.