Certain moments are quintessentially French. The autumn foliage of the Tuileries reflected in the waters of the Seine. The grim beauty of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame framed by the windows of Restaurant La Tour d’Argent. These sensory indulgences, like Proust’s petite madeleine, conjure and contain in a few seconds the spirit, history, and artistic vision of the people and the country. Such a catalyst of imagination and memory is a single sip of Dom Pérignon 1996, dubbed by its maker, Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy, “le millésime lumineux”–the vintage of light.
Moët & Chandon’s recent release of its premier Champagne from Epernay ($130) has indeed lighted the imaginations of oenophiles. The first citizen of winedom, Robert M. Parker, declared of the vintage, “I do not remember any as impressive as the 1996.” Even in a year of impressive prestige cuvées, this offering stands apart. “It is a gift of nature, which has favored 1996,” says Geoffroy. “It is difficult to find anything comparable either in recent times or even in the past.”
The enthusiasm for the 1996 Champagnes is understandable, given the series of lackluster years that characterized the early 1990s. Though the 1995 wines continue to show beautifully, their strength lies more in the Chardonnay than in the Pinot Noir component. One has to go back to 1990 to find the power and inspiration one expects from the very best of the region. Before this, 1988 and 1985 produced first-rate wines, but the intervening vintages proved lean and unexceptional. Yet the 1996 growing season–defined by sharp contrasts of weather culminating in intense late-summer heat–has delivered perfection to an astonishing degree.
Dom Pérignon’s status as the wine of this extraordinary Champagne vintage satisfies not only the palate but also one’s sense of poetic form. Though Moët & Chandon launched the Dom Pérignon label in 1921, the name evokes for all of us the monastic romance of Champagne’s origins. Most stories concerning Pierre Pérignon, the 17th-century Benedictine monk credited with the invention of this sparkling delicacy, suggest that the happy revelation came about by accident. But the blind administrator of the abbey at Hautvillers, according to his brethren, had a keen knowledge of the vineyards and could identify the source of any grape by tasting it. Not only did he develop a method for making white wine from the red Pinot Noir grape, but he also observed that the Chardonnays of AØ would effervesce with a second, short-lived fermentation prompted by its natural yeasts. For years, he experimented with techniques for inducing and controlling this process, finally succeeding at the age of 60–though the resulting Champagne, very popular in its day, was doux, containing 8 percent to 12 percent residual sugar, as opposed to brut, which has less than 1.5 percent.
Stylistic evolution notwithstanding, the Dom, with his legendary nose and palate, would no doubt recognize and appreciate this latest release from his beloved vineyard. “The style of Dom Pérignon is all based on the mouth, on textures,” observes Geoffroy. “I never thought that it was all purely related to aromatics. These can vary from vintage to vintage, but what they all have in common is the mouth feel.”
Geoffroy likens the tension between the wine’s ethereal texture and the vintage-specific scents to a musical composition. “The character is rather sophisticated, refined, layered, complex. This freshly mature texture combines with something rather bold, rather forceful. These contradictory forces serve as tonal counterpoints in the wine.”
The energy of which Geoffroy speaks expresses itself in earthy essences of toast, roasted coffee, and the peatlike smokiness one associates with the single-malt whiskies of Islay. The only other vintage to exhibit similar characteristics, says the chef de cave, is the 1969. “In the whole 20th century, these two [wines] truly belong in a category by themselves.”
Moët & Chandon