Ask a Frenchman who invented Champagne and the answer you’ll most likely get is Dom Pierre Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, back in the late 17th century at the Abbey of Hautvillers just north of the town of Épernay.
“Champagne was discovered by accident,” said Nathan Benfrech, Moët Hennessy’s icon champagne and spirits ambassador, during a recent visit to the Cayman Islands. He explained that Pérignon was put in charge of a wine cellar in the abbey and that one night, one by one, bottles of wine started to explode.
“He thought it was evil in the bottles, but it was really the secondary fermentation,” said Benfrech. “That was the beginning of Champagne.”
It makes for a good story, but like many stories, especially those that are hundreds of years old, there is a lot of evidence to suggest it isn’t true, primarily because English scientist Christopher Merret documented a process of adding sugar and yeast to still wine to create a secondary fermentation – and thus bubbles – more than 20 years before Dom Pierre Pérignon’s “accident.”
That doesn’t stop the French from retelling the story, however, and it doesn’t take away two things that are accepted by all: That Dom Pierre Pérignon made a significant contribution to the early refining of the way sparkling wine was made; and that the Champagne that now bears his name is indisputably one of the best in the world.
Speaking during an afternoon prestige Champagne tasting at the Blue by Eric Ripert restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on Feb. 23, Benfrech explained what makes Dom Pérignon so different from other Champagnes.
In order for a sparkling wine to be called Champagne, the grapes used must come from the Champagne region in France and the production method must abide by specific regulations. But as is the case with all wines, quality starts in the vineyards.
Terroir – that somewhat mystical combination of geology, geography and climate that gives grapes, and by extension the wines they produce, a unique sense of place – is what makes some vineyards better than other. Terroir involves such factors as soil composition, climate, angle to the sun and even the fauna and flora present in the area.
Benfrech said Champagne has about 340 villages that produce grapes that can be used in Champagne. Seventeen of those are classified as grand cru (“cru” in Champagne, refers to villages as opposed to individual vineyards) and only one is classified as premier cru. Moët Hennessy has access to grapes from all of those grand cru villages and the only premier cru village, Hautvillers, where Dom Pierre Pérignon used to live and work. Dom Pérignon is able to select grapes from all of those villages to use in its Champagne.
Champagne is located in the north of France, along the northern latitude limit of grape cultivation, which means it has a cooler climate than most grape producing regions. The cooler climate produces grapes that are less ripe and more acidic than grapes grown in warmer climates. Tart acidity is a well-known characteristic of Champagne and it is not only important to flavor, but also to the wine production method.
Because the grapes used in Champagne are less ripe than those grown in warmer climates, they contain less natural sugar, translating to wines that have lower alcohol content because there is less sugar for yeast to convert to alcohol. This, in turn, results in lighter bodied wines which, when combined with their refreshing acidity and the bubbles created during secondary fermentation in the bottle, produce the style for which Champagne is famous.
However, while many aspects of terroir remain relatively constant, one element that remains volatile is climate. When weather conditions are good, the Champagne coming from the grapes grown in that time will reflect those conditions. The reverse is also true, and regardless of how good soil and other elements of terroir are, bad weather can, and inevitably does, negatively affect certain vintages of Champagne.
When vintages are weak, Dom Pérignon – which makes only vintage Champagnes – does the only thing it can do: not declare a vintage and instead sell the wine production to other brands.
“This is the best commitment to quality a Champagne house can have,” said Benfrech. “We only sell the best vintages.”
Happily, for Champagne lovers, Dom Pérignon has been on a roll, declaring vintages six years in a row, including the most recent release 2006 and the yet-to-be-released 2007.
“It’s the most [in a row] ever,” Benfrech said.
Another factor that differentiates Dom Pérignon from others, is that it uses only two of the three most prevalent grapes allowed for usage in Champagne: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
This blend, which eschews Pinot Meunier, keeps Dom Pérignon vibrant and refreshing from the Chardonnay, but with a firm structure taken from the Pinot Noir.
That vibrancy was apparent in the prestige Champagne tasting that started with Dom Pérignon 2004, which Benfrech said was roughly a 50-50 blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
“ was a very, very good year for Champagne,” Benfrech said. “We want a very hot August and a rainy September and ‘04 was very good for that. It was the best year of the decade so far.”
Benfrech said that Dom Pérignon is known for displaying aromas of white fruits like apricots and peaches, which was evident in the 2004. On the palate, there was the telltale Dom Pérignon creaminess, flavors of white stone fruits and lemon citrus, and then some lingering smokiness.
“What makes [Dom Pérignon] so special is the smokiness and the peach notes that you find almost every year,” said Benfrech.
Also tasted from the 2004 vintage was Dom Pérignon Rosé.
“There’s a lot more Pinot Noir in this wine. It makes the wine a bit more full-bodied,” Benfrech said.
That additional body makes the rosé better with food.
“It’s designed for food pairing, probably more than the white wine,” he said.
The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s head sommelier, Michael Kennedy, agreed.
“I do a lot of rosé Champagne pairings and a lot of people aren’t excited to try it, but once they try it, they really like it,” he said.
The final Champagne of the day was the new Dom Pérignon project launched in 2014 called P2, which stands for “second plentitude.” The current P2 is a re-release of the 1998 vintage, but in bottles that hadn’t been disgorged of their lees until recently.
In order to make Champagne using the required Méthode Champenoise, yeast and sugar are added to a bottle of wine and then capped. As the yeast consumes the sugar and converts it to alcohol, it produces carbon dioxide – the famous bubbles in Champagne. Before Champagne is sold, however, the silty lees are disgorged from the bottle and then it is resealed. Champagne will continue to evolve with age after it is disgorged, but not in the same way as if it were still on its lees.
Benfrech said that it was discovered that Dom Pérignon Champagne “behaves differently with time” when aged on its lees. Regular vintage Champagne gives one expression when aged initially for seven to 10 years – “the first plentitude” – and then shows a distinctive second expression after 17 or 18 years on its lees. “Bottles of P2 have been aged on their lees, completely vertical and upside down, until release,” Benfrech said.
“It changes the texture completely,” he said, noting that the creamy aspect Dom Pérignon is known for is still there, but with a buttery finish.
For a Champagne that is nearly 18 years old, the 1998 P2 is remarkably vibrant, with an explosion of fine bubbly mousse in the mouth that burst with fresh citrus flavors, giving way to a butterscotch finish.
Because of they way it was produced, production of P2 is extremely limited and its cost is about double that of vintage Dom Pérignon.
Eventually, Dom Pérignon will release P3, the third expression of its Champagne that occurs after 25 years. That will undoubtedly be even more rare and expensive than the exquisite P2, but P3 might just be the Holy Grail for those looking for the ultimate Champagne experience.