Last week I had the good fortune to attend a little party for the upcoming release of the Dom Perignon 2002 vintage, an ‘intimate discovery’ hosted by Richard Geoffroy, Dom’s Chef de Cave. We were introduced to the 2002 side by side with the current release of the 2000, and then we tried the Dom Perignon 1996 vintage alongside their 1996 Oenotheque – literally the ‘library wine’ selected by Dom in what they regard as superior vintages and held back for longer maturation. The 1996 Oenotheque is to be re-released later this year.
The ’02 is still a little young but is going to be stunning – the ’00 is a super drink, but it’s all there in the glass right now, big and rich and delicious, while the ’02 takes a little time to open up but is so mouth filling after five or ten minutes in the glass, with some very racy and promising flavours going on. The ’96, which is meant to be one of their best in recent years, knocked the socks of the 2000, with much more exciting acidity and a vibrant nose, but was dead in the glass compared to the oenotheque (disgorged about eight years after the straight Vintage) which was just delicious.
I also tasted through much of the current Pol Roger and Gosset ranges at a different event last week, and as always was blown away by Pol Roger, which has to be my favourite Champagne house. Not because it was Winston Churchill’s tipple of choice – the vintage wine is named after him – but that they own the majority of their own vineyards (most of the bigger names buy their grapes from many small growers, sometimes hundreds of them), and make an absolutely gorgeous bubbly. In Palm Springs last Thanksgiving I had a near miss when our hosts were about to use the Pol Roger we had bought them (it’s not easy to find in LA) to make Bucks Fizz for breakfast! A rather panicked suggestion that perhaps they might want to try a little without orange juice first fortunately saved the day, and we had the satisfaction of them admitting that the Pol was so much better than their until that moment favourite bubbly, Piper Heidsiek.
While on the subject of good Champagne, I somehow got myself involved in arranging the back stage drinks at a music festival in London this weekend. So, if you’re interested, Grace Jones will only drink Cristal – the special vintage champagne by Louis Roederer so beloved of footballers and rap artists – served with fresh oysters before she performs. Bryan Ferry on the other hand drinks vintage Dom Perignon…
Of course, you don’t have to push the boat out for good bubbles. Having popped back to England for the summer I’ve been tucking into quite a selection, and there’s excellent value to be had with good Spanish cava and Italian prosecco. Most sparkling wines and Champagne are released as non-vintage (NV), which means that producers will blend together batches of wine from a few different years, in order to produce a consistent house style year on year.
Non-vintage fizz is great for us, because it means we can find a bubbly that we like, and know that we can buy it again and again and it should always be what we expect. However, they are typically large volume production, and not the best quality that the wine maker can achieve. Take Veuve Cliquot as an example. The classic orange labelled Champagne beloved of so many. To achieve that consistent flavour every year, and to churn out the vast quantities that they must in order to supply every supermarket, airport, sporting event, bar and corner bottle shop that they do, means that they must include in their blends wines from poor years as well as good, and try to remove all character unique to a single year in their wine making technique. So the poor wines are improved by the good, and the potentially great wines watered down by the poor, resulting in a consistent blend that they can reproduce time and again.
Non-vintage bubblies are dependable but mediocre however, the wine houses and the makers are capable of producing vastly superior wines, and like to show off their talents, and of course charge more. So, especially in a good year, or vintage, they will make wine that expresses the best of that seasons grapes, often selecting the very best grapes for their most select parcels of vines. These are then made and sold as Vintage bubbly, with the year clearly shown on the label, and a price to match. Each vintage will be different, with some better than others, but hopefully better than the standard NV. Until recently this was only really of interest with Champagne, so it’s fantastic to see vintage bubblies from Spain and Italy making their way onto our supermarket shelves and for under a tenner they taste fantastic too!
Talking of good bubbles from unexpected sources, you must – if you haven’t already – try English sparkling wine. At a garden party last weekend we produced some white and pink bubblies made by Chapel Down, one of the largest English sparkling wine producers in the south of England. Most of the guests were drinking pink Lanson, a Kiwi sparkler, but everyone who tried the Chapel Down gave it the thumbs up. The hostess even hunted me down and demanded to know what it was and where she could get it (Majestic, as it happens), saying that, as an exclusive drinker of fizz, she thought it was perfectly lovely. As it turns out we have near perfect growing conditions in the south of England for producing Champagne style bubbly, and some of our home grown wines are regularly beating top Champagnes in international competitions.
So think of those environmental food miles, and buy British!