The light and dark side of Dom Pérignon
Updated: Aug 29, 2019
Chef de cave of Dom Pérignon Richard Geoffroy talks about his philosophy of tension in harmony, the art of cherry-picking a vintage, and the contrast of light and dark in these bursts of bubbles in wine.
Alongside the acclaim and growth of Dom Pérignon over the years, the words it has inspired have also evolved. From that first statement, ‘I am drinking stars!’ to the eloquent philosophy of today described by Richard Geoffroy. He has compiled a Manifesto – a blend in itself of science, art and philosophy – a set of ‘commitments’ that has become the vision or code of principles to be upheld. Richard discusses the underlying themes and paradoxes that connect this philosophical thinking.
The core of Dom Pérignon – and the message it has been conveying over the years – is all about commitment to vintage. As Richard says, ‘Choosing a vintage is centred around dedication; to push each one to the fore, retaining the character of Dom Pérignon at its highest level, but still expressing the singularity of that year.’ Presenting something of a contrast, he feels this notion in itself reveals one of several inherent paradoxes. As he expresses, ‘There are many lines of tension: here, one is of the core character, the other of vintage. But far more than a positioning or statement of excellence, it is actually about a philosophical standpoint, and further, this challenge of turning any constraints from one year into opportunities. Subsequently, this makes all our vintage wines individual in character; there is a definite theme of reinvention, of surpassing ourselves, but where repetition is the enemy. We draw energy from being on the edge and taking risks – this is part of the chemistry of inspiration – et voila!’
‘There is a duality, a contrast between light and dark... to create a perfect balance, not in proportion but in expression.’
Likely to be the most vintage wine in Champagne, he says, ‘We start off with about 100 different vineyard components from 20 different villages – 16 out of 17 Grand Crus – and have access to a handful of outstanding Premier Crus.’ This leads to the next important theme – the project of blending that makes the wine as complete and harmonious as can be. ‘Our belief is that this can only be achieved through extensive blending of the Champagne vineyards.’ With such a complex and subjective process, the blending is done with ‘a mental representation’. Before the team gets to the blending process, one has to memorise all 100 components as each represents a specific element. He says they are not, testing all options, as 100 components would give endless permutations – it is necessary to focus and narrow this down to as few as possible. Eventually the final blend is about 30 to 40 components. So it is a cherry-picking process, the incomparable cream of the crop to create the best combination, where intensity comes from precision – the epitome of synergy in the way it all comes together.
‘Often, single-vineyard wines are viewed as more terroir-specific, but I would proudly challenge this in a radical opposite: the viticulture and winemaking at Dom Pérignon is so true to the sum of, the blend of, terroirs. It’s an organic involvement: I want these wines to be pristine and pure in character as a fair representation of the original fruit.’
Richard elaborates on the idea of the complementary, and how tension embraces harmony. ‘Harmony is not passive, it has to be active, the end result of various elements of tension.’ It makes one think of yin and yang, and Richard agrees, expounding on his idea of ‘the Seven Sensualities’ that has since evolved into a theory on ‘tasting in colour’, a way of increasing harmony with wine-lovers. He draws attention to, ‘what I now call “dark” – the sombre, grey dark character of toast and smoke that is salient in Dom Pérignon. I decided the element of dark could be broken down into a journey of primary colours, each time attempting to come up with the most appropriate or sensible flavour, ingredient or dish to go with that colour in the wine.
‘There is primary fruit flavour, yellow and green, the white and light or luminous side. Then there is this dark aspect from the toastiness, tones of black to brown too – caviar and chestnut – and then silver-grey: a shot of sea water or minerality.’
And red, he mentions, ‘tomato water jus’, or cooked crab. ‘Yin and yang is universal, like umami, playing on the complementary and the opposite. And then, there is nothing more intense than harmony – it is not gentle but actually packed with energy. Harmony hints at Dom Pérignon’s ability to pair so well with all kinds of food, universally. The 2004 vintage has been so natural, very streamlined and accommodating.’
A further element in the Manifesto relates to ageworthiness, the ultimate aim of complexity in this intricate process. Never less than seven years, with one year post disgorgement, means the wine is eight years in cellar, close to nine years to the vintage. There is the legacy of Dom Pérignon, Mother Nature, and time is the third process. ‘I deliberately want these wines to age slowly enough to gain superlative complexity, to achieve integration, something streamlined. Wine maturation in general is something oxidative, and to get the original characters of the fruit to develop. In my view, the yeast maturation is critical as it magnifies the elements of Dom Pérignon, making the wine more intense, penetrating, and more textured in the mouthfeel – the way the wine touches and caresses. It becomes more intriguingly dark and mineral in aromatics, with the nuances of smokiness and toast.’ Richard contemplates: ‘I am really putting a matrix of a blend together.’