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The vintage champagne lexicon

Dom Prignon, the monk, described champagne as 'drinking the stars'. Over three centuries later, Richard Geoffroy of the Dom Prignon brand deconstructs the bubbly

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Dom Pérignon was a 17th century Benedictine monk, a procurer and cellar master of the Abbey d’Hautvillers in north-eastern France. He is believed to have accidentally discovered the first champagne. Legend has it that Dom Pérignon, crafting a regular batch of wine, found it fizzy and full of bubbles. On drinking it, he is believed to have said, “Come quickly! I am drinking the stars!"Whatever be the truth of this, this monk is credited for his contribution to wine-growing, and for spotting the potential of natural fizz in wine. Today, Dom Pérignon is a brand associated with vintage champagnes alone. Vintage, because they are made from the grapes of a single harvest rather than multiple-year harvests. Vintages are not declared every year.

The brand’s chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy, who was in Mumbai recently, interpreted vintage champagne in a language that was far removed from academic wine jargon. He described his champagnes in poetic abstractions, referencing art, science and philosophy. He addressed the cyclical nature of time. Each bottle from the Dom Pérignon oenothèque (cellars where the champagnes are aged) reflects the wine’s history and maturity. “The beauty of great wines is the ability to connect people with nature. Great wines are much more than pleasing the taste buds. It is about appealing to the intellect and connecting to history," says Geoffroy.

Richard Geoffroy. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint
Richard Geoffroy. Photo: Devendra Parab/Mint

Here is a ready reckoner, in his own words, for Dom Pérignon champagnes.

C for consistency

There is a clear distinction between consistency and continuity. Continuity is about sameness, it is about making the wine non-vintage. Dom Pérignon is known for all the vintage variations (the different years when the vintage is declared and the different plénitudes between the same vintage) that can exist within the consistency.

E for energy

The wine is fermented in the bottle through secondary fermentation, all thanks to yeast. Once the yeast starts dying in the bottle, the energy of life is transferred from the yeast to the wine; the longer the wine remains on the yeast, the more energized it is.

P for plénitudes

Plénitude is about life and those periods in time when a wine reaches that state of radiance, a lightness of being, and maturity. In the case of Dom Pérignon, it is successive periods in the life of vintage champagne. The first plénitude is about 8-10 years. The second plénitude is no less than 15 years, and the third, no less than 25 years. The idea is that a wine is allowed to sit on its lees (dead yeast cells and sediments) in the bottle itself, ageing and acquiring new flavours through the years. Plénitudes are windows of opportunity when the wine stands up and speaks out. Different expressions of the same vintage, they are the periods when the chef de cave decides that the wine has reached its potential and is fit to be released into the world.

R for risk

It is about stepping outside the comfort zone to surpass and reinvent oneself. The fact that we can never anticipate what the harvest is going to be keeps us on our toes. And that is the beauty of being right at the edge of things and grape-growing in this cold and difficult climate. We respond to the conditions and seasons, which are always different. Here, the variations could be tremendous.

V for vintage

The terroir of Champagne is cold and this can be a constraint when it comes to vintage champagne. So, it is about rising to a challenge and turning this constraint into an opportunity. Ninety-three per cent of the champagne production in this region is non-vintage. Vintage champagne is the exception. It is all about discovery, anticipation and surprise. There were two successive years when there could be no declaration of a vintage and that is why the art of the vintage is the result of individual creativity, gumption and the art of blending to a perfect harmony.

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