It’s true, my father met Marilyn at the Brown Derby, asked what she drank and bought her a glass of Dom. I should have asked him for particulars, but I didn’t want to ruin the magic.
Few Champagnes excite the imagination as Dom Perignon does. People with zero interest in Champagne will spout, “Dom Perignon was the monk who invented Champagne!” Even Wikipedia calls Perignon an “important quality pioneer”. It is said he would taste the grapes without wanting knowledge of their vineyard. This act of blind tasting started the rumour that he was blind (he wasn’t). As an iconic brand and as a wine, Dom is painstakingly tended and guards well its secrets, such as exactly how many bottles are produced each year. Using Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes, Dom Perignon makes only vintage champagnes. Some years are skipped – and you can be ridiculous by saying you prefer Dom 2016 which doesn’t exist.
This act of blind tasting started the rumour that he was blind (he wasn’t)
At the London tasting of the most recent Dom Perignon offering, Chef de Cave Vincent Chaperon said this release was all about simplicity. Given that Dom seems complex and that this year’s promotional photos feature an ethereal Lady Gaga, I was initially off with the fairies. Tasting brought me back to my senses. Some scoff at Dom’s corporate nature, being part of LVMH and all. But big doesn’t always mean bad and sometimes more can be done with a longer view and investment. Anyway, Dom does not use oak barrels and its reductive method excludes as much oxygen as possible. (For more on the deeper intricacies of Champagne, I suggest subscribing to Tom Hewson’s Substack.)
As for the wine itself, the 2013 is tight and long, with freshness coiled in each sip. The distinctive identify-it-blindfolded taste of Dom is, some say, a waft of burning wood with deep orange-y-ish tang of tropical fruits. The 2012 is a shower of fruit, condensed and somewhat fuller, rounder. 2010 in magnum (a size I think benefits almost all Champagnes) was enjoyable but not as sleek or present as its brethren. To be perfectly honest, I liked them all and they were all very different. This is yet another reason why I’m no longer on dating apps.
Anyone who’s read previous columns will know j’adore Henriot. It has everything I want in a Champagne, being consistent, delicious and flexible. You can serve it to picky drinkers and or to those swine you invited around and never will again. Henriot plays well with others. So, I was delighted to taste five – count them, I’m giddy! – Henriot Champagnes under the guidance of Alice Tétienne, Cellar Master and Vine & Wine Director. Tétienne is fast and funny, infusing wry wit with an avowed passion for Champagne and its terroir. Founded by Apolline Henriot in 1808, Tétienne adds of Henriot but possibly of Champagne in general, “We have a lot of women in the background of Champagne” as a throwaway, with so many veuves and other women woven into the very history of the wine.
The Cuvée Hemera 2008 Release Masterclass – just the sound of it makes me jealous of me – started with Henriot Brut Souverain NV, the creation of the house founder and a masterful blend of reserve wines made from 29 crus with a dosage of 5g/l. If you want to experience Henriot, that is the bottle with which to start. Next up was the Blanc de Blancs NV. Henriot was one of the first houses to create one of those too in 1880. With low acid and high sugar, at least 4 years on lees, this is an expressive BdB to savour. The cuvée Hemera Vintage report covers 2008, 2006 and 2005, and paired with foods you think would obliterate any Champagne served with them. Named in honour of the Greek goddess of light after a union of vineyards in 1880, the Hemera vintages are subtle yet firm. 2005 is opulent and smoky, 2006 generous and structured with the most recent 2008 fresh and luminous with an eye to further ageing. That each of these were paired with strikingly flavourful foods – including a Heston Blumenthal Meat/Fruit, pâté covered with an apricoty layer like charming marzipan – showed how well they can pair with even more challenging foods. Why do I like Henriot so much? I think it has a warmth that reaches out to the champagne drinker unlike other houses. It’s delicious, historic but not pretentious.
Portland stone, French walnut and oak panelling, carved plaster ceilings and crystal chandeliers lend a fancy backdrop to one of the nicest press and trade tastings each year. The Mentzendorff Annual tasting happens in a noted historical building just off Parliament Square. This year featured a handful of Champagnes and sparklers but all worthy. First up, Ayala’s Brut Majeur with its citrus nose and crisp tones sat right next to Ayala Brut Nature with its breezy clean palate. Although I missed the Rosé Majeur – so succulent yet dry and fruity, there was the totally potable le Blanc de Blancs 2016. Sometimes called the affordable Bollinger, it always good to have an Ayala ready in the event someone you like drops in.
Along with Dom, Bollinger is one of the strongest champagne brands, associated with glamour and excitement. Here, the Special Cuvée – astonishingly gulpable – sings with subtle fruits de bois. Along with La Grande Annee 2014, my favourite remains the depth of power found in the scintillating crystal fruit of Bollinger’s PN TX17.
Hambledon, a vineyard which goes from strength to strength, has launched its new Première Cuvée Rosé NV. Seeing it without foil, it appeared much like a dark, almost cherry or blood-red colour. The taste is a deep rose, juicy, nearing fruity and very celebratory. It’s a great new wine from a lovely English vineyard that I like to visit – and you should too – in the charming village of Hambledon, that with the very narrow streets. Selling at £75, it has competition in the price sector, but it certainly shows a willingness to take a risk with quality.
Not that I’m a huge fan of crémant as it tends to vary too much but it certainly has its uses and Langlois-Chateau is very consistent. Crémant de Loire Brut NV is sweet and cheery while the Prestige Cuvée Quadrille 2016 is a showstopper. Made with four different grapes, this is a bottle that really catches your attention with more complexity while not being too complicated. It’s like that live band that’s actually nice to listen to.
And while I’m not a spirit drinker at all (unless from a saddle flask) nor a still wine aficionado (yet), I highly advise checking out both Anaé botanical gin and Akitu, a New Zealand winery that specialises in Pinot Noir and only that. As my friend Scott Michaels says in his Dearly Departed shows, “You heard me.” Akitu has a Pinot Noir Blanc 2022 that’s worth putting away. C