Making a prestige cuvee in Champagne is a process so exacting that a Champagne winemaker's title isn't 'winemaker,' it's Chef de Cave, a title that conveys the fact that, despite being subject to the whims of vintage, Champagne is an assemblage, the product of the cellar, and a chef. Indeed great Chefs de Cave, like Dom Perignon's Richard Geoffroy, who was in town this week to debut the brand's remarkable 2003, don't just make wine with bubbles: they're craftsmen, working toward nothing less than a platonic ideal. Since 1990, Geoffroy has been the main repository for the idea of Dom Perignon, not only how it should taste, but its essence, how it should feel, and how it should make you feel.
Named for the monk whose revolutionary advances in the science of methode champenoise transformed the product, Dom Perignon the brand has a reputation to uphold. As such, Geoffroy tends to wax philosophical a bit more than his peers: rather than speak of flavors, he's prone to statements of 'flow' and 'dissolve,' of notes being sustained. Rather than the taste of the wine, he prefers to speak of its 'embrace.'
Nevertheless, the 2003 vintage demanded his skills in winemaking much more than other vintages. A cold spring was marked by hail and rainstorms, only to be followed one of the most torrid summers France has seen in centuries. It took tremendous coordination and teamwork, says Geoffroy, to salvage a vintage in such conditions.
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"On the whole, the wines were potentially very forceful and powerful," he explains. "But power is not in the character of Dom Perignon. So the scheme was to convey to translate power into intensity. It is rather philosophical, but I make a distinction between intensity and power. Intensity is really something rather penetrating, whereas power is more physical, more brutal. There was something potentially brutal in the season, but the final goal was invariably the same. Voila."
The hallmark of Dom Perignon has always been not so much grandeur as clarity, precision. Such attributes are typically the function of acidity, but the 2003 is not an acid-driven wine -- the vintage was much too warm for the acidity to play its customary role. Geoffroy's great achievement in this wine is to foreground other elements -- toffee richness, a phenolic bite, a mild, almond-skin bitterness -- to more or less take on the role of acidity. The structure is intact, it's just built from different components, and it is every bit as dramatic as the vintage from which it's assembled.
Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at patrickcomiskey.com and tweets at @patcisco. Have a spirits question for a future column? Ask him. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.