Sipping Stars: How A Monastic Administrator Became A Champagne Legend

Dom Pérignon: one of the wine world’s most glittering brands and the man behind it

Sipping Stars: How A Monastic Administrator Became A Champagne Legend

A regular fixture in each and every one of our wine auctions, Dom Pérignon is a fascinating fine wine with an equally fascinating history: now a byword for luxury and ostentation, it is named after a man whose early religious training involved nine hours of daily prayer, seven of manual labour and two of reading, leaving very little room in his schedule, in all probability, for nightclubbing and hedonism in the early eighteenth century France in which he made his name.

The wine itself is often tremendous by anyone’s standards, a clean, pristine style of almost balletic precision, it has no hint of oxidation on release (and has seen no wood influence during the first fermentation since 1964), and is for the most part a seamless blend of roughly 50/50 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Production figures are a closely-guarded secret, but it is thought that between four and five million bottles are produced in years which it is released, with around six declarations per decade.

The only obvious criticism that can be levelled at ‘Dom’ in terms of quality is that the latest vintage or current release available in restaurants or retail almost always cries out to be kept for a few years in order to fully bloom and justify its price tag. As with most fine wines a year or two enables the wines to develop, to come into their own and really shine, which is the great virtue of buying with us at auction: the previous owner has saved you the trouble!

Our May wine auction features no fewer than 15 lots from 12 different vintages, from 1973 through to 2010 (including a pair of 2003 David Lynch limited editions), at all stages of maturity.

A little history of the brand and the man himself: the first declared vintage was the 1921, which was released on to the American market. As far as the 1947 these were simply Vintage Moët & Chandon re-bottled into the attractive eighteenth-century replica bottles with which the brand is still synonymous. There have been 44 white vintages from 1921 to 2010, and 26 vintages of the rosé, which came into being with the 1959.

All vintages of Dom Pérignon have a minimum of seven years on their lees, versus the legal minimum of three for Vintage Champagne, though legendary Cellar Master Richard Geoffroy (who retired in 2019 after 28 years at the helm of the brand) created the Œnothèque range, with greatly extended lees aging, much like Bollinger’s ‘R.D.’ in principle.

Œnothèque was subsequently rebranded as the ‘Plenitude’ series when the 1998 vintage was released in 2005. The first Plenitude, or ‘P1’ sees 9 years on lees, with ‘P2’ at around 18 years and finally ‘P3’ at around 25 years on lees. These are unquestionably fascinating to try, as cellaring in Moët’s cold chalk cellars on lees allows textural and aromatic development without oxidation. Many connoisseurs and critics, however, prefer the well-cellared ‘regular’ releases, most often seen at auction, which have been allowed to develop at their own pace much like a great Burgundy; deepening in colour, gradually losing the bubbles, but gaining in toasty richness along the way.

As for the man himself: he is often credited with being responsible for putting the bubbles into Champagne, although he did no such thing, considering fizz to be a fault which had only ruined many a bottle. Born most likely in 1638, he became the Administrator or procureur, and cellar master (with an honorary ‘Dom’ to boot) at the Hautvillers abbey aged only 30, due to his excellent and supremely fastidious administration skills. He remained there for 47 years, with his principle achievements being his pioneering of extremely precise viticulture and grape selection and the blending of different vineyards; he was also the first winemaker to make white wine from red grapes through incredibly gentle pressing of the fruit.

Lastly, Dom Pérignon was the first man in Champagne to establish those magnificently chilly, chalky cellars, hewn directly into the rock – the perfect environment for storing Champagne, and one of the truly essential pieces in the development of the World’s best-loved fine wine style. How he had the foresight to anticipate their use, long before science explained why, is one of the wine world’s great mysteries. One worth contemplating after another glass or two of the Champagne that bears the great man’s name.