Tasting Dom Pérignon Across Decades – Still Awesome

on 01/07/14 at 10:04 am



Time is easily quantifiable yet unknowable, at least as it affects wine. We know wine ages in the bottle, but how will it evolve, and why? We can estimate based on experience, but we are never really sure.

Time was the subject at a remarkable dinner recently at NoMad, featuring 16 vintages of Dom Pérignon Champagne. As complex a subject as time is for still wine, it’s even more complicated for Champagne, which undergoes a second fermentation in a closed bottle after yeast and a sugar solution are added. As the yeast consumes sugar in the bottle, its byproduct, carbon dioxide, produces the bubbles that give Champagne its sparkle.

When fermentation finishes, the yeast dies. But its work is not done. The yeast sediment, or lees, settles to the bottom of the bottle, where it continues to contribute to the wine’s flavor, texture and ability to protect against oxidation. Eventually, the bottle is turned upside down so that the lees gather at the mouth of the neck. When the cellar master gives the word, the neck is plunged into ice-cold brine, which freezes the lees in a clump. Then the bottle is opened and the pressure of the carbon dioxide ejects, or disgorges, the clump, leaving clear sparkling wine.

The timing of disgorgement is crucial. Mass-market Champagnes may be kept on the lees for a short time and to little effect. Dom Pérignon, always a vintage Champagne, will generally spend several years, if not more, on the lees, allowing this interaction to play an integral role in shaping the wine’s character. Eventually, 8 to 10 years after the harvest, most bottles will be released.

But Dom Pérignon keeps a significant fraction of its Champagne aging on lees for an extended period. Eventually, 15 to 16 years after the vintage, a portion of these bottles will be released. A few other Champagne houses do something similar, most famously Bollinger, which calls these wines R.D., for récemment dégorgé, or recently disgorged.

Since 2000, Dom Pérignon has periodically released these older wines under the Oenothèque name, which connotes library. But with the 1998 vintage, the newest such release, the name has been changed to P2.