Dom Pérignon, the flagship wine of Champagne powerhouse Moët & Chandon, defines luxury in all its effervescent glory. Dom Pérignon is an international symbol of success, a universal icon believed even by teetotalers to be the best Champagne in the world. It is for this very reason that many sommeliers turn up their noses at it—myself, the well-known Champagne snob, included. Yet people still want it; people getting engaged, rap stars, winning yachtsmen—they all want it. In fact, more Hollywood and sports celebrities asked for Dom Pérignon than any of my other customers did while I was the wine director at Aqua Restaurant in San Francisco. Did I have it on my list? Absolutely not. But did I have it? You better believe it—no fewer than three bottles on hand at all times. I knew a sale when I saw it.
I like to tell the story of a high-end wine merchant at a busy tourist destination in San Francisco, where a friend of mine was the lead salesperson for several holiday seasons. The owners refused to carry anything as pedestrian as Dom Pérignon, or Veuve Clicquot Orange Label for that matter, even during the busy holiday season. Countless customers would ask my friend for these wines, and he would have to turn them away. These guests couldn’t have cared less about high-quality, biodynamic grower Champagnes. They wanted Dom, and that was all they would spend their money on. The owner of the antique shop next door noticed all the customers leaving empty-handed and decided to find out what was going on. My friend told him, and the next thing you know, the shop owner had acquired a wine license and had both Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot cases stacked in front of his shop for the holidays. He knew a sale when he saw it.
Nowhere is Dom Pérignon’s exalted stature in the world of luxury goods so well demonstrated, or should I say flaunted, than in the city of gaudy excess, Las Vegas. For many years, Las Vegas was the No. 1 Champagne market in the United States, mainly due to high-roller house comps. Until the bottom fell out of the economy, it was commonplace for servers to walk around with bottles of Dom Pérignon, using it like a condiment to top up a mimosa or pour over sorbet, as in, “This is Vegas, baby. The Dom flows like water here.” We laugh, but it works. People are flabbergasted, and they never forget! It’s absolutely brilliant marketing—a skill that is by no means lost on the Champenois.
Most of us know the back story of Dom Pérignon. It is the luxury cuvée of Moët & Chandon, the largest producer and vineyard owner in Champagne, and one of the most famous wine brands in the world. But Dom Pérignon did not invent Champagne, as legend would have it. The Romans noted the possibility of sparkling wine, and the Bible even mentions “wine that moveth.” There is documented evidence that the monks of the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire in Limoux, in the Languedoc region, accepted orders for sparkling wine as early as 1531.
The most notable developments in the history of Champagne, however, took place in the late 17th century, when the onset of winter prevented the region’s wines from completing fermentation. The process restarted as temperatures rose during the spring, and the wines finished fermenting in their bottles, creating a sparkle. Quite often, a bottle exploded as natural gas pressure built up inside. These wines were called vins du diable , “devil’s wine,” because the winemakers’ understanding of fermentation was incomplete.
In the 1700s, after the coronation of Louis XIV, the young monk Dom Pierre Pérignon was appointed cellarer at the Abbey of Hautvilliers, and Champagne began its evolution into the product we know today. Dom Pierre is credited with developing the concepts of picking early, selecting the best grapes, and blending. He also reintroduced cork to northern France and used a shallow-based press to produce clear juice from black grapes. At the same time, stronger glass bottles became available, facilitating transport.
Today, Dom Pérignon is made only in exceptional vintages, averaging six out of every 10, although only three vintages were not released in the 1990s: the difficult 1991, 1994, and 1997. Compared to Krug’s 75,000 vintage bottles per year and Salon’s 60,000, the 4-5 million bottles of Dom Pérignon produced from each vintage can truly be a tough sell to sommeliers looking for prestige labels.
As a solution, Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy established the Œnothèque program in 2000, releasing select, late-disgorged vintages from Pérignon’s library going back to 1966. Disgorging to order is not a new idea; Bollinger R.D. (“recently disgorged”) is a leader in the category. Geoffroy’s premise, however, is that Champagnes have several optimum windows of disgorging. It’s a bit of risk for a large house that thrives on consistency, but Geoffroy says his time spent working at Domaine Chandon in California got him “to think out of the box. Dom Pérignon is more progressive than you would think.”
On the whole, Dom Pérignon is easily categorized as light, fresh, and delicate. It is typically 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir, much of it from grand cru vineyards, and is, according to Geoffroy, “unique and singular. It is primarily revealed in the mouthfeel—an incomparable way of touching and caressing on the palate—seamless, fresh, yet mature, ethereal, with a fine-grained, silky texture.” That is not to forget, he says, “the effervescence, completely integrated in the substance of the wine. There is a unique aromatic signature of a mineral character: a somber, gray quality coming out in briny, toasted, smoky, and peaty facets when the wine breathes.”
He goes on to set Dom Pérignon against other luxury cuvées: “Dom Pérignon’s intensity is not based on power, but on its precision and relevance—each element of the wine must be in the right place. We deal with a high-definition wine that requires just the right touch, rather than brute force.” On the other hand, the style of Œnothèque depends entirely on the quality of the vintage. It is rare, prestigious, and characterful, earning a seat at the table of the best Champagnes in the world.
Delivering the goods to sommeliers is critical for Geoffroy and for Moët & Chandon. “It is important to us that, despite unanimous recognition, Dom Pérignon keeps developing its wine awareness,” says Geoffroy. “Outside Dom Pérignon 1995, we offer the vintages of 1975, 1971, and 1969 upon special request (Dom Pérignon Œnothèque Commande Spéciale). There well could be a 2002 and an Œnothèque 1996—two exciting vintages where Dom Pérignon’s uniqueness would be showcased to the full.” Smart wine directors will know a sale when they see it.