Written by Graeme Brandham, Head of Communications at WiV Technology.
At Wiv, we like to keep things special. And to celebrate this year’s world Champagne day, (which always lands on the fourth Friday of October each year), we have dropped an exceptional Dom Pérignon vintage 2006.
But don’t take my word for it. At Wiv we also like to put the knowledge in your hands to decide for yourself just how special a wine actually is. So today we will be taking a deep dive into the world of Champagne through the lens of this particular sparkling wine.
Where did it all begin?
Champagne, with its three main towns, Reims, Épernay, and Aÿ, is only more recently named so — at least by European standards — gaining the name Champagne in the early middle ages. Before that, it was a major crossroads of two trade routes, north to south from Switzerland to Flanders, and east to west from Paris to the Rhine. This ensured it was always a prosperous area, and subsequently heavily fought over. Even once being attacked by Atilla the Hun in AD 455 when his hoards rampaged across Europe dismantling the Roman empire.
In that time vines were first substantially recorded as growing in the area at the end of the 5th century. But there are whispers that it was going on much earlier than that. So it is fair to say, it is a wine region that is older than most. However, the Champagne wine we know and recognize today didn’t really exist until one man entered the fray a lot later on. A certain Dom Pérignon.
(1639–1715) Father Pierre Pérignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers in 1668 as the bursar of the Abbey. This meant that part of his duty was to be in charge of the cellars, and consequently the wine.
He personally oversaw some radical changes that have since come to inform modern Champagne practices. Severe pruning, low yields, and careful harvesting. He was one of the first to perfect extracting the juice from black grapes without coloring the wine. And he was also a pioneer in the art of blending grapes from different local vineyards. He is even credited with being one of the first to recognize the marketing potential of bubbles in wine, which till that point, and even to his younger self, was seen as a flaw. Without some of these innovations, the wine we know today would not be the same at all.
What makes Champagne so expensive?
Without going into too much detail. The simple answer is that the region has some of the strictest codes of conduct in winemaking anywhere in the world. This means that making Champagne is extremely labor-intensive, and also means that the wine produced is always of exceptional quality due to this diligence. It is also a traditionally colder region meaning grape cultivation can be severely hampered by frost, cold, and rain.
The vineyards are organized into various cru’s. Or in layman’s terms, they are ranked according to their ability to produce excellent grapes. The variation can be accounted for by considering soil types, local humidity, the aspect of the vineyard — south-facing being more preferable in order to capture the sun. And more factors besides. Most Champagne houses will source their grapes from various vineyards and growers in the region to form a blend based on the quality level they are trying to achieve.
Dom Pérignon is only ever made from 100% Grand and Premier cru grapes and therefore ranks as one of the best wines made in the region.
Champagne is only ever made from one of, or a blend of these three grapes. Pinot Noir (a red grape) at 38% of land coverage. Pinot Meunier (A red grape) at 32% of land coverage. And Chardonnay (a white grape) at 30% of land coverage. The vines themselves are heavily pruned and under fertilized which reduces yields significantly. On the surface that doesn’t sound like a good thing. But consider, the fewer grapes grow on each vine, the more concentrated those grapes are as they absorb the lion’s share of nutrients and energy. Allowing each grape to ripen fully and have an extremely concentrated flavor.
Dom Pérignon's 2006 vintage is made up of a blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir.
Harvesting is nearly always done by hand and pressed more or less on-site at the vineyard. This is because Champagne is a white wine in hue, if not in grape. And so the growers have to take extra care to not bruise or damage the grapes, either in picking or in transporting, so that when it is pressed the juice is not tainted by the skins of the mainly black grapes used.
Wine is then fermented in either stainless steel tanks or large ancient oak vats, though often the former rather than the latter. Most wines in Champagne are fermented in the temperature range 12–25 degrees C. This cooler fermentation preserves the freshness of the fruit flavors which lean more towards citrus, green fruit, tropical fruit, and red fruit.
Dom Pérignon is made in stainless steel tanks. They pride themselves on keeping the wine from oxidizing at any stage in the process before final bottling, giving it its signature smoky character.
The next step is one of the most complex, and a process that in some respects accounts for Champagnes' incredible quality and price. The head winemaker, along with a team of supporting staff will blend together the different fermented wines from that vintage to form the basis of what will later become Champagne. This is in no uncertain terms, an art form. The wines that will be blended, at this stage are young, fruity, quite acidic, and not very complex. The winemaker has to understand not only what they are blending in the present moment, but also anticipate what the wine will taste like after second fermentation. Imagine tasting some vegetables and arranging them with the goal of knowing how they will taste once they are cooked together. This is essentially what the winemaker is trying to achieve. In a nonvintage Champagne, they will use a proportion of wine reserves from the previous harvests to maintain consistency.
But in the case of a vintage wine like our 2006 Dom Pérignon here, it will only be wine in the blend that is made from grapes grown in that year. It is also worth noting that not every year are the grapes good enough to make a vintage wine. Compounding its rarity.
After the blend is made, the wine undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle. The wine is mixed with a blend of sugar and yeast and then added to particularly strong dark brown bottles that are stoppered with a crown cap. The second fermentation inside the bottle, triggered by the new yeast and sugar creates c02, which has nowhere to escape too, is trapped inside the liquid. This is what forms that distinctive foamy mousse we all know and love in Champagne.
Once the second fermentation has finished, the process of yeast autolysis begins, and this is where Champagne gets its distinctive bready, brioche flavor. When the yeast dies, the yeast particles break down and release various flavor compounds into the wine. The amount of time the wine spends resting with these yeast particles inside the bottle corresponds to how much this added flavor complexity is present. Like any art form, knowing the end goal, and timing it just right is key to getting a perfect balance. During this time, the wine is also riddled. Essentially this means that the wine is slowly turned so that the yeast deposits accumulate in the neck of the bottle.
Dom Pérignon is aged for 8 years ‘sur lie’, or on the yeast. Giving it an incredibly rich mouthfeel whilst not overpowering the freshness of the fruit. A real contrast of sensations. It is also riddled by hand during that time. Another factor in its price. The cost to store the wine, and pay people to carefully riddle the wine for all those years soon adds up.
The last and final stage is finally upon us, and again it is another factor in why this particular drink is so expensive to produce. Involving incredibly specialist equipment, the wine is taken from the cellar where it has been aged. And very quickly, the neck of the bottle where the yeast has accumulated is flash frozen. The bottle is then flipped upright, and the cap removed. The sudden movement and release of the cap cause the pellet of ice containing the yeast to pop out dramatically. Then as quickly as possible, the wine is topped up with a ‘dosage’. A mix of wine and sugar, and quickly re-corked. This dosage is what determines the final sweetness of the Champagne.
This whole process happens in a matter of seconds and if you ever get the chance to watch it in action on a tour, it is worth seeing.
After this, all that is left to do is label the wines and ship them to our collective hearts.
Dom Pérignon is dosed with a sugar content of 5g/l meaning it is a relatively dry wine. The final flavors are floral with ripe tropical fruit, candied fruit, with a few toasted notes. On the palate the mousse is creamy and the mouthfeel is simply sublime. With complexity increasing both in the glass and with each sip.
The final result
I’m sure now you can begin to see just why Champagne more generally commands such a high level of respect and such a steep price tag. Every single part of the process is carefully considered, difficult to achieve, and laborious to do. This is further compounded by the extreme lengths that winemakers have to go to in order to abide by the strict laws of the region. It is fair to say that Champagne involves one of the most expensive wine-making techniques in the world, and takes a great deal of talent and care to make.
Dom Pérignon is no exception. Being the Grand Cuvee of the Moët & Chandon house, it is their premier wine and is rigorously tested to the highest standards. It is also a rare wine, in that not every year does a vintage wine actually get made.
What you own when you buy a Dom Pérignon is not just a tasty drink, or indeed a lucrative investment. It is the encapsulation of years of hard work, love, and care. Distilling of a very specific time and place in the world that is unique in every sense of the word, down to the individual bottle.
What you own, is art.