Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Grey, Somber Characters

Yesterday I was tasting with Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, at the Abbaye d’Hautvillers, the old Benedictine monastery where Dom Pérignon himself worked and made wine between 1670 and 1715. It’s a beautiful and secluded place, up on the hill above the village, and what I like most about the abbey is its austerity: you taste in a plain, unadorned hall that must have been the old refectory or some kind of meeting area, and its spartan drabness is refreshing somehow, the antithesis of the modern tasting room. Yesterday morning was cold and foggy, which only served to increase the sense of atmosphere and stillness about the abbey grounds.

Geoffroy is a fount of information, possessing a keen intelligence and a wealth of knowledge that he is happily willing to share. It’s a pleasure to discuss the finer points of winemaking, champagne culture, history and philosophy with him (and sitting around drinking Dom Pérignon at 11 in the morning is okay, too).

As we were tasting a couple of Oenothèque vintages, he drew an intriguing distinction between grey and brown aromas, the former which he finds desirable and the latter which he seeks to avoid. “I like very much these grey, somber characters,” he said. “Smoke, peat, coffee, these are reductive characters. Oxidative characters are brown—raisin, spice, dried fruits, these kinds of things.” Dom Pérignon is made in a deliberately reductive manner, and Geoffroy credits this as a major factor in the wine’s longevity, balance and grace. It’s true that when tasting an older Dom Pérignon, the flavors remain very fresh, and the wines often acquire these grey tones of smoke, oyster shells, peat, cocoa, toasted bread and the like. They rarely show brown characters of spice, honey, toffee or raisin, and only in very unusual vintages. I think that this reductive character is also the reason that Dom Pérignon rosé is able to age well while some other rosés aren’t. Oxidative winemaking helps a wine to show better in its youth, but for the long haul, grey might be where it’s at.


Frank Herfjord said...

But Krug and Bollinger are made oxidatively. Surely noone questions their ability to age? In any case, the distinction of aroma groupings of grey and brown is interesting.

Anonymous said...

Two thoughts here:

Krug and Dp have always been two of my favorite champagnes. Although Krug is a richer broader wine, I've never thought of it as particularly oxidative, although it certainly may be. Bollinger on the other hand, has never been one of my prefered houses. I would definitely consider these wines 'Brown', fat and oxidative.

My second thought:
It seems interesting that reductive wine making in champagne can create a longer aging wine, whereas. . . in say northern italy where much of the whites have become short lived and quite homogenous in their aromas and texture, largely due to reductive wine making.

i wonder what the common thread is between these wines. I've often thought about oxidative vs reductive wine making throughout the world and whether there are true commonalities.

Peter Liem said...

I don't think that oxidative winemaking in Champagne necessarily precludes a champagne's ability to age, and as you say, wines like Krug and Bollinger do age very well. The characters are different however -- both Krug and Bollinger (unless you get a very recently-disgorged RD or newly-released Krug Collection) tend to acquire "brown" aromas, which I personally find very appealing. Dom Pérignon does not -- it always retains "grey" aromas, which I also find appealing but in a different way.

I think that specifically in the case of rosé, though, things might be a little different. I usually don't like old rosé champagnes, and I've often wondered why. I only like old rosés if the fruit still retains a sense of primary freshness -- there can be other complex notes of maturity which are nice, but if the red fruit itself is dried out then the wine feels heavy and unpleasant to me. Unfortunately, in the case of many rosé champagnes I find that the fruit dries out relatively quickly, which is why I prefer to drink my rosés young. However, there are certain rosés (Dom Pérignon among them) that age beautifully, and this conversation with Geoffroy made me think that the key might lie in reductive as opposed to oxidative vinification for the red wine in particular.

I think that although Geoffroy speaks about "reductive" winemaking and "oxidative" winemaking, he's not talking about extremes. Dom Pérignon is not made in a hyper-reductive style as many white wines have been made recently (not just in Italy, but in other cool-climate regions), where, as you point out, the super-cool fermentations and hyper-reductive vinification have contributed to a certain homogeneity in the wines (not to mention these fake-floral aromas that I don't like). It's a balance that's sought: Geoffroy wants to avoid notes of reduction as much as he avoids notes of oxidation.

Anonymous said...

Any tasting notes? I would, in particular, be interested in your thoughts on the 2000...

Peter Liem said...

Sorry, but you're going to have to wait for tasting notes. I will say that my impressions of Dom Pérignon are on the whole significantly better here in Europe than when tasting in the States. I often find the wines to be a little awkward and overly reductive when tasting in NYC, and here in France they seem to be more expressive and have a more natural balance. The 2000, which is a rather beautiful wine, is no exception to this pattern.

David McDuff said...

Do you attribute the US/FR differences entirely to shipping and handling abuse?

Peter Liem said...

I wouldn't necessarily call it abuse. I get samples directly from Moët Hennessy, so presumably they're in good shape. I'm wondering if the delicately balanced style of Dom Pérignon simply results in a higher degree of jetlag (boatlag) in travel. I've had some excellent bottles as well, and I wonder if post-travel aging has anything to do with it. Perhaps it just needs more time to recover? I certainly have no controlled experimental data or anything like that -- it's merely casual observation from random tasting, so your experiences could well be different.

Jeremy said...


I would say that some, I for one, do question Bollinger's ability to age. I have had real issues of premature oxidation with the Grande Annee -the 1990 and 1996 taste advanced to me and have been stored perfectly well since release and the Vieille Vigne Française has got a poor record for ageability according to reliable sources, though i must confess that I don't get as much exposure to VVF as I would wish.
The Non Vintage, on the other hand, has been a good surprise in its aging ability on a number of occasions.

David McDuff said... your experiences could well be different.

I can't really say, Peter, as I've not had any experience with Dom on the Euro side of the Atlantic. I can certainly attest to its ageworthiness, though, as I poured the 1990 at a tasting (not my own) not long ago and it was not only very good but also still fresh as a daisy.

I don't think abuse it too strong a word, though, as an awful lot of wine does get beat up pretty badly during the course of its journey across the Atlantic (not to mention around the States).

Eric said...

Hi, Peter

In your reply to Frank, you mentioned "...(unless you get a very recently-disgorged RD or newly-released Krug Collection)...", but, what I heard is that Krug Collections are not late disgorged ones...instead Krug Collections are those normally disgorged(in terms of timing) Krug vintages which just stay longer in Krug's cellar for library release.

Peter Liem said...

Hello Eric,

You are correct -- many vintages of Krug Collection are disgorged "normally" and stored in Krug's cellars. The house is extremely secretive about the whole thing -- they don't even like to hear the word "disgorgement" -- and after some prodding, they will usually say that some vintages are early-disgorged and some are late-disgorged, although of course they won't give any mention of specific ones. I acknowledged this in my reply, as I did say "newly-released" Krug Collection, not newly-disgorged. The reason I included it is because Krug Collection seems to stay exceptionally fresh when it's left untouched in the house's cellars, and when it's finally released, it's much more youthful in profile (less "brown" in aroma) than if you had bought the vintage wine in the original release and stored it yourself. said...

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