“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin

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18 September 2012

2003: TOO HOT FOR DOM PERIGNON?

Dom Perignon 2003 ... another vintage made dark by the hot sun ... Do we drink it now, lay it down, or wait forty years for Dom to disgorge it for release in the exquisitely expensive Œnothèque series? ... Will another 50 years of cool dark dungeon give it the distinction of other hot vintages preferred by Dom chef de cave, the great Richard Geoffroy? Could Geoffroy's sophisticated dark campaign possibly have been influenced by Killey-Withy's old Cooper's Stout commercials starring the late Maxwell Cooper wearing his Blues Bros shades? Remember?  The dark side of the family?  Impossible. It's funny to think about, however, given the enormous volumes, the extreme prices, and high camp extravagance routinely flaunted by the royals of Champagne ...


One Cool Night On The Dom
Reaching Into Hot Years Past
To Light Up Geoffroy's Dark 03
by PHILIP WHITE

I’m a sicko for the company of Richard Geoffroy.  Particularly since he contentiously chose to release a vintage Dom Perignon from 2003, a year which he quaintly calls “solar”.  I want to stare into his eyes across a table so small he can feel the urgency in my knees as I ask, like deadpan, “Richard, why?”

Ol Sol had a fair bit to do with France in the vintage of 2003.  Nearly 15,000 people perished in the heat.  On my birthday, September 3rd, the last 57 unclaimed bodies from Paris were buried. As far as birthday presents go, that was on a par with World War II commencing on the same date. By the time that dark day rolled round again in 2003, I presumed the vintage, in Champagne at least, would be frites.


In this hellfire, HRH Richard, (and please forgive Harcourt's photoshopping) the Royal Peace of God, which is pretty much what his old Vikin name means, made a wine that was suddenly 60% Pinot noir, and then went in to the government or somewhere and registered the colour “dark”.  

Trademarked it with Pantone.  Dark.  Fair dinkum.  Mr. Maxwell Cooper would never think of that.

I know he means dark of mood, not colour, but to me, Dom is about light.  Bright white light.  Like the ’02: Chardonnay at its crunchiest.  You can even buy it with a label that magically illuminates from within.  Pardon my synæsthæsia, but if you want a sound, think Chopin. Aggro, presistent tinkle tinkle, like Waterford crystal hitting the slate floor.  But 2003? Suddenly we’ve got a Pops Pahinui playing the slack key Hawaiian slide.  Or maybe an islander even more corpulent.  Either way, it’s as mellifluent and bold as fresh-thieved leatherwood honey on a real hot day.


So Richard calls it solar, and then dark.

I reckon he has a secret thing with heat, as if he’s been anticipating global warming before anybody even thought of the term.  I dug out my notes of a dinner he gave at Tetsuya’s in 2000. Tets had been slaving away with recently disgorged bottles of Dom from 1980, ’85, ’73, ’64 and ’59, working out which ingenious flavours he could fathom in accompaniment.  Tough life.

1964 was a hot year in Champagne.  Thanks to Ol Sol, the crop was already the biggest in history when it rained in late August.  That swelled them little babies so plump the jaundiced were saying this was no longer Champagne, whilst the really thirsty leered and dribbled with anticipation.

Tets had nearly worked out what to eat with that ’64.  He presented tiny serves of tataki of wild venison with rosemary and honey vinaigrette. Braised oxtail with Western Australian marron.  Roasted breast of duck with confit potato, sautéed shallots and ginger.  Roasted breast of squab with ragout of mushrooms. And a slow-cooked pigs cheek with gobo. 

Not to mention the seasonal winter fruits.

My notes?
“You could call this tired.  No primary fruit, but maybe a country drawer full of cheese. Just a little pineapple; cloves on an apple tart.  Short, slightly dirty to look at, spermy/carob to sniff; flat aftertaste. Then acid/astringent aftertaste rebound, long and teasing.  Pity.  Great with the foie gras! 84 points.”

Somehow my glass got a mixed pour on the first lap, and I tracked down the better bottle.

“2nd bottle much better.  Smoother, longer, fresher.  Pity they mixed the two.  Pretty good with the salt beef. 89+.”

Richard looked me in the eye.  “The ripest vintage in France,” he swooned.  “The aftertaste!”

The aftertaste of that dinner still haunts me.  It was, what can I say, a seminal evening in my exploration of the relationship between glutamates, great old Champagne and pheromones, which often have no aroma, but are frequently transmitted in parallel with alluring aromas we can detect.  The entire perfume business works on this thesis: creating aromas which titillate because we subconsciously expect to receive a pheromone in parallel.  It’s brilliant cheating; using the placebo idea in the most ingenious manner.  We rarely get the pheromone we expect when we receive that smell, but the anticipatory thrill is already well installed. 

Similarly, the most expensive wines and foods commonly exude aromas which set our pheromone receptors trembling or purring in a fru fru frisson of anticipation.

Simultæneously, the dinner was a kind of Everest expedition around what Richard considered to be some of the loftiest peaks of Dom, playing delicious cadenzas over Tets’s chamber orchestra.

The ’80 got us off.  Pure Chardonnay-dominated Dom, a perfect aromatic reflection of its source, just full of chalk and the smell of the wheatfields on the vast wide open spaces of Champagne. “Fabulous combination of sensual fullness with heaps of refreshing mineral acidity … it rolls on and on and on … 94+”


Chopin, see?

We spoke a lot of Richard’s use of the word mineral during this expedition, and finally seemed to agree that he meant somewhere between chalk, crushed bone china and stainless steel, which suited me.  It is the essential basement, the foundations of all Dom. But I was more fascinated by the flesh such austere bones can support. That ’80 had plenty, and quite ripe it seemed, especially in the counterpoint of oysters in rice vinegar.

This is where we began discussing umami; the natural glutamates of great wine, and their teasing entanglements with our pheromone reception and their powerful involvement in the very way in which we smell and taste. Richard went coy when I asked whether he checked these great old wines for their glutamate content.  


As the complexity of Tetsuya’s amazing food increased through sashimi, scampi, quail eggs, sea slug, truffles, foie gras to aubergine and sweetbreads, it became obvious that one of the greatest pivots of the whole excursion was not so much the primary flavours of these things that counted, but the exquisite umamis that simmered away in the sauces: great aged rice vinegars and soys did the real bell-ringing.

In this line, Richard showed astonishment at my audacity in suggesting the ’85 smelled like a great aged saké, as if rich in umami, but he agreed. It seemed a bit softer than the ’80, was richer and sweaty with smoky flesh but it still balanced on that incredible crisp acidity, and eventually seemed to change aromatic gears completely and whacked us with smells of nutty honeybutter biscuits.  94+.

The magnum ’85 rosé was the most feminine lush.  Here, the austerity of the Pinot took control, its rigid slide-rule acid and extremely fine tannin supporting the lolly shop full of giggling Sunday School teachers upstairs.  I’ll bet they were buying jelly snakes.  But, I noted, “roses and strawberries spoil the house style in a way.” 90.


’73 was the pinnacle. “Rich, but frail, and well into that third stage of development.  Goes absolutely brilliantly with the foie gras dish # 4 (I think with alfalfa).  Honey and toast, but lovely cleavage sweat.  Umami left right and centre. The wine smells fatty.  Susan, my companion across the table, likes it more, but the isovaleric acid story’s a bit over the top for her. Lovely texture and greasy weight. Really soft luxurious heaven, even with white rice and wasabi. 95.”

That IVA reference related to another of the dreamy strings of conversation that hung across our bonny table like gossamer.

The ’64 followed, a little like the depression that hits after the reaching of a brilliant pinnacle, and then, just in time, the ’59:

“Utterly outstanding freshness and vivacity: light green coloured; lovely, pale; fresh pineapple, hazelnuts, candlewax, cantaloupe peel, wood, astonishing freshness and life; no real primary [grape] fruit, but the wine’s elegance and acidity make up and more.  Onions.  Utterly delicious with truffle ice cream.” And then, as it simmered and sulked away, “banana and peach rise with time.  95”

Twin peaks, see.

Funny thing.  ’73 was really hot. And although the autumn fell early in ’59, that was a particularly sunny summer, too.

While the Pinot-dominant ’03 is more like the
64's apple pie than shattered windscreen Chardonnay at its most pristine and austere, I suppose there’s the wafer of a chance that it will sit on a table like Tetsuya’s in fifty years, freshly disgorged, and completely transfix a table of lucky punters. 90++.

I wonder whether they’ll be listening to mellifluous slack-key Hawaiian music, lush with tremolo, or that pretty tinkle of the Chopin.

And, your grace, dear Richard le Roi, while my delving into the past may have answered in part at least, my own initial question about the hottest vintage yet, I’d hate you to think the urgency for that next meeting is diluted in any way, non

Don’t go completely dark on me.

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