Sun 25 Oct 2009
Continuing the Chronicle of the 100 Most Interesting or Important or Educational Wines I tasted in my fledgling years as a wine writer, we’re still in 1984, when I launched my wine career with my first column in The Commercial Appeal newspaper in July. Within two or three months, I was being invited to public and private tastings and had begun to receive press releases and even a sample wine or two. Wow, doors were opening! As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, by this time I had met two people who were very important in my wine education and who became valuable friends, Shields Hood and John Grisanti, both of whom figure in today’s post about the first great champagnes I encountered.
On Sept. 17, 1984, Shields held a tasting of 17 champagnes and sparkling wines at the warehouse of the wholesale distributor for whom he worked. Most of the people at the event worked in retail. This is the day on which I first tried Dom Pérignon.
Dom Pérignon, the flagship champagne of Moët & Chandon, fills a hallowed niche in the pantheon of highly recognizable and heavily marketed grandes marques that includes Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, Veuve Clicquot’s Grande Dame and Perrier-Jouët’s Le Belle Époque. Founded in 1743, Moët & Chandon is owned by LVMH, the giant luxury goods conglomerate. Cuvée Dom Pérignon, as it is properly called, is named after the legendary monk who is supposed to have claimed “I’m seeing stars,” after drinking the sparkling beverage that had accidentally re-fermented in the bottle. I’m no monk, but I make equal claim after drinking too much champagne. The special label was introduced with the 1921 vintage and was produced in 1928, ’29 and ’34, but it was the 1943 vintage that was fermented inside its own bottle, according to Tom Stevenson in World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (Wine Appreciation Guild, revised edition, 2003).
My reaction to Cuvée Dom Pérignon 1976 was the succinct “Wonderful champagne!” To which I added in my notes, “Yeasty, dry, nutty, well-balanced. Very elegant.” The price? (If you have tears, etc.) $67.
We’re getting out of sequence with the Perrier-Jouët Blason de France Rose, but I wanted to present this trio of champagnes together. So … quite a few months after the Dom Pérignon encounter, my first wife and I were invited to a small Perrier-Jouët dinner at a long defunct restaurant here, The Palm Court. The national sales rep for the importer, which then was Stacole (I think), was at the dinner to talk about the champagnes and to present the Palm Court’s chef-owner, Michael Cahhal, with the Perrier-Jouët Award, whatever that signified. (Perrier-Jouët was founded in 1811 and is now owned by Pernod Ricard.) Anyway, I was enthralled by the Blason de France Rosé, the color of which the sales rep described as “the blush on the thigh of an aroused nymph,” a line, with a whiff of Fragonard, that will never be bettered and which, I confess, I have borrowed several times over the past 25 years. We were told that the P-J Blason de France Rosé was the house champagne at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild; I wanted it to be the house champagne at my house. My note offers one word: “Divine.”
Not long after that occasion, a group of gentleman gathered in the wine cellar — an actual cellar, as in below ground — at John Grisanti’s house, to taste this thing and that. These were collectors, all far more experienced than I at the tasting and assessing of older vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy and vintage champagne. Anyway, Big John opened a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 1961, a 24-year-old bottle. While the others present were sagely exclaiming over its irresistible qualities, in my little notebook I was writing, “Stinky, caramelized, oxidized.” Now I know that the British have this thing about old champagne, or are reputed to, but this ’61 seemed way over the hill to me.