Some months ago, I went to Istanbul for the celebrations surrounding the new vintage of Dom Pérignon Rosé. (Rude Travel – 10 February, 2013) But this week it feels like I am reliving the Istanbul experience. A few weeks before, at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore, I met Jean-François Piège, the (Michelin two-star) chef who cooked the banquet for Dom Pérignon.
Now, with memories of my conversation with Piège and his Istanbul meal still fresh in my mind, I finally eat at his restaurant. Piège runs two restaurants in the same building. The first is a brasserie which, I guess, is where he makes his money. The other is the famous one: a gastronomic restaurant with just nine tables where Piège and his team serve about 29-30 dinners a day. As you might expect, because Piège is very much the chef of the moment in Paris, reservations are hard to come by and the vast majority of the clientele consists of French people who booked their tables months ago.
The French take gastronomy rather more seriously than the rest of us, so nobody minds that only one course allows you any choice (lobster, veal, fish or lamb). The rest of the time you eat what Piège turns out: eight or nine starters, depending on his mood, the main course, a cheese course and at least three desserts. Nor does he tell you what each dish is. The menu, which changes frequently, depending on what is available in the market, will describe an ingredient (say, scallops) without telling you how it will be cooked and served. The food is amazing as you might expect.
The second component of the Istanbul experience was Thierry Wasser, the head perfumer at Guerlain who had created a special perfume from Iranian roses to go with the Dom Pérignon Rosé. I catch up with Thierry at the bar of the Plaza Athénée. Thierry is the only French perfumer I know who gets India. Most French noses travel only as far as the Middle East and then lose themselves in raptures about Arab rose and genuine oud.
Only Thierry travels further: to India and the Far East. We end up talking about the difference between the Arab and Indian attitudes to fragrance. Thierry says that the real difference is that while the smells of Arabia are the smells of fragrance ingredients (such as oud), the smells of India are the smells of fresh flowers. Only in India, he says, would a woman wear a garland of flowers in her hair rather than a fragrance. And in India, when we dress our weddings with flowers, we are resorting to the freshest of fragrances.Thierry is in India several times a year searching for ingredients and he understands the smells of south India particularly well. We get talking about oud, the currently trendy ingredient in global perfumery. The Arab fragrance tradition uses masses of oud. But here’s the thing: it does not grow anywhere in the Middle East.
Oud is made from the rotting bark of the agarwood tree and the Arabs have traditionally imported it from India (along with sandalwood oil, rose extract etc.) Even today, the oud that comes out of the Far East (Malaysia, Borneo, Cambodia etc.) makes its way to Arabia via Bombay. So why is it that an ingredient that is usually sourced from India is largely unknown here?
Thierry shrugs “I don’t know,” he says. “Many countries do not use the goods they export. Look at France. They export so much soap but they don’t use it.” This leads to squeals of outrage from the two Frenchwomen on the table. (Thierry is Swiss and part-Italian though now French by adoption). But Thierry will not relent.Finally, it is time to drive to Épernay in the Champagne region, 90 minutes from Paris, to meet up with the most important member of the Istanbul trio – Richard Geoffroy, the legendary winemaker at Dom Pérignon who has created the wine for 23 years, during which time it has gone from being regarded as just a glamourous champagne to being treated as a serious wine, one of the best white wines to come out of France (and therefore, the world, in fact).
I meet up with Richard at the abbey in Hautvillers, a village near Épernay, where the monk Dom Pérignon is supposed to have invented champagne. Nothing very much happens at the abbey these days but Richard keeps it as a symbol of the wine’s heritage and does all the technical tastings there. We start with the 2002, universally regarded as one of the great champagne vintages and then move to the 2003, a difficult year in which Richard managed nevertheless to make a startlingly good wine. Then I get a preview of the 2004, which has still to be released. I’m no wine expert but it strikes me as a seductive wine, more like the 2002 than the 2003.
Next we move to the older vintages. Dom Pérignon has two versions of its old vintages. Usually, champagne is aged in the cask and then in the bottle for around nine years before it hits the market. (Which is why the 2004 will only be available for sale now). But Richard has taken the ageing process further. In 1998, he discovered that Dom Pérignon had many bottles of old wine, not yet ready to drink, in its cellars.
This is a little complicated. All champagne is fermented in vats and then bottled. But after about a year or so, the winemaker removes the sediment (yeast plus bits of the wine) from the bottle, adds a dosage (a little sugar dissolved in wine) and then recorks the bottle. This is known as the second fermentation (the bubbles appear after this stage) and even the cheapest champagne usually stays that way, ageing in its bottle for a year after the dosage has been added. Better champagnes get three years in the bottle. And the top wines remain that way for seven to 10 years.
Richard discovered that there were loads of bottles, dating back 50 years or more, that had still not undergone the second fermentation. In wine terms this presented a huge opportunity. Nobody knew what champagne, that had undergone a first fermentation of four decades (with the yeast still in the bottle), would taste like.
So Richard launched the Oenothèque line. This consists of very old wines which Richard has tasted, pronounced ready and then added a dosage for a second fermentation. The taste is quite different from normal vintage champagne, with a surprising freshness. The 1996 Oenothèque we tasted at the abbey was very unlike the normal version (i.e. the champagne that Dom Pérignon originally sold as its 1996 vintage) and we ended the tasting with a magnum of the 1966 (Oenothèque), which is easily the oldest champagne I have ever drunk (or am likely to).
The tasting was followed by dinner at Château Sarran outside Épernay. This is an old house belonging to the Moët and Chandon family which the company now runs for its own guests. The chateau has a great cellar and a wonderful chef, Pascal Tingaud, who used to run his own Michelin two-star restaurant. Pascal did the food: scallops with caviar in the manner of Alain Ducasse, fresh shellfish (mussels, razor clams etc.) and more. Richard chose the wines – more astonishing vintages of Dom Pérignon – and did the pairings.
People often joke about the French and the intensity of their passions. But when you see them up close, in their own country, you realise how the best French masters use their passions constructively. Thierry is now rated as one of the world’s great perfumers. His La Petite Robe Noire is the best-selling perfume in France. But if he wants a perfect rose, he will brave the rain and trudge to the middle of a muddy field to find it. If he wants Mysore sandalwood and India makes it hard to import, then he will try and get some farmer in Sri Lanka to plant new sandalwood trees. (And he is only French by choice anyway, not by birth!)
So it is with Richard. He makes one of the world’s most famous wines and is a legend in the field but he never stops learning. He had just flown in from discussing wine with experts in New York; had met with Ferran Adrià to propose a collaboration; was going to Shanghai the following week and is now making plans to come to India in the autumn. The great masters never stop learning. They just find their lessons further and further afield.
From HT Brunch, June 2
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch