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Rude Drink: on the bubbly trail

Premium champagne is the only wine that even non-wine lovers can easily learn to appreciate I caught up with Richard Geoffroy on the last night of his four-day trip to India. Geoffroy is the wine-maker at...Vir Sanghvi writes.

brunch Updated: Dec 29, 2012 18:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Premium champagne is the only wine that even non-wine lovers can easily learn to appreciate I caught up with Richard Geoffroy on the last night of his four-day trip to India. Geoffroy is the wine-maker at Dom Pérignon and something of a superstar in wine circles. Though he visits China at least once every year, his visits to India are much less frequent.

I remember one memorable Dom Pérignon dinner at the Oberoi around a decade ago when several vintages were served, everyone got very merry, there was music, there was singing and the then Spanish Ambassador and his wife did a flamenco-style dance.

Geoffroy has been in India only once after that so this trip was something of a milestone. He went to Jodhpur where around 60 socialites from Bombay and Delhi flew in for a night to attend a Dom Pérignon dinner. Then, there was a second dinner at Delhi’s Le Cirque for another 35 or so high-rollers.

Sadly, I did not make it to either of these glitzy events, but just before Richard took an Air France flight back to Paris, we had a quiet, private dinner at Megu (Richard was staying at the Delhi Leela) to talk about Dom Pérignon and wine in general. were joined by the engaging Gaurav Bhatia from Moët et Chandon who brought along two bottles of Dom: the 2003, which is the current vintage, and a 2000 rosé. I wanted Richard’s opinion on a wider range of Dom Pérignon vintages so I took along two bottles of my own: the 1999 and 1998 vintages.

Megu’s chef Achal Aggarwal planned a champagne-friendly menu but as the meal went on, I persuaded the Leela to bring in food from their other restaurants, the award-winning Le Cirque and Jamavar. As you can imagine, we ate well and drank rather too well.

Dom Pérignon is the most famous premium champagne in the world (and the leader in its market segment), but it is also the sort of champagne that is only made in those years when the grape quality is outstanding. So there are more years when Dom Pérignon is not made than those when the champagne is bottled and a vintage declared.

French wine is about terroir, a word that is probably untranslatable in English but which takes in the soil, the microclimate, the location and many other factors. While wines in the New World (America, Australia etc.) are usually grouped together by grape variety: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot etc., the French regard the grapes, though important, as secondary to the terroir. So their wines are identified by location: Champagne, Chablis, Bordeaux, etc., are all names of places.

For the French, wine is essentially an agricultural product, a means of taking the flavour of the soil (or the terroir) and putting it into a bottle. Richard Geoffroy, for instance, comes from a family that has made champagne for several generations but he sees himself primarily as a farmer. When he was young, he broke away from the family tradition and went to medical school. But he soon came back because, as he says, “When your family has roots in the land, then all farmers are drawn back to their soil.”

Unlike many great and famous French wines that are the product of a single vineyard in a single year (say Lafite or Latour or one of the seven Grand Crus of Chablis), champagne has always been different. Most champagne – even the kind made by top brands like Moët et Chandon or Bollinger or Taittinger – is neither vintage nor the product of a single vineyard.

The champagne houses usually buy the grapes from the hundreds of small farmers who own vineyards in the region and then blend the wine. Because each brand has a house-style – non-vintage Moët et Chandon will taste roughly the same, year after year – champagne-makers combine the wine from each year’s vintage with reserve wines, preserved from previous years, to make a champagne that conforms to the house-style.

Champagne costs at least twice as much as (and often much more than) regular champagne and the houses justify this price on the grounds that most premium wines are only made in very good years from the best grapes grown that season. Some, like Cristal, for instance, are not only vintage (i.e. from a single year’s grapes not from blends with reserve wines) but also from a single vineyard. One or two others, like Krug Grande Cuvée, for instance, are not vintage wines but justify their high prices on the grounds that they use great grapes and are blended by masters.

Dom Pérignon has long foxed the wine world because its production is so massive. The exact number of bottles produced each year remains a secret (three million? four million?) but everyone agrees that it dwarfs the production of Cristal and Krug, its two most famous rivals. Once upon a time, Moët et Chandon (who own the brand) used to claim that all the grapes were grown on their own vineyards but now they make the more realistic claim that it does not matter who owns the land because Dom Pérignon has the means and the reputation to buy the best grapes grown anywhere in the Champagne region.

However, Geoffroy denies the rumour that Dom production goes up each year. He admits it went up in the early 1990s but says it has stayed much the same since then. Further, he says, he is not sure that they have good enough grapes to produce more Dom than they already do. (Why doesn’t the market run out of Dom? Because, even though production remains the same, they declare more vintages than before. This means that more Dom is supplied to the market each decade even though annual production is tightly controlled.)

One reason why Geoffroy (who has been the wine-maker at Dom since 1990) is such a superstar is because he has achieved the impossible: to produce a premium wine in such massive quantities without any drop in quality, even in years when other champagne houses are not sure about the excellence of the harvest. Further, not only does each bottle of Dom Pérignon have that signature, silky smooth taste, vintage after vintage, but Geoffroy’s skills are such that there is enough room within each vintage for the wine to express the character of the year in which the grapes were harvested.

For the Indian palate: The Dom Pérignon Rosé 2000 went brilliantly with the biryani at our dinner; there is no better accompaniment to Indian food than rosé champagne

Most of us think of champagne as a celebratory wine to be drunk on its own and forget that a good champagne is a great wine, on par with the best wines of Burgundy. The only reason it is relatively affordable these days (compared to, say, the Grands Crus of Bordeaux) is because, fortunately enough, the Chinese have not yet taken to it and have not sent prices sky-rocketing as they have done with Bordeaux.

All great wines should be drunk with food, so that night at Megu we first tried the wines and then attempted to match them with the right dishes. Richard thought the 2003 stood up easily to wasabi and other Japanese flavours. Speaking for myself, I thought that mushrooms (Achal sautéd some fresh shitake) brought out the minerality of the wine.

Of the other vintages, we liked the 1998 the most, though Richard remembered it as having been a difficult harvest in Champagne. It was a perfectly balanced wine, with every note in harmony, a great expression of everything that makes Dom Pérignon such a great wine. Richard had not been sure about how the 1999 would have held up over time but we were pleasantly surprised to find how delicious it was.

In terms of food, all the Doms stood up to pretty much everything that the Leela could throw at us. Mickey Bhoite from Le Cirque sent down a porcini risotto with white truffle shavings which was perfect but even a wagyu carpaccio did not interfere too much with Dom.

The real surprise for all of us though was the mutton biryani from Jamavar. Described as a Hyderabadi biryani, it was spicier (more Andhra than Hyderabad) than I expected. But Richard took one mouthful and said, “This is crying out for the Rosé!” And indeed it was. The Dom Pérignon Rosé 2000 went brilliantly, illustrating my point that there is no better accompaniment to Indian food than rosé champagne.

The Indian champagne market is small compared to the spirits sectors. But Moët et Chandon appears to own it (around 60-70 per cent market share, I would guess). Somebody in the company has had the sense to realise that this is the one wine that all middle-class Indians will drink at some stage. And if Richard continues to visit India and host big-time events then even the market for Dom may finally take off. Because premium champagne is the only wine that even non-wine lovers can easily learn to appreciate.

From HT Brunch, December 30

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