Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to take part in an intriguing experiment. The brainchild of Dom Pérignon’s ebullient chef de cave Richard Geoffroy, having entered the “space ship,” as he called it, we were about to shoot into orbit. Every word Geoffroy utters has a touch of the cosmic about it. He speaks in long, often impenetrable sentences, occasionally exciting himself with his own brilliance. He’s a wonderful showman and hugely entertaining company.
Our space ship turned out to be the sprawling, 19th century 5* château hotel Les Crayères in Reims, set in a 17-acre landscaped park. My expansive room was exquisite, prettified with toile wallpaper, white orchids, scarlet tassels and an ornate gold mirror above the writing desk. Luxuriating in the opulence of it all, I flicked though a book on Titian and Tintoretto left on the coffee table, nibbled the trio of chocolates left out by the maid, then quickly changed for dinner.
Beginning in the tartan clad bar with a palate cleansing glass of DP 2003 – a rich, powerful vintage I’m growing ever fonder of, proceedings quickly moved to the two Michelin-starred Les Crayères restaurant, a magnificent, chandelier-filled room boasting verdant tapestries, swagged curtains and a grand dining table cutting through it. Taking my seat, Geoffroy sprung into action. “I believe temperature has a profound effect on the flavour profile of Champagne,” he offered.
In order to test this theory out, we were to be guinea pigs in a temperature control experiment with the 1996 vintage of DP Oenothèque – one of the best Champagne vintages in recent history. Titled IV-VIII-XVI, the experiment would explore the effect temperature has on the expression and characteristics of Oenothèque ‘96, degree by degree, by slowing down the maturation process of the Champagne and suspending it in its various states for as long as possible.
The roman numerals refer to the number of glasses used (4), the different temperature stages (8), and the end temperature of the wine (16 degrees). “I chose the 1996 Oenothèque because I needed a vintage with a broad range of expressions, and a wine with concentration and depth. It has the capacity to open out in a range of aromas and tastes, making it a wine that truly breathes. I’m convinced it will lead us to the heart of this journey,” Geoffroy explained excitedly.
Over the course of two hours, eight different dishes, from bracing saline oysters in a seawater granita, and rich, creamy mussel soup, to tea smoked basmati rice with mushroom tobacco, and an almond-flecked lamb tagine, were served to compliment the aroma and flavour differences in the wine at each of the eight stages. With the room temperature set at 20 degrees, we were poured a bottle of Oenothèque ‘96 (disgorged in 2008) into four glasses set in an open topped box with chilled panels to slow down the temperature increase of the wine.
The wines were then tasted every 15 minutes, from left to right and then right to left, with the wine raising in temperature from eight to 15/16 degrees by the end of the night, revealing eight different 15-minute aromatic sequences. Fascinatingly, there were perceptible differences in the wine at each of the eight stages, moving from mineral at 8º, honeyed at 9º, zesty at 10º, buttery at 11º, earthy at 12º, truffly at 13º, smoky at 14º, and nutty at 15/16º.
During the dinner, I made the comparison between the different stages of seduction. At its coldest, the wine was shy and tight – fully clothed if you will. But as the evening drew on and the temperature increased, it began to reveal itself, opening up and becoming more confident and expressive at every stage, moving from steely and mineral, through a wonderful citrus stage and an earthy autumnal period, and finally emerging into its full nutty, honeyed glory.
“I decided to do this because I wanted to push the boundaries of experimentation to lead me to a new understanding of the mysteries of the wine,” Geoffroy revealed at the end of the night, amid declarations that he’s moving into the world of fine and rare tea and is working on a high profile celebrity hook-up that he can’t reveal yet. Which did he think was the ultimate temperature to enjoy Dom Pérignon at its fullest expression? “12 degrees; there’s truth in that temperature.”