RIPENESS IS ALL

THE SEC­OND RE­LEASE OF A DOM PERIGNON VIN­TAGE IS AN OC­CA­SION TO BE SAVOURED. FOR THE LAUNCH OF THE P2 2000 IN BEI­JING – THE NEW FRON­TIER FOR FINE WINE – ONLY ALAIN DUCASSE WOULD DO.

The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING W - STORY PENNY DURHAM

We are stand­ing in near-dark­ness in the chilly base­ment of Bei­jing’s Chao Ho­tel. At each of our in­di­vid­ual ta­bles stands a glass and a bot­tle of cham­pagne la­belled with a dis­tinc­tive coat of arms. Af­ter wait­ers have poured us each a taste, mu­sic swells and the modernist, monochrome in­te­rior is il­lu­mi­nated with a coloured light show. I should be to­tally im­mersed in the wine – in its har­mony, tonic­ity and long glide to the fin­ish – but, like ev­ery­one else, I’m tak­ing pho­tos of ev­ery­one else tak­ing pho­tos of this spec­ta­cle for In­sta­gram.

It’s pre-din­ner drinks of a the­atri­cal­ity that only Dom Pérignon could stage. WISH is here in Bei­jing’s up­mar­ket San­l­i­tun dis­trict, with a few dozen other pub­li­ca­tions from Asia and In­dia, to ex­pe­ri­ence the launch of the mai­son’s P2 2000, or Sec­ond Plen­i­tude – mean­ing full­ness or ripeness – of the vin­tage from the year 2000. Dom Pérignon, the pres­tige cu­vée of Moët & Chan­don, makes only vin­tages (all grapes har­vested in one year) of pinot-chardon­nay blends, which are dis­gorged at a care­fully cho­sen time about eight years later (P1), then about eight years later again (P2), and then per­haps a third time, and so on.

A plen­i­tude, says Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave Richard Ge­of­froy, is “a pe­riod of ra­di­ance, seren­ity, light­ness of be­ing, when the wine stands up and speaks out and tells us an ex­cit­ing enough story to be worth an­other re­lease”. The in­ter­vals be­tween plen­i­tudes vary, he says, ac­cord­ing to the na­ture of the vin­tage, the char­ac­ter of the sea­sons, the chem­istry of the year. What is con­stant is that Dom Pérignon takes its time, wait­ing un­til the per­fect ripeness: “Since we all now live at a hec­tic pace, hold­ing time back is the ul­ti­mate lux­ury.”

To cel­e­brate this par­tic­u­lar sec­ond com­ing, none other than Alain Ducasse, France’s most fa­mous culi­nary ex­port (and now a loyal cit­i­zen of Monaco), is cook­ing us din­ner. There are 12 dishes in four cour­ses, all but the last in­volv­ing truf­fles, black and white – the white truf­fles are the only in­gre­di­ent that is not lo­cally sourced. The rest is Chi­nese pro­duce cooked in a French way and served in com­mu­nal dishes on a lazy su­san: truf­fled croque-mon­sieur, veg­etable cromesquis, chilled lan­goustines, spiced duck foie gras, tur­bot with gold caviar, huge scal­lops – at which point Ducasse him­self ap­pears to shave white truf­fle on our plates, to wide­spread swoon­ing – duck breast, smoked potato mous­se­line and more, fol­lowed by con­fit and iced straw­ber­ries and cham­pagne granita.

Dur­ing this ex­tra­or­di­nary meal, we drink only P2 (not in flutes but in tra­di­tional glasses, as is now en­cour­aged, to al­low the wine to ex­press it­self fully). Match­ing wines to dishes is an obli­ga­tion that has grown well out of hand in the west, Ge­of­froy says; this way, with many dishes re­volv­ing around one wine, we get to ex­pe­ri­ence P2 in the round, from every an­gle.

In a chal­leng­ing year of al­ter­nat­ing cold and warmth, the 2000 vin­tage was “a small mir­a­cle”, says Ge­of­froy, who speaks al­most in verse when de­scrib­ing his lat­est cre­ation – or dis­cov­ery, as he would humbly pre­fer you to think of it. In a phrase that de­fies elu­ci­da­tion, he speaks

of the “in­so­lent co­her­ence” of P2. Com­pared with P1, he says there is “way more to P2 – a mag­ni­fied Dom Perignon char­ac­ter”, and an es­pe­cially long fin­ish, which, with ap­pro­pri­ate hand ges­tures, he calls “the glide”.

“Yeast mat­u­ra­tion makes the wine more sub­stan­tial, more textured, more in­tense ver­ti­cally and hor­i­zon­tally and even­tu­ally more com­plex,” Ge­of­froy says. “There is bet­ter mouth­feel, more in­ten­sity, en­ergy, vi­brancy, pre­ci­sion. P1 is very fine, the aro­mat­ics would be yel­lower – P2 is more grey, sil­ver, smog, toast; and the ma­jor salient dif­fer­ence is the sec­ond half, from mid­dle palate to fin­ish. P2 is very con­tin­ued, hold­ing the note and glid­ing, whereas P1 zips out more rapidly. Many oth­ers are puck­er­ing with acid, this is more aro­mat­ics-driven. The glide, the Dom Pérignon glide, the surf.” He com­pares the P2 to a pointil­liste paint­ing – “so many facets, lay­ers, scin­til­lat­ing all to­gether”.

A fel­low guest, a food and wine writer from Sin­ga­pore, says en­coun­ter­ing a sec­ond plen­i­tude is like meet­ing an old friend or lover: you break the ice, re­mem­ber what was good about your re­la­tion­ship and find that they – or you both – have ma­tured and mel­lowed. WISH can­not top that.

For his part, Ducasse tastes Ge­of­froy him­self in the wine – that is to say, “the per­son­al­ity of Richard and his quest for per­fec­tion”. The pair met 25 years ago through a com­mon friend in Monte Carlo, and have worked to­gether on small projects, but say they have only now ma­tured enough to col­lab­o­rate on this scale. “Now is the right time,” says Ge­of­froy on the af­ter­noon be­fore the din­ner – “like the wine.”

“[The event] is about pre­serv­ing the ele­gance of the wine and de­vel­op­ing our own per­cep­tion of high-end French cui­sine adapted to lo­cal pro­duce,” Ducasse con­tin­ues. “That was very im­por­tant for us, to re­spect lo­cal in­gre­di­ents.”

“The din­ner is true to Alain’s sta­tus with the con­straint of lo­cal in­gre­di­ents,” Ge­of­froy says. “As with a vin­tage, cre­ativ­ity comes from con­straints. We turn con­straint into the op­por­tu­nity of sur­pass­ing our­selves.”

Bei­jing was cho­sen for the launch of P2 2000, Ge­of­froy says, be­cause of its his­tory and cul­ture, and its sta­tus as a cap­i­tal of cui­sine and gas­tron­omy: “Bei­jing is one of the great, great cities of the world, the cap­i­tal of his­tory, tra­di­tion and progress, pro­ject­ing it­self with con­fi­dence into the fu­ture.”

But, as Ducasse adds more prag­mat­i­cally, China is also the great new fron­tier in the mar­ket­ing of fine wine: “The pub­lic is here, the au­di­ence is in­ter­ested, cu­ri­ous.” (Next stop: In­dia.)

Dom Pérignon, they agree, can al­ways meet food half­way, even the of­ten pun­gently sea­soned food of Asia – so far from Hautvillers in north­east­ern France, where 17th-cen­tury Bene­dic­tine monk and cel­lar mas­ter Dom Pierre Pérignon pi­o­neered tech­niques for clar­i­fy­ing, blend­ing and balanc­ing. Food juste epicé – cor­rectly, mod­er­ately sea­soned – won’t en­gulf the wine that car­ries the Dom’s name, which is “pen­e­trat­ing and pierc­ing in char­ac­ter, with ver­ti­cal­ity, depth”.

“The ca­pac­ity of Dom Pérignon to meet up with food is ex­treme,” the chef de cave says. “Dom Pérignon

“Yeast mat­u­ra­tion makes the wine more sub­stan­tial, more textured, more in­tense and even­tu­ally more com­plex.”

thrives on umami, be­cause it is umami it­self. It can take some spice.”

As the in­ter­view wraps I ask what it was like to cook for Don­ald and Me­la­nia – this event was post­poned from July to De­cem­ber when French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron sud­denly asked Ducasse to cook for the Trumps in Paris, fol­low­ing the G20 sum­mit. The chef’s Gal­lic non­cha­lance breaks for the first time into an un­guarded grin, and a groan – but all he will con­fide is that Dom Pérignon was served be­fore din­ner.

Speak­ing at the P2 din­ner that night – the Man­darin in­ter­preter is at one point left be­hind for sev­eral min­utes in his frothy wake – Ge­of­froy em­pha­sises the du­al­ity at the heart of Dom Pérignon: just as it blends ro­bust chardon­nay and fickle pinot noir, it com­bines play­ful­ness and se­ri­ous­ness. The re­sult is har­mony. “It’s in­ten­sity lead­ing to emo­tion and emo­tion to mem­ory,” he says. “We are mem­ory mak­ers. When we can’t reach har­mony, in­ten­sity, emo­tion, mem­ory, we write the vin­tage off.”

When we meet again the morn­ing af­ter the suc­cess­ful soirée, Ge­of­froy beams with re­laxed, tri­umphant op­ti­mism. “I’m so much richer from this en­counter,” he says, look­ing around our in­ter­na­tional group. “We have the op­por­tu­nity of be­ing bet­ter in­di­vid­u­als. I’m so con­fi­dent, and wine is part of it be­cause wine has the ca­pac­ity to bring peo­ple to­gether. Last night we were 40 peo­ple from di­verse ori­gins – maybe many won’t meet again. But get­ting to­gether and hav­ing Alain Ducasse shav­ing the white truf­fle, it’s just mag­i­cal – I’m pinch­ing my­self!”

His con­fi­dence ex­tends into the fu­ture, with a world be­com­ing “bet­ter and bet­ter: more so­phis­ti­cated, more con­scious of so many things, more con­nected – there are so many pos­i­tives”. Even the great­est source of global pes­simism has ben­e­fited his busi­ness: while he does not want to be seen to ex­ult in global warm­ing, more hot years has meant more fre­quent vin­tages, with 2000, 03, 05, 06 and 09 all de­clared.

“Cli­mate change: it’s a fact. Who could deny it? At the mo­ment I’m eas­ily cop­ing with this: the aro­mat­ics are more overt, more fruit-driven, I’m happy; acids are lower, softer, rounder, I’m happy; I want these vin­tages to be sub­stan­tial, not too lean, not too taut, not too tren­chant or ag­gres­sive; and global warm­ing makes the yields in the vine­yards more steady, makes ripe vin­tage­able years more fre­quent.” He is mak­ing grad­ual tech­ni­cal changes in the win­ery, and viti­cul­tural changes may be nec­es­sary in the fu­ture. The chang­ing cli­mate may cease to be a boon, even for him, but here too he finds some­thing to be hope­ful about.

“I think hu­man in­tel­li­gence is de­fined by its abil­ity to cope with sit­u­a­tions, so what’s valid to my wine­mak­ing is valid for hu­man­ity: maybe global warm­ing will bring peo­ple to­gether. Maybe a neg­a­tive is a pos­i­tive. In­stead of the petty con­flicts, maybe the threat will bring us to­gether to cope, be­cause the only an­swer will be col­lec­tive. Even the rich­est guys can’t man­age alone. Maybe we col­lec­tively rep­re­sent more than all the Trumps on the planet.”

Let’s all raise a glass to that.

“Get­ting to­gether and hav­ing Alain Ducasse shav­ing the white truf­fle, it’s just mag­i­cal – I’m pinch­ing my­self!”

An in­di­vid­ual tast­ing ta­ble in the base­ment of Bei­jing’s Chao Ho­tel

Left: Chef Alain Ducasse shav­ing truf­fles Sea scal­lops with let­tuce-tartufi di Alba, white truf­fles and a glass of P2

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