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.
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