A glass was immediately proffered – and take note, not a flute but a proper white wine glass in which the evolved aromas of these fine wines could be nosed properly. Half the joy of Champagne, as in fact of every other wine, is in its smell. This is even more true of fine and vintage Champagnes: scents of citrus, brioche and chalk, of honey and oatmeal can be discerned and also much more fleeting things: a suspicion of wild strawberries, of wet earth or of fir honey. Such impressions of course beg to be documented: many a Champagne fiend was scribbling down tasting notes, in small, black, well-used Moleskine books, on the small tasting sheet, on tablets and laptops. Lifting my head to breathe in and contemplate the particular scent of the Dom Ruinart alerted me to beautiful, tall bouquets of dark amaryllis. Champagne in itself is a pleasure but one that is even more enriching in beautiful surroundings. Exquisite, small canapés were served, another element of pleasure. Amidst many friendly encounters and the exchange of fizz-focussed impressions this aperitif hour passed quickly.
Ushered into the adjoining salon, we took our seats around small, round tables. All set with glasses and note paper. Finest Bubble founder Nick Baker spoke a few words but handed over speedily to Richard Bampfield MW who was to be our master of ceremonies for a horizontal tasting of the 1998 vintage.
What followed then was eye-opening: the next two Champagnes were poured side by side. In fact, the only way to learn about wine, any wine, is to taste it side by side with its peers and to fathom both what unites and differentiates them. In our glasses were Dom Pérignon 1998 and Dom Pérignon 1998 P2. To explain: P2 stands for ‘second plenitude’, a concept introduced by Dom Pérignonearlier this year which replaces its former Oenothequeseries and puts the focus on vintages aged on their lees for extended periods and disgorged late. VintageChampagnes, of course, are also aged longer than NVs, however, Dom Pérignon 1998 was first released in 2005 with subsequent disgorgements, so the ‘straight’ vintage 1998 bottle had somewhere between seven or eight years on lees plus eight or nine years of bottle ageing, whereas the P2 had somewhere between 13 and 14 on its lees and a year or two of bottle age. The difference was like night and day, truly astonishing. DP 1998 was everything a mature vintage Champagne should be: rounded, generous with rich autolytic aromas of rye bread crumbs, brioche crust and lots of citrusy yet rounded chalkiness.
Next up – while we were still getting our heads around those astonishing siblings of DP – was the Krug 1998. Richard pointed out that unusually, in the 1998 vintage, Krug was dominated by Chardonnay. It was yet another incarnation of Champenois excellence: here we had a savoury wine with a fascinatingly long and nuanced finish: a salty notion and developed umami notes that are also prevalent in soy sauce. Exquisite concentration and vigour corseted the richness of the palate. Here is a Champagne that cries out for food, it would be an ideal match for delicate veal or even lighter game birds.Our last wine of this sensational vertical was Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame Rose 1998. Here Richard delved a little into the history of rosé Champagne, its tentative beginnings, chequered trajectory and eventual success. The great lady’s usually rosy hues had turned to salmon pink and where there once were fresh, wild strawberries there now appeared wonderful notions of dried cranberry and crushed rose petals. It reminded me how often rosé Champagnes are drunk far too young – but then again, who could be blamed for doing that? Perhaps the only solution is to buy enough to drink it both young, mature and white it is developing.
By now, we had five glasses in front of us and we were able to go back and forth, smell and taste again. The Champagnes had developed in the glass, had become themselves even more. They were clearly distinguishable, like four personalities added to our table. Had we had another ten Champagnes there would have been another ten distinct personalities. Champagne is like that – but even more so than other wines it is joyous. The bubbles add extra vigour; life and energy. People talk of Champagne in the singular – perhaps we should all start to talk of it in the plural – Champagnes – because each and every one is different and totally worth encountering.