2012 was definitely full of surprises, from a challenging growing season to a quasi-perfect harvest. Such a chaotic vintage calls upon our flexibility and humility: to react to unprecedented conditions, to escape conformism, to take risks and to hold back or push forward as required. Although these are the fundamental values of Dom Pérignon, 2012 pushed them to their limits. I felt such an elusive yet assertive vintage reinforces the mysterious aura of Dom Pérignon. New situations invite creative solutions and force clear decisions: the wine is but the sum of these events.
The growing season itself was challenging to say the least. Fortunately the harvest period was more positive (and in a way more straightforward) with nice weather, slow and steady maturation, and perfect sanitary conditions. Acknowledging this, our approach was to aim for maximum maturity while retaining as much freshness as possible. The balance between richness, intensity and acidity is close to some of the greatest vintages ever, such as 1952.
However the truth always lies in the glass; tasting the wines is the real test. The first impression mirrors the character of the vintage: assertive and free-spirited, built on a complex, sinuous history. The fruit and the intensity both point to a no-holds-barred vintage, while the sharp acidity already balances out the expressive maturity. The wines still feel raw at this stage, of course. Only time can smooth them out, refine their qualities, and allow us to assess how they might stand the test of decades.
Back in July, the prognosis for the 2012 vintage looked rather bleak, after several months of rain (more than twice the amount usually seen in the region). This naturally lead to concerns regarding both downy mildew (at a level comparable to 1997) and powdery mildew (superior to 2004). The parcels affected were limited geographically, though, which makes the selection process easier. Thankfully six uninterrupted weeks of sun and warm weather since the end of July, combined with the necessary water accumulated in the soils drastically changed the situation, and the future is looking very promising indeed.
In any case, 2012 will be a year of low quantities, even though we were lucky not to be particularly affected by frost (10% loss overall in the region) or hail. Limited quantities can turn into a boon, though, if the remaining grapes are in perfect sanitary condition and moving steadily towards the precise level of maturity we hope for—and this is exactly what we are seeing right now. Furthermore, despite the rather high projected sugar levels, the berries retain a high acidity. This in turn reminds us of the 1996 vintage, although any comparison is obviously premature.
We are planning to begin with the harvest tomorrow, not only based on hard facts but also the tasting of the grapes themselves: they start to display very intense, yet fresh aromatics. Join me again after the harvest to check whether our hopes were fulfilled.
From 2003 to 2011, from one challenge to the next: this is exactly how I felt as I came back to Hautvillers to create the assemblage for 2011. The 2003 Dom Pérignon declaration has brought back memories of one of the most challenging vintages ever, which turned out to be extremely inspiring and motivating. And I am proud to say that as far as 2003 Dom Pérignon is concerned, the reward is commensurate with the risk! Although 2011 has little in common with 2003, they provoke the same sensation in me: years of extremes, with an unusual climate and a strong character.
2011 was definitely atypical, with a rare phenomenon of inverted seasons: incredibly warm and dry weather before flowering, which hinted at an early harvest; followed by cooler temperatures and beneficial soft rains over the summer. The grape maturation cycle, which generally lasts until September, was confined fully to the month of August and its typical alternance of heat and thunderstorms. In the end we decided to harvest a bit later than planned (but still earlier than usual) and in several phases to reach perfect maturity and sanitary conditions across the vineyards. Tough decisions had to be made as the harvest progressed, calling on our teams’ flexibility and adaptability, such as the need to postpone the harvest by a full week for most of the Chardonnay Grand Cru vineyards of the Côte de Blancs. Our efforts to create new markers and indicators of maturity found their full significance during this unconventional harvest. It is worth noting that no harvest took place in August between 1822 and 2003, but this circumstance presented itself three times (2003, 2007 and 2011) in the last ten years: all the experience accumulated with these specific conditions during recent vintages will certainly end up being very useful in the near future.
Picking the best possible grapes is obviously only one step in a lengthy journey to create the best champagne I can. I am focusing right now on blending the various components of 2011, trying to reach the perfect balance. Only when the final assemblage has been achieved can we move on to the decision of declaring the vintage or not. The aim is the same as ever: letting the personality of the vintage shine while staying true to the legacy and style of Dom Pérignon.
The harvest ended more than one week ago: I wish we could rest and enjoy the current Indian summer but there is still a lot of work to be done. Bringing the crop in is a real achievement in itself, but the winemaking part is still in progress and will require considerable efforts before we can finally relax. The base wines will not be finished and ready for tasting before early November.
The harvest itself went reasonably well. As I mentioned before, the maturity of the grapes has reached very satisfying, largely above average levels, a relative surprise given the weather conditions over the summer. Chardonnays were healthy and the botrytis in the Pinot Noirs was to a large extent a non-issue—we only had to pay attention at the time of picking. However the very last days of the harvest were quite rainy and it was really time to finish. This harvest leaves us all with the great feeling of having done our utmost: good things should come out of it, but it is hard to say more right now. As usual, patience is key.