Review: Champagne Dom Perignon 1996 – Tasting Notes and Thoughts

Dom Perignon 1996 – Those words alone should raise some brows amongst serious Champagne aficionados. In the wonderful world of Champagne, there is perhaps no wine more famous than the iconically shaped bottles of Dom Perignon – and, at the same time, perhaps none more controversial! Add to that the fate of the 1996 Champagne vintage – once unanimously hailed as the vintage of the century, now suddenly questioned by many experts – and this Champagne review should be an interesting read indeed.

A freshly poured glass of Dom Perignon 1996

The iconic Dom Perignon 1996 in all her glory!

Let it be known from the start, very few Champagne lovers deny that Dom Perignon is a superbly well-produced and iconic Champagne. As a matter of fact, many great wine reviewers hold older bottles of Dom Perignon in very high regard – and rightfully so. Dom Perignon, if kept and treated properly, will blossom beautifully with age.

However, Dom Perignon is also expensive, starting at well over $100 per standard bottle at release and escalating WELL into the thousands of dollars for older and/or larger bottles. As a result, Dom Perignon has earned a (somewhat justified) reputation of being a rich kid Champagne – opened in numbers at finer establishments around the world as a vulgar display of purchasing power – often in its very infancy without having had a chance to show its true potential.

Dom Perignon, you see, is usually released some eight years after harvest but takes considerably longer than that to truly shine. As a result, far too many bottles of Dom Perignon are opened far too early in their life for fairly obvious reasons: While some may have the setup and willpower needed to purchase a case at release and store for the ten, twenty or more years needed to release its true potential, most of us probably haven’t. And so we’re left with two choices, drink our Champagne young, or do what I did: put our trust and money in the hands of a wine merchant or brokers and the heavily fluctuating prices of a volatile wine market.

Which is not the most affordable option, might I add. At the time of this writing, a well-stored 21 year-old specimen from 1996 will set you back a good $400-500 – worth it? Let’s review it and find out! Then afterwards discuss how you best get your hands on an older bottle of vintage Champagne, should you desire to copy my move.

A bottle of Dom Perignon 1996 and two tins of Danish Caviar from Lyksvad

If you’re going to pay $450 for a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996, you may as well go all in and get a few tins of local Danish Caviar to go along!

 

1996: A Controversial Year for Champagne

The year 1996 has held a special meaning to Champagne geeks around the world and it may well be the most talked about and highly debated vintage of all time:

Not long after harvest, 1996 was quickly hailed by growers, producers and wine lovers alike as a force to be reckoned with.  Many quickly ventured into labeling it with a number of superlatives: perhaps as good as the iconic 1928, perhaps the vintage of the century, possibly even the best vintage ever!

What made this iconic vintage so special, apparently, was a combination climate, atmospheric conditions and just plain coincidence:

A troubled flowering followed by seesaw summer weather with interchanging rain and sunny periods followed by downright heavy rains in September and a quick burst of heat just prior to picking somehow resulted in grapes that were full of flavor, sugars and acidity. These three things combined are essential to crafting long-lived quality vintage Champagnes and the very characteristics of the 1996 grape material showed, according to experts, promises of being the best vintage in recent history if not in our lifetime.

As is so often the case, rumor of great things to come spread like a wild-fire in the wine world and both prices and expectations soon sky-rocketed and kept doing so for years until not long ago when experts in droves started reversing their initial opinions, stating that the vintage may have mostly been carried forth on high hopes, clever marketing and hype.

In recent years, experts have very vocally revised their opinions on the iconic vintage. Decanter, for example, gave reasonably modest reviews for many top bottles from the 1996 vintage, including a 91 points rating for Dom Perignon. Not a bad score as such, but certainly not the score of the century either. Even more notably, highly regarded wine writer and early proponent of the 1996 vintage, Jancis Robertson, in an iconic piece titled 1996 Champagne – Still sparkling? argued that many 1996 bottles had lost their breath and that only true giants like Cristal, Krug and the recently disgorged and very expensive Dom Perignon 1996 Oenotheèue showed any real potential for the future.

The general consensus amongst experts now seems to be that while acidity remained high in many 1996 bottles, a shocking amount had started losing their fruit and character well before reaching perfect balance and drinkability. Not really the news you want to receive not long after investing a fair amount of money into the vintage.

Details of the bottle of Champagne Krug 1996

Apparently, Krug 1996 is where it’s at. Luckily, I also got a bottle of this particular Champagne while I was out spending money…

Had 1996 Champagne lost its fizz? Had purchasing and meticulously storing a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996 proved a silly mistake? There was but one way to find out. So on one not so average evening, during a Caviar tasting for a future blog post, Tina and I popped our most expensive and iconic bottle of Champagne to date.

 

Tasting Dom Perignon 1996

Quite surprisingly, the 1996 Dom Perignon opens with a surprising, refreshing pop and a mist of smoke, limestone and stone fruit which slowly rises from the neck of the bottle.

The first, gentle pour reveals a wine that shows no immediate signs of having spent the last two decades in a bottle: it pours a surprisingly light, barely golden, yellowish hue with an astonishing amount of perfect, little bubbles that rise vigorously from the bottom of the glass and break happily across the surface, showing no sign of fatigue after a lengthy imprisonment in the bottle.

Close-up of perfect bubbles in a glass of Dom Perignon 1996

Vibrant, lively bubbles in a glass of Dom Perignon 1996. Had I not known, I would have never guessed this to be a 21 year old wine!

Upon first taste, it becomes shockingly clear that the 1996 Dom does not suffer the same faded fruit issue that some 1996 Champagnes are accused of. On the contrary, it seems almost entirely too young and not quite ready to act its age.

The initial taste has that wonderful signature young Dom Perignon touch: a flowery/fruity twist of fresh exotic fruits, pear and green apples blending with jasmine flowers on a mineral backdrop of limestone and chalk. Only in the aftertaste does it reveal its true age as a myriad of deeper, aged notes – toasted  brioche, nuts, mushrooms and coffee – start fighting for attention against the immediate freshness.

As for the famed, raging acidity of the 1996 vintage, it’s very much still there and even after 21 years is still going strong. However, in the case of this Dom Perignon 1996, it has faded mercifully and now serves as an accent to the fruit rather than an over-powering, dominant force. It’s not yet perfectly integrated but it’s getting there and in doing so expresses hope for further development for this iconic wine.

But wait, it gets better. We shared the bottle over the evening and discovered that if left some time in the glass to aerate and grow, the 1996 Dom rewards the drinker with a multitude of expressions that range from at first young and vibrant to eventually rich, creamy and almost fully developed. With time in the glass, it opened up fully, rewarding us with a fruitiness that warped from fresh and vibrant into notes of baked apples and poached pears on a bed of secondary notes of baked sourdough, mushrooms, cream and toffee.

Is this slow development from young and fresh to aged and beautiful a sign of things to come? I shan’t say. At 21 years, Dom Perignon 1996 is the oldest bottle I’ve had to date but hopefully not my last mature Dom Perignon experience. Having made my way through the 2005 (review here), 2002 (review here) and 1996 vintages I can safely say that Dom Perignon despite its somewhat lacquered reputation is a force to be reckoned with. It starts its life vibrant, fresh, and underplayed, ages gracefully and slowly before finally starting to show its true form and potential as it travels past its teenage years. It took me three tries to finally understand that legend that is Dom Perignon, but by God I finally get it now.

 

Summing up Dom Perignon 1996: Thoughts and Score

Has 1996 Dom Perignon lost its fizz? If this bottle is anything to go by, then certainly not so. Rather, it’s showing signs of having a long and interesting life ahead of it. For now, it’s the perfect bridge between a young (in so far as 21 years old can be called young), vibrant Champagne and a beautifully aged, more voluminous masterpiece.

A glass of Dom Perignon 1996 compared to a glass of Krug 1996

Two legends side by side: A glass of Dom Perignon 1996 alongside Krug 1996 – notice the considerably more golde, aged appearance of the Krug.

Now, as far as ratings go, the wine world stands divided. Respected wine magazine Decanter rated this a somewhat meager 91 points while Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate on the other hand nearly maxed out at 98(?) points. The truth, in the eyes of this reviewer with no personal bias to lean on, is somewhere between the two. I’ll, in fact, be controversial here and rate 1996 Dom Perignon exactly as highly as the (vastly different and more voluptuous) 1996 Krug I enjoyed beside it.

 

1996 Cuvée Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon, Épernay, France: 96 Points

 

Experiences like this clearly show that there are spectacular bottles of 1996 Champagne still out there, but finding them may take some persistence, investment and perhaps even luck. While the lesser 1996 Champagnes may be dying off, the giants of the vintage are still very much alive and are performing beautifully right now – if they have been treated well in the past 21 years of their lives, that is. Vintage Champagne probably more so than other wines is prone to bottle variation. Every single bottle of Champagne is essentially its own little microcosm of yeast, sugar and bubbles which have undergone secondary fermentation in the bottle and is often kept for a plethora of years. Under such circumstances, the exact content of the bottle certainly matters but as does storage and transportation conditions and external factors such as temperature, humidity and vibration.

So how do we make sure we procure a good bottle if we decide follow this review that we want to taste greatness? I’m glad you asked!

 

Buying vintage Champagne: A quick guide

First thing you will need to acknowledge and accept when sourcing vintage Champagne (and other great wines with age) is that there is always a certain risk that the project ends in disappointment or failure.

Most Cuvée Prestige Champagnes are built for the long haul and many age extraordinarily well. But even so, wine is a natural product and no matter the amount of technology, skill or thought involved in the production process, is still prone to variation, errors, faulty corks and damages caused by poor storage conditions.

Bottle variation, sadly, is a thing as are wine flaws and there is nothing we can do about it. We can however limit our chances of a bad experience by doing our research, making sure we get a bottle that has been treated well and taking the best possible care of it once it gets into our possession.

What this essentially means is that if you’re looking to buy an older bottle of wine for a special occasion, you’d do well to pick a seller you can trust and be ready to ask said seller a few questions. Don’t pick the first, best and cheapest bottle on Craigsbay or E-list or whatever those places are called. Pick a wine merchant or broker you trust to be reliable and then ask him about the history of the wine: how and when it came into his possession? From where? How it had been stored until it came into his possession and how it has been stored since? Questions of that nature.

A perfectly stored bottle of Dom Perignon 1996

Close-up of a Dom Perignon 1996 label – this was one well-stored bottle of wine!

He’s probably not going to go into details about his sources and methods, but he should be able to paint a reasonably reassuring picture of what you can expect from his bottles. When I bought my bottle of Dom Perignon 1996 along with a Krug 1996, for example, the broker I dealt with informed me upon request that both bottles came from a reliable, private collector and had been stored in a wine fridge under perfect conditions. He also informed me of future bottles he had coming in at different price points and conditions, and took absolutely no notice or offence to the question. I was, after all, paying roughly $1000 for two bottles of wine and merely wanted a bit of reassurance! Professional sellers know and understand this so don’t be afraid to ask before spending your (presumably) hard-earned money. If you want to purchase good, old wine, it’s vital that it has been stored properly!

 

Size does matter:  Serious about getting the best vintage Champagne experience? Having a lot of people over to help share the experience and bill? You might be interested to know that Champagne evolves considerably slower and better in larger bottles. A magnum usually tastes younger, brighter and fresher than a standard bottle from the same year, a double magnum even more so. Looking to share the joy? Then consider going big! The only problem? A magnum bottle is easily more than twice as expensive as a standard bottle – despite being only twice the size.

 

Oh and speaking of storage. If you’re planning to hang on to your precious Champagnes for any extended amount of time, like say more than a few months, you seriously need to contemplate long-term storage!

 

Storing vintage Champagne: a quick guide

The first and most important rule you will need to know about wine storage is to never store wine where most people do: the kitchen! The rapid fluctuation in temperature and humidity that takes place in such a space is a deathtrap to quality wine. And non-quality wine for that matter. For the very same reason, similar environments like boiler rooms or laundry rooms should be avoided as well.

Emptying a bottle of Dom Perignon 1996

Some bottles are meant for drinking, others are meant for storing. If you want to treat your Dom Perignon 1996 or other vintage Champagne with a little more respect than this idiot, then I’ve put together a little guide for you.

What you’ll want to do instead is lay your precious wines down in the darkest, coolest place you can find, preferably somewhere with a relatively high humidity. A cellar, quite obviously, works wonders here, but less will certainly do: an unheated storage space, a few unused shelves in an old cupboard, unused space under the stairs or an unheated outhouse with relatively stable temperatures year round are just a few ideas. What really matters more than anything is that you find a dark and relatively cool space with a constant temperature. More than anything, you see, wine dislikes light, extreme temperatures and rapid fluctuation in conditions:

Light, especially sunlight, is one factor that may seriously degrade or prematurely age wine. The colored bottles used for red wines and some white wines help reduce the impact of natural sunlight, but if you’re planning long time storage, it’s best to stash your precious wines somewhere dark and cool to play it safe.

Why cool, you may wonder? High temperatures, experts argue, may “cook” the wine, causing the fruit to fade and the wine’s flavors and aromas to turn flat. It’s a balance act here, though, as you won’t want things to get too cold either. While storing your wines in the fridge may seem like a good idea, the cold climate and resulting low humidity may cause shrinkage of the cork and oxidation of the wine. So what temperatures should you aim for? Experts argue that the ideal temperature for slow, controlled aging of wine fall within the area of 10 – 16C with a lot of people singling out 14C as the optimum. But while extreme cold and warmth should, obviously, be avoided at any cost, what is in fact more important than obtaining a “perfect” temperature is that you chose a specific temperature and stick with it over time.

Rapid temperature changes aside from running the risk of cooking the wine, may cause degradation of the cork, resulting in seepage or the dreaded phenomenon known as cork taint (or corked wine). Slow, gradual changes in temperature like a slow change caused by seasons shifting is not a problem but, daily fluctuations of several degrees, however, will quickly and severely shorten the life span of – and eventually damage – your precious wines.

And what of humidity? Humidity is a factor that many will tell you to worry about, but truth be told, humidity is probably the factor you’ll need to worry about the least. While true that low humidity will eventually dry out corks and may eventually cause oxidation or tainting of wines, such issues only occur after several years of poor storage. If you’re merely looking to store a wine for anywhere between a few months to a couple of years, I wouldn’t worry too much about humidity and simply lay the wine down on its side in a cool, dark spot.

The key takeaway here is to not panic! Unless you’re planning to store wine for a decade or more (at which point professional storage may be a thing to look into), you should think about your storage options, but not exactly overthink them either. Remember, wine is also supposed to be fun!

Enjoying a glass of vintage Champagne - Krug 1996

Procuring older vintages can be a hassle and an expensive venture. But sharing a perfectly aged Champagne in perfect company can be priceless!

 

Looking to buy a wine fridge? Read this first! If you really are dead serious about storing wines for several years or decades, you may already have started considering a dedicated, temperature controlled wine fridge. Before you do, though, ask yourself how serious you really are about collecting and read this guide about when (and when not) to look to a semi-professional storage solution.

 

Adhering to these simple rules, you should be able to purchase and even properly store a special occasion bottle of Champagne for at least a couple of years. Remember, though, that you are running a calculated risk by purchasing and storing a decade-old natural product.

Should you dare do it? The choice is yours, but if you do, I hope you’ll have the experience of a lifetime! And that you will let me know how it went, eh?

No Comments

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave a Reply!