What Makes a Champagne Great?

Courtesy of Dom Pérignon
What makes a Champagne great? What makes a specific bottle worth $300 instead of $35? Recently, I sat down with Richard Geoffroy, the longtime chef du cave of Dom Perignon, and asked him what differentiates good Champagne from great Champagne.

It’s a good question. What makes a Champagne worth, for instance, $300 instead of $35? That difference in price ought to be a clear indicator of what’s great versus what’s merely good, but anyone who’s ever bought anything expensive and then been disappointed by the quality knows that that’s not always true.

Recently, I sat down with Richard Geoffroy, the longtime chef du cave of Dom Perignon, and asked him (more or less) what differentiates good Champagne from great Champagne. He replied as follows: “There are two axes of intensity. One is length, persistence; one is depth. Many wines glide on the surface—they can be nice and easy and seductive—but they lack that verticality needed for greatness.”

The mention of “axes” and “verticality” definitely tossed me back into middle school geometry class for a moment, but if you simplify into the idea that wines need surface appeal as well as depth and complexity, that’s (I think) what he was after.

In any case, we were tasting the newly released 2004 Dom Perignon Rosé ($315) while having this discussion. Setting greatness aside for the second, it’s definitely an unusual wine. Rosé Champagnes are usually made by the addition of a small amount of red wine, made from Pinot Noir. In Geoffroy’s 2004, the amount added is 30 percent, which is effectively unheard of (the Champagne itself is 60 percent Pinot Noir). He said, “It’s about being true to the glorious grape variety that is Pinot Noir—that holy grail. We squeezed everything we could out of it in 2004.”

The wine is a salmon-orange hue with fine, silky bubbles. It smells of caramel, flowers and strawberry, and it is powerful—muscular and luscious at once, with a little tannic grip (also unusual in Champagne) on the minerally finish. Yet the wine isn’t heavy; to borrow Geoffroy’s phrase, it has the “weightless opulence” that he claims is characteristic of Dom Perignon. Is it great? I’d say so. Whether it’s worth $315 is another question, but if it’s any comfort, I’ve seen it on sale for $299.97 in a couple of places. And just think—with that spare $15.03, you could even get a pretty tasty burger and fries to go with it.

Related: Champagne Guide
Wine 101: Champagne & Sparkling Wines
10 Top Affordable Champagnes

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