Whether it’s brunch bubbles, lunch bubbles, reception bubbles or just-for-the-heck-of-it bubbles, corks are popping on a regular basis all over Grand Cayman.
Some of it’s Prosecco, some of it’s Crémant, some if it’s Cava and some of it’s just sparkling wine from the United States, New Zealand, Argentina or Chile. The best of it, though, comes from a place in France called Champagne.
“For a sparkling wine to be called Champagne, it has to come from the Champagne region and go through a very specific process,” said Nathan Benfrech, the Caribbean market manager for Moët Hennessy, at the first of two vintage Champagne events on Grand Cayman in May.
The first of those events, a “Somm Series” tasting at West Indies Wine Company on 16 May, featured four Moët & Chandon Champagnes, two of which were vintage, and one glass of Dom Pérignon.
The specific process Benfrech referred to is secondary fermentation in the bottle, the process that gives Champagne its bubbles. There are other methods to make sparkling wines — the secondary fermentation can take place in a large, steel vat for example — but in Champagne, the bubbles have to form in the bottle in a process called “méthode champenoise,” when produced in Champagne, or the “traditional method” when made elsewhere.
The Somm Series tasting started with two non-vintage Champagnes: Moët Brut Imperial, currently the best-selling Champagne in the world, followed by Moët Rosé Imperial. Benfrech explained that non-vintage Champagne is almost always a blend of different wines from different years. Moët & Chandon, as one of the larger Champagne houses, produces 800 different base wines for blending, he said.
Champagne is also usually a blend of different grapes. Most non-vintage Champagnes are a blend of wines made from Chardonnay along with the clear juice from two black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, often just called Meunier. There are exceptions: Blanc de blancs Champagne is made entirely with Chardonnay grapes, and blanc de noirs is made entirely of the clear juice of black grapes.
Meunier adds roundness and drinkability to younger Champagnes, but doesn’t age as well as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, so it is often left out of the blends for vintage Champagnes, Benfrech said. All the blending is done to produce the best Champagne possible, but also to create a consistent quality, taste and style year after year, Benfrech said.
The Champagnes tasted were each paired with nibbles prepared by Chef Will O’Hara of Abacus and Benfrech said that Moët Rosé Imperial was a good wine with food.
“Champagne is a wine to be paired with food and this wine is even better for pairing,” he said.
For the rest of the Somm Series tasting and for all of the “Plénitude 2” Champagne dinner in Blue by Eric Ripert at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman the next evening, it was all vintage Champagnes.
Benfrech explained that while non-vintage Champagnes come from a blend of wines produced in different years, all the wines blended in vintage Champagnes come from grapes grown in a particular year.
Dom Pérignon is the prestige brand of Moët & Chandon, Benfrech explained.
“Sometimes we say Dom Pérignon is Moët & Chandon in high definition,” he said, adding that Dom Pérignon is also described as a Champagne with a lot of tension.
The Somm Series event and the dinner at Blue had two Champagnes in common: Moët Grand Vintage 2009, which was paired with roasted duck breast at the Somm Series event and with oysters topped with caviar during the welcome reception outside of Blue; and Dom Pérignon 2008, which was paired with jerk pork loin at West Indies Wine Company and with Ripert’s signature dish, “Tuna-Foie Gras,” at the Plénitude 2 dinner.
Although the duck was cooked perfectly, the classic pairing of oysters and Champagne was an even better pairing, and the brilliance of the Tuna-Foie Gras dish served with Dom Pérignon 2008 was a culinary masterstroke.
The second course served at Blue was poached langoustine topped with ramps-caviar butter and served over sushi rice. It was paired with Dom Pérignon 2009. The summer was hotter in 2009, leading to a richer Champagne that was able to complement the stronger flavours of the dish, including the ramps (which are sometimes called wild garlic) and caviar butter sauce.
“2008 was the opposite of 2009,” Benfrech said, comparing the two vintages and noting that they were released in reverse order. “2008 is our latest release. 2009 launched last year because 2008 just wasn’t ready.”
Benfrech explained that although 2009 was more ready for drinking right now, 2008 had a better potential for longer ageing because of its higher acidity. He explained that Champagne stops evolving once the lees, or expired yeast sediment, are disgorged from the bottle. At a minimum, Dom Pérignon can age as long as it spent on the lees, he said. That means the 2009 vintage, which was disgorged last year after spending 10 years on the lees, will remain vibrant until at least 2028. Vintages with higher acidity, like 2008, can age even longer.
If Dom Pérignon is Moët & Chandon in high definition, then Plénitude 2 — which is commonly referred to as P2 — is Dom Pérignon in high definition.
Benfrech explained that Dom Pérignon does not evolve in a linear way. Its first best expression occurs after ageing on the lees for eight to 13 years, which is when regular Dom Pérignon is released. The second best expression occurs after Dom Pérignon has aged 16 to 23 years on the lees. That is Dom Pérignon P2. There is another best expression that occurs after 25 years, which becomes the very rare Dom Pérignon P3.
“Blue is one of the very few restaurants in the Caribbean that has P3 listed.”
However, for the dinner on this night, it was 2002 P2 that Benfrech said would be the star of the night.
“2002 was one of the most exciting vintages from that decade, if not the most exciting,” he said. “This vintage is a big deal for us.”
The P2 was paired with “lightly cooked” king salmon with a saffron-yoghurt Indian spice sauce. It was rich Champagne with a silky, creamy texture and a fresh acidity. It had notes of bakery yeast and lemon zest, but the buttery flavour stood out most. Benfrech said he liked the pairing because this P2 was a Champagne that needed a dish with some fat, and salmon provided that.
The dinner finished up with an exquisite passion fruit tart served with vanilla crème fraîche that was paired with 2005 Dom Pérignon Rosé. Although it was served with dessert, the rosé was not sweet.
“It is a brut Champagne with only nine grams of sugar,” Benfrech said. “It’s actually quite dry.”