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Mighty, muscular vintages of car and champagne

WineChap toasts the Ferrari 250 GTO 50th anniversary with vibrant and aristocratic Oenothèques

Mighty, muscular vintages of car and champagne

February 01 2013
Tom Harrow

Five days after visiting Champagne for the inaugural Krug Celebration Week, I was back – for the start of the Ferrari 250 GTO Owner’s Club 50th anniversary rally in conjunction with Dom Pérignon. This remarkable event began with the drivers and guests – including Brits Viscount Linley, Paul Vestey and a Bamford or two, as well as Walmart chairman Rob Walton, former Microsoft president John Shirley and a score more of billionaire classic-car lovers – assembling and completing a lap of Reims’ Circuit de Gueux, before a rather special dinner at Abbaye d’Hautvillers (St Peter’s, to those in the know; pictured).

Only 36 250s were made in 1962 (and 1963), with a second series (three more and three converted from series one) introduced in 1964. One of the last front-engine racers, the three-litre V12 250 dominated events in its class in the Targa Florio, Tour de France, at Goodwood and Le Mans. Now considered by collectors to be the most desirable of all sports cars, if you happen to have one gathering dust in the garage, consider insuring it for at least £20m. Earlier this year, the model made for Stirling Moss sold for $35m.

As two dozen gathered in front of the grandstand at Reims’ once-celebrated racing circuit, specially reopened just for the occasion, I noticed the majority were red and many had the unmistakeable “go-faster” stripes now sported by pimped Ford Fiestas perennially overtaking on the drive out of west London. Stirling’s, however, was mint green. WineChap hitched a lift with an accommodating driver, and we set off in convoy – first around the old racetrack and then on to the Abbey – with an enthusiastic police escort and rogue Citroën driver among the quarter of a billion pounds’ worth of Ferraris.      

The cars lined up in front of Hautvillers, and as the sun set on a cloudless sky, drivers and guests soon assembled in the light of the full moon with glasses of Dom Pérignon’s latest vintage, the muscular, almost brawny 2003. Chatting to Dom’s mercurial maître du cave Richard Geoffroy, he expressed great satisfaction with the way the wine was developing. Indeed, he observed that of all vintages it was the one he was most proud to have worked on, likening it stylistically to the 1976 – having tried which last year, I was interested to note for future comparison.

As a guest of Krug the previous week, I had made the comparison between the two houses to Olivier Krug and his cellar master Eric Lebel, suggesting the major difference in their personalities is that Krug is born mature, with a patrician gravitas and richly dry touch of austerity that is unmistakeable and immediate. Conversely, Dom Pérignon retains its girlish charm irrespective of age – I recall a 1961 and a 1966 Oenothèque adding weight to the argument that DP is evergreen, never losing its youthful vivacity, however brittle its bones become. Perhaps the differing approach to oxygen and wood is telling; perhaps the almost equal percentage of Chardonnay keeps the wine light on its feet? (Perhaps I’m talking out of my hat?)

On display as guests gathered was Ferrari’s latest release, the F12 Berlinetta, which had premiered earlier at Geneva’s Motor Show. Crimson, with its engine to the fore, and also a GT V12, its styling was, to a novice well lubricated with Dom Pérignon, clearly a linear evolution of the legendary 250 (despite the Berlinetta having double the engine size, at 6.3 litres). It was also the same colour as my most recently completed Timothy Everest suit, a work of similarly bold vision and unique craftsmanship, complete with champagne lining and DP crest breast-pocket detail. In the dark I couldn’t quite make out whether the upholstery had the same velvet trim.

Dinner with Dom Pérignon chief executive Stéphane Baschiera and Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo began with Caviar Saint James gelee de homard et chou fleur and magnums of Oenothèque 1988: a “connoisseur vintage”, opined Geoffroy. It was certainly a year in which a turbulent summer did not prevent the advent of five-star champagnes of rigid structure and slight austerity ­– perfect for the extended cellaring for which Oenothèque is uniquely famous, benefiting from a further 12-15 years’ maturation on the lees. The 1988 was just entering its drinking window: reserved, upright, aristocratic, with impressive geological intensity, a fine complement for the salty tang of the roe. It was opening up well by the time the sea bass was served and showed its more generous character – a broader spectrum of herbal, nutty and resinous aromas and flavours.

Quasi de veau au lait was up next and this was paired with a sublime treat – 1988 Oenothèque Rosé, a wine that does not exist commercially (yet) but was disgorged into magnums specifically for the evening. This was the second “special edition” I had tried – bottles of 1986 Rosé having been produced for a five-decade vertical of Oenothèque in Dublin the previous year. While that had been pleasant, the vintage was not in the same league as this 1988, which was reminiscent of old Marquis d’Angerville Volnay Clos des Ducs (the uncrowned Grand Cru of the Côte de Beaune), all burnished red fruits, old leather, sinew and spice, quite momentously mouth-filling and also excellent with the slices of Gruyères that followed.

The real highlights were last to arrive, however: Oenothèques from the years the 250 GTO was constructed (1962 and 1964) – the latter a vintage of particular note in Champagne, but both from special second releases disgorged after more than 45 years on their yeasts. The former was vibrant, taut, linear – a poised Ramonet chablis. The 1964 was almost tropical, opulent and spicy – more of a Chave Hermitage Blanc, and the most indulgent, hedonistically styled Dom Pérignon I have tried so far. While some debate within the wine world is rightly focusing on the issue of minimal-interventionist winemaking, producing champagne at this rarefied level requires expert manipulation – the same hand required to make the world’s most desirable sports car.

Nobody drove home.