Mighty, muscular vintages of car and champagne

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

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

Only 36 250s were made in 1962 (and 1963), with a secondseries (three more and three converted from series one) introduced in1964. One of the last front-engine racers, the three-litre V12 250 dominatedevents in its class in the Targa Florio, Tour de France, at Goodwood and LeMans. Now considered by collectors to be the most desirable of all sportscars, if you happen to have one gathering dust in the garage, consider insuringit for at least £20m. Earlier this year, the model made forStirling Moss sold for $35m.

As two dozen gathered in front of thegrandstand at Reims’ once-celebrated racing circuit, specially reopened justfor the occasion, I noticed the majority were red and many had theunmistakeable “go-faster” stripes now sported by pimped Ford Fiestasperennially 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 theAbbey – with an enthusiastic police escort and rogue Citroën driver among thequarter of a billion pounds’ worth of Ferraris.      

The cars lined up in front of Hautvillers, and as the sun seton a cloudless sky, drivers and guests soon assembled in the light of the fullmoon with glasses of Dom Pérignon’s latest vintage, the muscular, almost brawny2003. Chatting to Dom’s mercurial maître du cave Richard Geoffroy, heexpressed 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 wasinterested to note for future comparison.

As a guest of Krug the previousweek, I had made the comparison between the two houses to Olivier Krug and hiscellar master Eric Lebel, suggesting the major difference in theirpersonalities is that Krug is born mature, with a patrician gravitas and richlydry touch of austerity that is unmistakeable and immediate. Conversely,Dom Pérignon retains its girlish charm irrespective of age – I recall a 1961 anda 1966 Oenothèque adding weight to the argument that DP is evergreen, neverlosing its youthful vivacity, however brittle its bones become. Perhaps thediffering approach to oxygen and wood is telling; perhaps the almost equalpercentage of Chardonnay keeps the wine light on its feet? (Perhaps I’m talkingout of my hat?)


On display as guests gathered was Ferrari’s latest release, the F12Berlinetta, 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 novicewell lubricated with Dom Pérignon, clearly a linear evolution of the legendary250 (despite the Berlinetta having double the engine size, at 6.3 litres). Itwas also the same colour as my most recently completed Timothy Everest suit, awork 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 outwhether the upholstery had the same velvet trim.

Dinner with Dom Pérignon chief executive StéphaneBaschiera and Ferrari president Luca Cordero diMontezemolo began with Caviar Saint James gelee dehomard et chou fleur and magnums of Oenothèque 1988: a“connoisseur vintage”, opined Geoffroy. It was certainlya year in which a turbulent summer did not prevent the advent of five-star champagnes of rigid structure and slight austerity ­– perfect for the extendedcellaring for which Oenothèque is uniquely famous, benefiting from a further12-15 years’ maturation on the lees. The 1988 was just entering its drinkingwindow: reserved, upright, aristocratic, with impressive geological intensity,a fine complement for the salty tang of the roe. It was opening up wellby the time the sea bass was served and showed its more generous character – abroader spectrum of herbal, nutty and resinous aromas and flavours.

Quasi de veau au lait wasup next and this was paired with a sublime treat – 1988 Oenothèque Rosé, a winethat does not exist commercially (yet) but was disgorged into magnumsspecifically for the evening. This was the second “specialedition” I had tried – bottles of 1986 Rosé having been produced for afive-decade vertical of Oenothèque in Dublin the previous year. Whilethat 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 uncrownedGrand Cru of the Côte de Beaune), all burnished red fruits, old leather, sinewand spice, quite momentously mouth-filling and also excellent with the slicesof Gruyères that followed.

The real highlights were last to arrive, however: Oenothèquesfrom the years the 250 GTO was constructed (1962 and 1964) – the latter avintage of particular note in Champagne, but both from special second releasesdisgorged after more than 45 years on their yeasts. The former wasvibrant, 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 somedebate within the wine world is rightly focusing on the issue of minimal-interventionistwinemaking, producing champagne at this rarefied level requires expertmanipulation – the same hand required to make the world’s most desirable sportscar.

Nobody drove home.