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Kensington, hold onto your hats.
The stark beauty of Iceland, with its volcanoes and
glaciers, makes a fitting backdrop for the new vintage from Dom
Pérignon, writes Michael Harden.
It's like being in a Bond film. A fleet of SUVs is racing us across an Icelandic plain, splashing through runoff from glacier-fed lakes before cresting a hill and stopping in front of a a series of bonfires surrounding rows of mirrored cubes arranged around a mirrored pillar. The backdrop is the blue-white Gigjokull glacier and, beyond that, Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that erupted in 2010 and grounded air traffic across much of Europe. Waiting in the midst of the cubes is a compact figure dressed all in black. In this case, though, he's by no means the villain.
This dramatic meeting in the southern Icelandic wilderness is not part of a dastardly plan for world domination. Rather, it's about the more pleasurable business of Champagne, in particular the global launch of Dom Pérignon's 1998 Second Plénitude (also known as P2). And the waiting figure is Richard Geoffroy, head winemaker and chef de cave at Dom Pérignon, ready to explain what we're doing in Iceland.
Geoffroy talks of P2's minerality and energy; it's a Champagne that "evokes the landscape", he says. Amid the grey volcanic rubble, snow-capped mountains, live volcanoes and glaciers, it's easy to get the picture. Particularly when you have a glass of the stuff in your hand.
We'd had our first tasting earlier that day after spending the night in the remote Ion Hotel. The concrete and timber structure juts from the side of moss-covered Mt Hengill, a live volcano at the edge of the World Heritage-listed Thingvellir National Park. It's luxurious in a low-key, eco-friendly way, with views of lava fields and mountains from every room.
Dom Pérignon is a vintage-only Champagne, which means it's made from grapes grown and harvested in a single, specified year and not at all in years when the grapes are not up to scratch. Each vintage is released only after it has matured on lees for a minimum of seven years. With the P2, it's at least 12 years.
The wine Geoffroy is launching is the 1998 vintage, so it's been lolling about on lees for about 16 years. Suddenly the helicopter and bonfire theatrics are making more sense; this is quite an event. And even before the Bond-esque launch, the choice of Iceland itself - surprising, pristine, otherworldly - marked the significance of the occasion.
Iceland is the place where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It's home to glaciers and volcanoes, black-sand beaches and china-blue seas. The landscape spouts steam from vast geothermal energy reserves which meet all the country's electricity needs, carbon-free, and supply the hot water that's piped into most Icelandic homes for heating.
Treeless lava fields are strewn with moss-covered boulders that deepen in colour as a rain front scuds past. Waterfalls cascade over grey-black rock faces, their names - Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss - sounding to untrained ears like Tolkien-esque poetry, but which actually pinpoint where they sit in the landscape. The sea and shores (and restaurants) are full of whales and puffins, the fields dotted with small native horses and long-horned, long-haired sheep that are both eaten and worn. The sky and the light change constantly.
Though the country has only 320,000 people, its capital, Reykjavík ("smoky bay" in Icelandic), packs a punch on the dining, shopping and nightlife fronts. It's a city that seems effortlessly cool. Many buildings in the older part of town are made of corrugated iron and sport pretty gardens. Clever graffiti adorns the sides of houses, and window boxes are as likely to contain sculpture and dioramas as they are plants.
There are record stores like 12 Tónar, with two storeys of local and international releases, bars like Micro Bar with its micro-brewery, vintage clothing stores like Spúútnik, American-style burger-and-fries diners like Priki, which opened in 1951, and contemporary coffee joints like Reykjavík Roasters.
There are good modern Icelandic restaurants, too, places such as Grillmarkaurinn, which focuses on organic, locally grown ingredients (including horse, reindeer and minke whale), and Dill where chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason, the chef behind the final P2 dinner, weaves together New Nordic philosophy and Icelandic ingredients in dishes such as pickled cabbage and chervil with fried cod and cod broth.
You'd guess that Geoffroy's P2 would be great with food - it has
vibrant energy and a precise crispness that's exhilarating - and it
is, as we later learn, but first there's a helicopter ride over a
As the chef de cave winds up, five helicopters appear, one by one, over the top of the glacier and land nearby. We're soon packed in and lifting off (with our pilot playing Ride of the Valkyries over our headphones as we rise into the air), riding over the top of Eyjafjallajökull and across a spectacular landscape of glaciers and rocks.
We land near Dyrhólaey, at the southern tip of the Icelandic mainland, and are driven to the Dyrhólaeyjarviti, a white brick and red metal lighthouse built in 1927, near a large puffin colony. Lunch in the cosy whitewashed interior is presented in a bento box. Inside, there's an empty cup that's soon filled with a perfect duck consommé. Crab is served with little squares of tuna and tomato jelly, scallops arrive dressed with yuzu oil, langoustine sits on chewy rye bread and dessert, oddly, is a couple of marshmallows. The elegant P2 elevates the meal.
Later that night, in yet another convoy, we convene to a spectacular villa that is all clean lines of timber, glass and concrete. Fittingly, it was once in the running to be the lair of a Bond villain. We sit down for dinner as the sun dips towards the horizon but never quite sets. The menu, from Dill's Gunnar Karl Gíslason, is a 10-course dégustation. Tiny pickled carrots with cheese and cumin. Raw marinated shrimps with buttermilk and whey. Tartare of lamb with lumpfish roe. Baked malt bread with buttermilk and truffles.
As we eat, Richard Geoffroy speaks of the "magic of nature" that he feels is part of the process of making P2. He is whimsical and heartfelt in explaining his love for the Icelandic landscape, but we don't need any further persuasion. We're besotted, too.
Dom Pérignon P2 is released this month, $549.
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