PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU grand tales of Iceland. They’ll share with you the synchronicity of love and nature that allowed them to be wed as the Northern Lights sprayed colours across the sky like a street artist let loose on a bare wall. They’ll tell you how they bowed before the power of a torrential waterfall, felt its spray shower their upturned faces, baptising them with awe and mineral water. They’ll reminisce about lakes so clear and placid you can see a fly land on them, about the sun that sets at midnight and then begins to rise but an hour later (or the one that sets at 4pm and stays dormant for 20 hours after), about the glaciers both beautiful and dangerous, beckoning yet threatening.
They don’t tell you about the wasted nights they spent poring over weather reports, hoping in vain for the Aurora Borealis to appear. Or the hours of car rides past barren lava fields that sing a silent desolation. Or the incomparable, disgusting experience of consuming fermented shark, a “delicacy” that’s less an acquired taste, more a test of will and stupidity. To be fair, I don’t actually consume any shark.
As a guest of Dom Pérignon, visiting Iceland for the inauguration of the 1998 Plénitude 2 – the brand’s new name for its Oenothèque category – I eat lots of salmon, some Arctic char, a little trout, but no shark, fresh or aged. Nor do I consider any of my trip a wasted experience. But while I’m not a bright-eyed novice traveller, in my excitement as my plane approaches Keflavik airport I find myself forgetting that travel – luxury or otherwise – is not entirely glamour and great sights, not all Blue Lagoons and bubbling hot springs with Spock to beam you there. I’m already giddy on the ride from the airport to the hotel in Reykjavik, because the sun is still slowly setting, the sky a lavender-black, and it’s 1am. 1am!
That same sun wakes me just five hours later. We depart for the secluded Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel at 11, which leaves a little time to explore the capital city of Reykjavik – though it turns out that the area near our lodgings consists mainly of souvenir shops (stuffed puffins, Hello Kittys that “heart Iceland” and various types of lava salt), outerwear stores and a huge billboard advertisement for the country’s penis museum.
Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel sits at the base of Mount Hengill and on the edge of Thingvellir National Park, essentially amid a whole lot of grass and lava rock. We sally forth from this home base with the rest of the Dom Pérignon crew – a mix of journalists, wine distributors and staff – on a jaunty bus tour of the surrounding wilderness. The Icelandic driver-cum-guide informs us cheerfully that he’s well-versed in the terrain, having grown up here and having earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture, resorting to guiding due to a lack of opportunities. He seems OK with it, so we are too.
We amble along Ring Road, the route that circles the island. We see the pipes that bring geothermally heated water to all the homes in town, including those solitary houses you spot every now and then seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Those, the guide says, are “summer houses”, used mainly on weekends for hot-tub parties. We see the boiling-hot sulphur springs at Hverarönd that bubble like ominous natural miracles and envelop us in the smell of rotten eggs. You get used to it. In between naps – for the ride is long, and filled with samey scenery – we traipse through Eyrarbakki, a small fishing village dotted with colourful houses that’s strangely reminiscent of Cape Cod, except it also sits beside Iceland’s main prison, an intimate 45-inmate operation. The crime rate, we’re told, is low, but there’s still a waiting list, meaning that offenders can be sentenced for a crime but dally for years in an illusionary freedom before serving time, a little correctional idiosyncrasy common in Nordic countries.
It’s that sobering thought that precedes a day or so of decided inebriation, for the programme with our champagne-brand host is about to begin. Dinner that eve is all small plates and flutes of the 2004 Vintage, served at the hotel’s Northern Lights bar, a nofrills venue whose chief purpose is to offer views from floor-to-ceiling windows. The season isn’t right for the skies to offer us their bounty of brilliance that evening, and the variety of food – lamb and salmon are the proteins du jour, mais tous les jours – is starting to become monotonous, but a five-hour-long sunset isn’t a bad backdrop, and good wine and company make up for much, particularly when you’re in the company of Dom Pérignon’s eloquent and amiable Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy.
Geoffroy is with us the next morning as we board off-road vehicles to take us to a morning champagne tasting. We disembark at Seljalandsfoss, walking towards the 60-metre-high waterfall to encounter a man in black, Dom Pérignon logo emblazoned across his dark apron, a table set before him with an ice bucket and wine glasses. We don plastic ponchos to stave off the elements and sip 2004, laughing at the incongruence of look and experience. Glasses in hands, high-grip boots on our feet, we mount a trail that takes us behind the waterfall, the mist diluting our champagne a little, but not our spirits.
It’s a bumpy ride to Gígjökull glacier, which flanks Eyjafjallajökull, the ice-cap-covered volcano that erupted in 2010, disrupting air traffic across Europe for nearly a week. It’s calm and dormant now, but our handlers caution us against venturing too far into the ice cave at the mouth of the glacier, or yelling too loudly. The prospect of a self-induced avalanche is vaguely tempting to some of the already booze-fuelled journos. Smack in the middle of the valley are dozens of mirrored cubes on which we’re told to sit, and in front of them a dedicated set-up showcasing the trip’s raison d’etre: the Dom Pérignon 1998 Second Plenitude, or “P2”.
Geoffroy needs no stage other than this one built of ash and lava rock. He explains the connection between brand and land – for the launch of this vintage, they wished to visit a place that conveyed the intensity and vibrance of the wine, one that epitomised its energy and spirituality. As we – the first in the world to sample this vintage – swill and sip, we agree, acutely.
We don’t believe it can get better than this, especially not when we’re whisked by helicopter to Dyrhólaeyjarviti lighthouse for a cosy lunch – but the subsequent two-hour-plus car ride back to the hotel is a drag down to earth, bringing the day’s in-car time tally to four hours.
Luckily, it’s only an hour to the evening’s gala dinner, which takes place at a secret location – a Intense, precise, vibrant – all words used to describe the first wine in Dom Pérignon’s Second Plénitude series, and descriptors that align nicely with the landscape of Iceland. The country’s topography changes with time, whether due to volcanic eruptions, out-of-control geysers or the earthquakes, minor and major, that rock the land, much in the way that champagne ages – without the interference of man, but through miracle and metamorphosis. Although brand aficionados have become familiar, even attached to the Oenothèque line (which actually refers to the site that holds the inventory), the new nomenclature reflects attributes of the champagne more accurately and poetically, as well as opening the door for a subsequent launch – a third Plénitude. In the Dom Pérignon universe, the first phase is defined by a minimum of seven years of ageing, the second by 12 years and the third by two decades in the cellars. Champagne that’s in contact with the lees, Geoffroy explains, doesn’t evolve in a linear fashion, but from plateau to plateau as it ages. The P2-1998, which was first released as a vintage in 2005, now sees its second maturation completed at 16 years. The result: a signature champagne strong in minerality, darkly aromatic and touched with spice while retaining a sharp intensity that lingers in both mouth and mind. Second Coming holiday house in Árborg designed Plénitude Deuxième makes its thunderous debut by local firm PK Arkitektar. The owner turned down the James Bond scouts when they sought to film at his property but, as a champagne lover, welcomed Dom Pérignon with open arms. The interior is simple, but its terrace looks out over a moss-covered hill and a picturesque bend in the glacierformed Hvítá river. The sun sets the sky ablaze as we’re serenaded by the classical-synth musical stylings of the Bafta-winning Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. We dine on lamb, salmon and root vegetables – still the staples of the country’s diet, but reworked into rustic tartares or elegantly plated vegetable melanges. On the ride back, someone floats the idea of hitting the hotel’s hot tub, an outdoor affair that proves a popular idea, if the hollering outside my window is any evidence. I, for my part, choose to watch the final rays of light disappear from the sky as I pack to leave the next morning. By the time I’m done – less than an hour later – the sun has finished its short repose and is threatening the horizon again, but I draw the curtains closed and my eyes soon follow suit.
In the morning, we find ourselves possibly stranded in Iceland, thanks to a labour strike by Icelandair, necessitating a mass rerouting affair. Later, while seated on a Scandinavian Airlines flight watching Geoffroy struggle into a middle seat behind me, I smile to myself, remembering his words from the dinner last night.
“Iceland is a land of legends,” he declared. “Tectonic, magnetic, energetic. There’s a sense of harmony; a mysterious, organic correspondence of man and nature.” Nature, this time, lay quiet, though man inadvertently conspired to keep us in the country. Iceland, I muse, is indeed a land of extremes: extreme beauty, extreme power, extreme elements and sometimes, extreme inconvenience.