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Dom Pierre Pérignon was a pioneer in the making of champagne, even if he did not — as 18th-century myths and 19th-century advertisements suggest — invent it. A Benedictine monk, he entered the Abbey of Hautvillers in the north-east of France in 1668, where he was named cellarer (keeper of the storeroom), and spent the rest of his life enlarging its vineyards and experimenting with improving sparkling wine. Thanks to his efforts, Hautvillers became the largest vineyard in Champagne by the time of his death in 1715.
Sitting in the long first-floor room that was once the abbey’s library and has now been restored as a tasting room, Richard Geoffroy reflects on the skills that are needed to be Dom Pérignon’s chief winemaker. He says, with a mixture of personal pride and corporate enthusiasm: “It’s the attitude of going for gold with no preconceived ideas. That element of risk-taking is essential. But you have to be humble.”
Mr Geoffroy grew up in the Champagne region, the seventh generation of his family to do so. Feeling that “my destiny was too predestined”, he rejected his roots and went to medical school to train as a doctor. It was only in his early thirties that Mr Geoffroy switched to oenology. He worked in California before returning to France and joining Dom Pérignon, where he has been chef de cave — head of the winemaking team — for almost three decades.
Dom Pérignon, part of luxury conglomerate LVMH’s Moët & Chandon house, makes only vintage champagne — with grapes from one year’s harvest. (Non-vintage blends years.) Vintage accounted for 3.6 per cent of champagne exports to the UK in 2016, according to trade body the Champagne Bureau UK, and a house can declare it as a vintage wine in spring — before the grapes have been picked, blended and fermented. This also means, of course, that a whole harvest can go to waste, but a bad vintage is worse than no vintage. Mr Geoffroy says: “The vintages we haven’t been declaring are just as important.”
The first risk is deciding when the grapes should be picked. During 2003, for example, a spring frost meant that there was a small crop and this was followed by a brutal extreme heat, which ripened the crop rapidly. The decision was taken to pick the crop incredibly early — in August, as opposed to September or October.
Dom Pérignon is a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, which is uncommon: trade body the Comité Champagne says chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier are used in equal quantities across the whole industry. Given that Dom Pérignon is able to select grapes from all 17 grands crus (the top vineyards) in the region because it owns or has partnerships with them, there are multiple possible combinations of the two.
After the grapes are picked, they are fermented for a month and then there are several rounds of tasting of the individual base components to determine the ideal blend. At this point they are flat wines, which are very acidic. The skill here lies in being able to imagine the result of blending the different grape combinations.
“You have to have a clear understanding of the vintage,” says Mr Geoffroy. “You need to be able to memorise what each individual wine is all about to be able to go into the mental representation of blending.” Once the blend has been decided upon, the wine is fermented again and aged.
Early technological developments in the making of champagne, such as the adoption of cork in the 17th century to seal bottles, were crucial. But at this stage in the evolution of champagne, there are no “major breakthroughs” left to achieve, says Mr Geoffroy. Instead, “it’s the sum of many details, that summation of the invisible that can become visible,” he says. “The long-term project is age-worthiness.” If a wine’s age-worthiness is called into question, the entire vintage can be written off.
It is impossible to tell the effect of Mr Geoffroy’s attention on the business: LVMH does not break out performance figures for the brand, nor will it comment on the varying number of bottles it produces each year. But overall, LVMH’s wine and spirits division grew its organic revenues 10 per cent in the first six months of 2017 to €2.3bn, according to its latest results.
In the end, despite the judgment on when to pick the grapes, how to blend them and when to declare a vintage champagne, there is always a sprinkling of alchemy. Mr Geoffroy calls it “that element of playfulness”. He says: “I’m never guaranteed the final experience of the wine. I’m never controlling it to the full.”