When Benoit Gouez, Chef de Cave of Moet & Chandon, told me he was making a Champagne intended to be drunk over ice, all I could do was to picture some mustachioed, veteran cellar master at Moet looking like French actor Philippe Noiret and screaming, “Mon Dieu! Mais non! Jamais!”
Gouez laughed over that image during an all-Champagne lunch at The NoMad in New York where he described his seemingly wholly unorthodox way to drink a wine traditionally associated with celebrations, tuxedos, and fluted glassware.
“Champagne, like everything else, must evolve. In St. Tropez the summer people drink Champagne ‘a piscine,’ around the swimming pool, with ice. So we’ve made a Champagne called Ice Imperial with more body and a little sweeter, so it won’t be so easily diluted by ice.”
As chief winemaker since 2005, Gouez, 42, has the vitality and relative freedom to re-direct the great Champagne house that dates back to 1743. Now part of luxury giant Moet-Hennessey-Louis Vuitton, its holdings sprawl over more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres), capable of producing 26 million bottles annually.
If there’s been one problem for Moet, it has been one of prestige compared with other Champagnes, including those it owns, like Ruinart Pere et Fils, Mercier and Dom Perignon.
“For a century now Moet’s White Star label has been our flagship label in the U.S.,” he said, “and it used to be much sweeter. Today we are discontinuing White Star, replaced by our well-established Imperial label (dating back to 1869), which is lighter and has more finesse. We have reduced the dosage (a sugar syrup added to Champagne to induce a second fermentation) to nine grams per liter to make it drier, but we’re not making it ‘pas dosage’ (no dosage) just to be trendy.”
Gouez acknowledges that many of the Champagne houses have been making drier and drier styles at higher and higher prices, calling them “prestige cuvees.”
In one sense, this marketing concept goes against the long-cherished idea that an individual house forges a consistent style and flavor that its customer have come to expect.
Moet, for instance, is always a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier, while other houses may use only chardonnay. “My vision,” said Gouez, “is that if you’re looking for that consistency of flavor, drink the non-vintage; if you are excited by distinctions made possible by the quality of a single year, then drink a vintage Champagne.”
His point was well-taken over our meal. By presenting an array of Moet Champagnes with various dishes, Gouez showed how different styles offer different tastes, some richer, some older, some fruitier.
We began with an icy platter of seafood, diced hamachi, sea urchins, and scallops. Our bracing appetite starter was Moet’s Brut Imperial, which is spring-like in its balance of fruitiness and green flavors.
A chiffonade salad of snow peas with pancetta, pecorino and mint was paired with a deeply-colored Brut Rose, made with up to 50 percent pinot noir, whose lush body and pleasing acid married well with the salty edge of the ham and sharpness of the cheese.
Next we sampled a Grand Vintage 2002, Moet’s current vintage release, which has a low dosage of five grams and a fine, strong bouquet and fullness on the palate that went splendidly with fresh tagliatelle pasta with mild King crab, tangy Meyer lemon, and a crunch of black pepper.
The main course was roasted lobster with thin, hot potato chips, spring vegetables and a classic sprinkling of tarragon. For this Gouez popped the cork on a Grand Vintage 1992.
With 51 percent chardonnay, 26 percent pinot noir, 23 percent pinot meunier, and 5.5 percent dosage, it was absolutely superb and as fresh as any of the bottles I sampled that afternoon.
It was creamy and while it had what connoisseurs like to call the patina of age, it showed none of the oxidation that so many British aficionados favor.
“We do everything possible to reduce oxidation in our wines,” said Gouez, which is why this 20-year-old bubbly had such remarkable vibrancy, a perfect foil for the richness of the lobster.
I noted that the examples we tasted had very tiny bubbles and slight effervescence. That can sometimes happen when Champagne is served too warm, but these wines were impeccably chilled.
“We do everything possible to reduce oxidation,” said Gouez. He also noted that climate change since 1988 has increased the sugars in the grapes. “In the Champagne region this is a boon because we’ve always had an issue as to when to harvest grapes that are mature enough.”
By the same token, too much sugar can change the profile and taste of Champagne, whose traditions are among the strongest and most enduring in France.
Then again, if things get too warm out there by the pool, you can now pour your Moet on the rocks and still be tres chic.
(John Mariani writes about wine for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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