Dom Pérignon's new Head Winemaker Looks To The Future

The future at Dom Pérignon is, dare we say, as bright and bubbly as a glass of its signature wine.

This year marks a turning point for one of the best-known names in Champagne. In 2018, longtime chef de cave Richard Geoffroy announced he would step down after a storied 28 years as the head of the storied wine house. Vincent Chaperon took over as Dom Pérignon's chef de cave at the start of 2019. 

A scant six months into his new tenure, Chaperon is at an inflection point for Dom Pérignon, releasing vintages that have been waiting in the wings for their moment, while also looking ahead to the future.

Chaperon has worked at Dom Pérignon and with Geoffroy for many years, so he's well-versed in the house philosophy. "I'm really at the front line," Chaperon says, of getting used to his new role. "It's really intense. This year has been very exciting. Still, I need a little bit of time to find my own path."

One issue on the horizon, for Chaperon as well as anyone working in agricultural products, whether it's wine or coffee production: Variance in temperatures due to climate changes.

In terms of wine, the harvest time (historically in mid- to late September) is now sometimes earlier, and it means grapes don't always develop the way they have in the past.

"Globally, we can see that the harvest is advancing," Chaperon says. "For 20 years, it has been earlier and earlier. It is simply explained by the fact that the climate is warming. As it gets warmer, the vine cycle is shorter."

The harvest will vary by year to year; in 2019, for example, harvest is projected to take place after September 15, based on recent cool temperatures. 

"Weather is changing. It's moving, but on the other hand, it's always been part of our job," he adds, noting that Reims, in the north part of France is used to harsh climates. "Champagne is used to building its model on an aggressive climate. It's a persistent adaptation."

Global changes in weather over the next century will determine if Champagne in general, and Dom Pérignon in particular, will ever have to change grape varietals, to say, grapes that can withstand harsher winters and earlier harvests. Still, if and when that happens, it won't be for several more decades in the future. 

Right now, Dom Pérignon is only made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and they only produce vintages, as they have always done since the 1700's; Chaperon doesn't see that changing during his tenure. "One day, perhaps in 20, 30 years, we [may] have to change [grape varietals], you never know," Chaperon says. "Everything is moving around us. If it happens, you need to be really clear on who you are and what you are."

In the meantime, the house is celebrating the release of a special new vintage, the Vintage 2002 Plénitude 2, which was released last month. It is the secondary expression of the previously released 2002 Vintage. To create the Plénitude 2, however, part of the same 2002 stock was kept in the cellars longer, and therefore in longer contact with the lees, or yeast.

"All of our wines are going through a moment in their lives that we call 'plénitude,' " Chaperon explains. "The wines are not transforming themselves in a linear way. They grown in stages, let's say, windows of expression, which we call 'plenitude.' "

Giving the wines, in this case the 2002 vintage, more time in the cellar means granting wines extra time to develop complexity and flavors. "The Plenitude 2 is a stage of more intensity and more maturity," Chaperon says. "The wine is unfurling its personality. We feel it's really alive. It's showing a lot of energy of life."

As Chaperon looks ahead to what is likely to be the start of several decades in Champagne, he knows there will be challenges, whether from consumer tastes, economics and changing weather patterns. "We need to drive Champagne to stay at the peak of the pyramid of sparkling wine," he says. "We have to go on improving."

"Plénitude 2 is an answer to that," he adds. "We're still Dom Perignon but we offer something with more intensity, a better aging potential."

Projects like the Plénitude 2 require planning and patience. The plans for this wine began in the 1990's, under the direction of now-former chef de cave Richard Geoffroy. 

"It's a long-term project," Chaperon says. "We started 30 years ago thinking about it."

"Sometimes time is constraint but it can be an advantage," he adds. "Few people today have time."


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