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Dom Pérignon chef de cave Richard Geoffroy hangs up his boots and looks to a quieter future.
It feels almost surreal. Richard Geoffroy, the archetype of the LVMH chef de cave – multilingual, adept at PR, and always on the move – is set to retire at the end of this year.
On January 1, 2019, Vincent Chaperon will become the new Dom Pérignon chef de cave, succeeding Geoffroy, who held the role for 28 years and with whom he has worked closely since 2005.
It might take some getting used to. Between 1990 and 2009 Richard Geoffroy declared no fewer than 15 vintages, and has been a familiar and welcome face at events and tastings held worldwide.
His legacy is considerable; since 1990, Geoffroy has been steering Dom Pérignon towards ever-greater precision and global renown; he is also responsible for the creation of the Plenitudes concept – P2 and P3 and their vocation to express the successive plateaux of Dom Pérignon as it matures.
"My ambition was to introduce playfulness into Dom Pérignon," says Geoffroy. "Vincent Chaperon and I have been bringing playfulness into the game, into the wine, into the entire brand."
His successor first joined Moët & Chandon in 1999, becoming assistant winemaker in 2000. Since he began working with Geoffroy in 2005, he has taken part in 13 harvests and declared four vintages with him.
"My predecessor Dominique Fallon was a man of few words, and I've been trying to tell Vincent how lucky he is that I'm more verbose," laughs Geoffroy. "Humanity and humility are the values I wanted to bequeath to him."
In a typically reflective mood, the would-be doctor admits that "when I took over the chef de cave position, it was a few years before I really felt I inhabited the role".
"The '90s were difficult for Champagne and the region went through a crisis. But we have been constantly pushing the expression of Dom Pérignon, drawing on what we've learnt and then pushing it that bit further – we need to be the witnesses of the vintage," he adds.
Geoffroy's final attempt at "witnessing the vintage" is a fitting swansong – the much-vaunted 2008 vintage of Dom Pérignon is described as "slender, pure and athletic" by the outgoing chef de cave, saved by the month of September after a difficult growing season.
"Dom Pérignon 2008 liberates the 2008 vintage," says Geoffroy. "It frees it from an over-literal interpretation of the canons of Champagne."
He continues: "This is a game for grown-ups, as there are many risks. In Champagne so much of the grandeur comes from constraints, like a difficult vintage. You cannot give anything up, and we're always looking to turn those constraints into opportunities."
Yet should the inimitable winemaker really be remembered, first and foremost, as the man who made Champagne in vintages where others wouldn't dare?
A certain controversy has hung over Champagne in recent years, with a growing number of houses declaring vintages in difficult/poor years, to the chagrin of some critics and commentators.
"Making a wine in 2003 [a notoriously torrid year] is my proudest career move," answers Geoffroy.
"We didn't have to declare the vintage, but it was our gut feel and we took on the challenges one by one. And it really was the mother of all challenging vintages – throwing grenades at us along the way. We went off-beat – radical winemaking."
However, Geoffroy adds that, in hindsight, the vintage was released "too early", and that it required a lengthy maturation on the lees to reach its potential.
"It was eight years on the lees, but the wine was not yet ready," he says. "It needed another one to two years. But it brought the team together on another level – there is before and after 2003. We collectively grew up through the experience and it's pretty exhilarating."
Indeed, and after such a rewarding career, could Geoffroy really be satisfied with gardening and gazing at pictures of his grandchildren on Instagram?
"I might still be involved with DP for some special projects," he says, emphasizing that he's not about to become a pipe and slippers man.
"But then I will also be working on some personal projects – an ambitious start up and not in wine. I'll tell you more next year."
At the end of the 17th Century, Dom Pierre Pérignon stated his ambition to create ‘the best wine in the world’. On 29 September 1694, Dom Pierre Pérignon wrote that his mission was to create “the best wine in the world.” He dedicated himself to improving viticulture techniques, perfecting the art blending grapes from different crus, and introduced the gentle and fractional pressing to obtain white wine from black grapes.Ever since, the House of Dom Pérignon has perpetuated this visionary approach instilled by its founder, one that remains a hallmark of true luxury: the constant reinvention of the exceptional.
Under the creative leadership of cellar master Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon is reinvented with every vintage. The miraculous concept of assemblage – the delicate balance between Pinot Noir and Chardonnay – and the commitment to Vintage are instrumental in the act of creation, revealing the wine's extra soul. Precise and tactile to the point of seamlessness, tense through rhythm and vibrancy, vigorous and fresh yet mature, intense and complex – such is the sensual style of Dom Pérignon: so inviting, yet so mysterious...
The core of the blend are the eight historical Grands Crus, Aÿ, Bouzy, Verzenay, Mailly, Chouilly, Cramant, Avize and Le Mesnil, plus the legendary Hautvillers Premier Cru. Dom Perignon also has the unique privilege of being able to select grapes from all 17 Grands Crus in Champagne. giving birth to Dom Perignon's highly intriguing contrast".
In July 2009, nothing could have let us foresee that this would be the vintage of paroxysmal fruit. A cold winter followed by a mild and rainy spring; a difficult flowering season with strong downy mildew pressure, worsened by thunderstorms in July: things were not looking bright until a perfect month of August. The weather turned dry and hot until the end of harvest, with the exception of some hail on Hautvillers, Verzenay and Chouilly at the beginning of September. The harvest, which started on September 12, was idyllic. The grapes, in perfect condition, showed an incredible level of maturity.
The fruit. The rich, ripe yet fresh fruit. This is what I will remember from 2009: the paroxysmal fruit and its promise of energy, freshness and texture in the wine to come. 2009 is a seminal vintage, along with 2003, 1996 or 1990. And it might never have existed if not for those vintages and the experience we were able to accumulate.
Let us go back to the fruit. In Dom Pérignon Vintage 2009, the fruit is superlative, majestic: plump, profound, intense yet weightless. We might never equal such ripeness again. The influence of the fruit on the nose is clear: guava, pomelo, white peach, nectarine… On the palate, the fruit becomes tactile: the wine is vibrant, full of energy. The finish is a subtle play between effervescence, tannins and salinity.
The active maturation in our cellars has sublimated the fruit of 2009. In Dom Pérignon Vintage 2009 I find a principle of reciprocity: ever more of the vintage in Dom Pérignon; ever more of Dom Pérignon in the vintage.
ON THE NOSE
Notes of guava and spicy green grapefruit zest combine with stone fruit: white peach and nectarine. The wine opens up, with the whole complemented by woody vanilla and warm, lightly toasted brioche.
ON THE PALATE
The fruit is majestic: ripe, fleshy and profound. Beyond the richness and a certain voluptuousness is a strong impression of consistency that prevails. The wine’s power is remarkably restrained. The various sensations – silky, salty, sappy, bitter and briny – converge and persist.
Dom Pérignon Vintage 2009 is a wine that needs to be excited. It needs a framework, it appeals to be stretched with contrasts.
The champagne reaches out to the "vegetable" and "mineral" worlds, calling out by sea urchin carbonara with cardamom mousse. It works brilliantly when it has something to chew on: octopus marinated in Sicilian orange juice and roasted in butter.
Warmest conditions since 2003, optimal maturity, healthy fruit. Balanced wines with average sugars, lower acidities. High overall maturity. Vintage year for some, principally récoltants-manipulants (individual growers). In ’09, new EU rules reduced dosage for Brut to 12 g/l.