As I have mentioned on this blog at least 27 times, I am a bit of a champagne geek (so much so that I know that in French, “champagne” [lower case] is masculine and refers to the wine, while “Champagne” [upper case] is feminine and refers to the region).
As such, fairly early in my bubbles appreciation, I decided to dismiss Moët et Chandon as a “legitimate” champagne for a couple of reasons. First, as part of the LVMH Moët Hennessy–Louis Vuitton SE multi-national, luxury goods conglomerate, headquartered in Paris, I figured the wines were fabricated, mass-produced, soulless, and well, not very good.
Second, the few time that I tried the non-vintage wines, I was less-than enamored, thus more or less confirming my first reason. So, I became part of the champagne snob horde, bashing Moët (and a few others) at any opportunity.
[That did not include Dom Pérignon, of course, which is under (however loosely) the Moët et Chandon awning. The few Doms that I have had rank among the best wines I have tasted—with a 1973 Dom remaining, perhaps, the best wine that has ever crossed my lips.]
My apathy (to put it mildly) for the brand extended to the cellar visits conducted at the winery, located in Epernay, France. I would often lead bike tours in Champagne, which often included stops at some of the larger houses. Moët et Chandon has some very nice caves, but the tours themselves seemed overly scripted and rehearsed.
My disdain for the brand was solidified as recently as this past October, when I tried a bottle of the Moët Imperial Rosé, which left me less than enthralled. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote a scant six months ago:
While there is a beautiful salmon color and a nice nose of red berry fruit, this is simply just too sweet and lacks the requisite acidity that is found in even average champagnes. Good, I guess. 84-86 Points.
Thus, when I was asked about a month ago to attend a lunch with the Chef de Cave (Cellar Master, i.e., head winemaker) at Moët et Chandon, I had to think about it for more than a minute or two. In fact, had the lunch not been at a’Bouzy, a relatively new Houston restaurant that specializes in champagne, I likely would have turned it down.
And, as it turned out, that would have been a huge mistake.
For Moët has changed. A lot.
The main reason for that change is Benoit Gouez, who was appointed Chef de Cave at Moët in 2005 at the rather tender age of 35, only seven years after joining the house as an assistant winemaker in 1998, thus 2018 served as his 21st harvest at Moët.
Upon meeting Benoit, three things were clear: he is particularly tall for a Frenchman (6’3” or around 1m91), is incredibly engaging, and has an absolutely magnificent head of hair. I am not sure if he caught me admiring his locks, but I was handed a glass of Brut Imperial and that certainly shifted my attention.
NV Moët et Chandon Impérial: Retail $45. 30-40% Pinot Noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier, 20-30% Chardonnay. Impérial first made its debut in 1869, to celebrate what would have been Napoléon Bonaparte’s 100th birthday, and named in his honor (for those not up on French history, Napoléon was the emperor of France). Napoléon was a big fan of champagne, and was particularly close with Claude Moët, the founder of Moët et Chandon. Thus, Impérial has been the flagship wine of Moët for the last 150 years, defining the house and brand. The last decade or so have brought incredible change to the wine, with Benoit’s commitment to higher quality fruit and his determination to reduce the dosage (essentially, the level of sweetness in the wine). Since 2005, he has reduced the dosage nearly in half (from 13 grams per liter down to seven) and has designs to reduce it even more. The difference is striking. Citrus and yeasty, but more of a funky kind of yeast–more like beer than brioche. Quite tart on the palate, without the slightest hint of sweetness that marked my previous experiences with this wine. This is also the first time that I have thought that Impérial would be better with food–or more precisely both the food and the wine would be improved when served together. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the “best” non-vintage champagne I have had, but it has caused me to contemplate whether my long-standing anti-Moët stance still has merit. Moët might deserve again a seat aside the other quality large houses. This might require more research, however, which I will gladly undertake. Very Good to Excellent. 88-90 Points.
As we sipped on champagne and slurped down a few oysters, Benoit explained that he was not born into wine, in fact, he hails from Brittany, in Northern France where the closest vineyard was probably 300 kilometers away. Perhaps, as a result, he never contemplated wine as a career and went off to Montpellier to study science. It was there, at the École Nationale Supérior d’Agronomie that a few professors sparked an interest in viticulture that would eventually cause him to switch fields.
After graduating, he went west to start making wine, not in France, but in the U.S. (Scharffenberger), Australia (Margaret River), and New Zealand (Cloudy Bay). He thought at the time that there were only two regions in France that he had no desire to work: Bordeaux since he found the Bordelais too stodgy and closed off, and Champagne since he did not think there was much of a challenge in making a Brut Non-Vintage wine.
With that, we moved on to the Rosé Impérial, and I was once again pleasantly surprised.
NV Moët et Chandon Rosé Impérial: Retail $65. 40-50% Pinot Noir, 30-40% Pinot Meunier, 10-20% Chardonnay, with 10% still Pinot Noir added for color. Not too long ago, I bought a bottle of Rosé Impérial from a rather disreputable source (I have a bit of a history of making such purchases), and it was, well, regrettable. I made a statement (quoted above) that I thought was fairly precise and encapsulated what I thought of the wine (and therefore house). And. I. Might. Have. Been. Wrong. I have no idea when the wine was bottles or disgorged or how long it was on the “shelf” but I do know that it was not stellar. This bottle, though? Pretty close to stellar. Rather dark for a rosé–close to the color profile of a Tavel, in fact. The fruit is abundant on the nose as well as the palate, and it is a delightfully well-balanced wine. So much so that I actually am contemplating purchasing more. But from a more reliable source, perhaps. Excellent. 90-92 Points.
I will be back with more of my conversation with Benoit and the tasting notes from three vintage wines tomorrow.