A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to lunch with Benoit Gouez, the Chef de Cave at Moët et Chandon. We talked about a variety of subjects and tasted through five of his wines. Yesterday, I published the first part of our conversation as well as the notes for the Non-Vintage Impérial and Impérial Rosé, both of which have change rather dramatically for the better since Benoit has taken over. Below is the rest of our conversation, plus tasting notes for the three vintage wines Benoit presented.
While we were still tasting through the Impérial Rosé, Benoit gave a bit of a history of the “White Star” a bottling of Moët that predated Impérial. White Star was made for other markets such as Russia, Germany, and the United States where customers preferred their champagne a bit sweeter (White Star had around 20 grams of sugar per liter compared to Impérial, which at the time had 13 g/l—as I mentioned yesterday, Benoit has gradually lowered that down to 7 g/l).
For a while, both White Star and Impérial were both available in the U.S., which many found confusing as they were similar in price and only slightly different in packaging. Ten years ago, though, Moët decided that it would be better to have only one flagship wine worldwide and discontinued White Star, leaving Impérial as the most widely available wine from Moét et Chandon.
As we moved on to the vintage wines, we touched on a variety of topics, starting with the relatively recent trend in Champagne of creating single vineyard wines, wines that champagne producers claim are better at expressing a sense of place. Benoit shared that Moët did dabble in single vineyard wines a few years ago, but soon discovered that “doing little things is not in the DNA of Moét et Chandon. Our DNA is in the blend and being a true négociant.”
In Champagne, a “négociant” or “négociant manipulant” is a house that buys its grapes from many growers from across the region, then blending those resultant wines into a single cuvée. At the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, is the “récoltant manipulant” which is a grower who makes champagne from his own grapes. Many champagne snob types believe that this “grower fizz” is superior, but I am not one who buys into that theory all that much.
After not producing a vintage wine in either 2010 or 2011 (the first time that there were two consecutive years without a vintage for Moët since 1968 & 1969), 2012 has turned out to be a fantastic vintage. It is the 74th vintage produced by the house, which made its first vintage champagne in 1842. Benoit described 2012 as a very difficult year, at least by traditional standards: late frost, heavy rain and hail in the Spring, very cold during flowering. There was good (almost too good) heat during the late summer, though, which led to fantastic ripening and very little rot. Sure, the yields (the amount of grapes produced) was down significantly, but the quality of those grapes was near legendary–perhaps the best since 1996.
2012 Moët & Chandon Champagne Grand Vintage: Retail $75. 41% Chardonnay, 26% Meunier and 33% Pinot Noir, Dossage 5 g/l. This is the current and 74th vintage release from the venerable house, which produced its first vintage wine in 1842. A brilliant light straw in the glass with mostly tree fruit (green apple, pear, peach) coming through. There is also a nuttiness, not as yeasty as I usually expect from a vintage, leading to a quite tart palate. As with most young vintage wines, I feel this is a bit nervous now and could use a bit more time in the bottle to settle down. If you are to drink it now, serve it at more of a cellar temperature (10-13°C or 50-55°F), that is where more aromas and flavors come out. And when they do, almost a whoa. Now? Excellent. 91-93 Points. Give it 5+ years (I would hold it for ten easy)? Outstanding potential. 93-95 Points.
I then asked why Moët does not have any “Grand Cru” specific wines, that also are becoming more common in the market. (In the mid-1900s, each town in Champagne was rated on the Cru scale [Échelle des Crus] based on the quality of the grapes that were grown there. Originally, there were 12 Grand Cru villages, which was expanded to 17 in 1985. Less than 10% of the grapes grown in Champagne are Grand Cru.)
Benoit then expressed his frustration with the Échelle des Crus—he stated that since the rankings were based on the quality of the fruit, the towns that were closer to the cities of Reims and Epernay had a distinct advantage since the fruit had to be transported there in order to be judged. By the time the fruit from the further away towns reached the city, the fruit had degraded considerably. Thus, Benoit relies much more on what is actually happening in the vineyard today rather than what the fruit was like nearly a century ago.
2002 Moët & Chandon Champagne Grand Vintage: Retail $125. 51% Chardonnay, 26% Pinot Noir and 23% Pinot Meunier. The 69th vintage for the house, and another outstanding vintage, which many consider the best of the decade (although some claim 2008), again the best since 1996 (which was only six years prior, but, hey, the champenois love to play the “best since…” game). This is a re-release of the vintage, and it is a fabulous comparison with its decade-younger sibling. Considerably darker in the glass, with more evolved aromas of baked apple, a touch of smokiness, and French bakery baked goodness. The palate is certainly a delight–rich, tart, yeasty, opulent–this is a near perfect example as to why it is a good, no, great idea, to age vintage champagne. This is fantastic now, and might improve further, but I would have to say that the 2012 has a higher ceiling. Yes, I am splitting hairs (another activity the people of Champagne love). OK, Whoa. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
2012 Moët & Chandon Champagne Vintage Rosé: Retail $85. 42% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, 23% Pinot Meunier. The history of vintage rosé at Moët is not quite as long, with the first vintage produced in the 1950s. Still, that is quite the track record. Strikingly similar color and aroma profile to the Rosé Impérial (which is a good thing since both were stellar). On the palate, though, more intense fruit flavors (strawberry, cherry, rhubarb), with a searing acidity that suggests a little more cellar time is warranted. The depth is impressive and the finish even more so—the tart red fruit flavors persisted for well over a minute. Excellent. 91-93 Points.
I could have stayed at a’Bouzy indefinitely, talking to Benoit (and eating the food, which was delicious), but I had another appointment across town and he had a plane to catch. As I walked to my car, I couldn’t help but kick myself. For the past ten years or so I have been eschewing Moët et Chandon—I saw them as a house that had gone full-on corporate and had lost its way.
Clearly, during the past decade, it has found new direction under Benoit Gouez. I couldn’t help but think of all the Moët I should have been drinking. I didn’t fret for very long, however, since they are certainly going to make more.