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It’s spring in Épernay, France, and we’re at Moët & Chandon’s L’Orangerie, sitting down with Benoît Gouez, the brand’s chef de cave. This year marks his twentieth with the house, and today he is swirling the newest vintage from 2009 in a large 1960s-style Riedel glass—specifically not a restricting flute, per his request. He’s talking extensively about the importance of a warm fall climate, harvesting grapes by hand, and whether or not we’ll see a 2018 vintage bottle in the future.
For a few days afterward, Whitewall was immersed in the Champagne province, experiencing many of Gouez’s vintage batches from over the years and learning about the brand’s rich history, which dates back to 1743. Even underground, walking through parts of its 17-mile chalk cellar, we saw carvings by those who hand-dug its caves, and a large barrel given by Napoléon Bonaparte—who was one of the house’s buyers and closest companions.
We spoke with Gouez about the brand’s iconic Impérial blend, about crafting bubbly, and about making an ordinary moment special with champagne.
WHITEWALL: Tell us a bit about why Moët & Chandon blends three wines—pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. What is the idea behind the flavor profile?
Benoît Gouez: It’s the idea of producing a champagne that is universal. Universal means that Impérial has to represent Champagne as a whole. It’s not champagne driven by one village; it’s the idea of blending as completely as possible to embrace Champagne. It’s always translated by a blending of a large set of pinot noir, a set of meunier, and a smaller set of chardonnay for freshness.
Pinot noir gives it the structure, meunier the fresh, chardonnay the elegance. All together they help us craft champagne with completeness, and therefore, more versatility. The idea behind Impérial is to seduce and delight as many people as possible. It’s for the world—the idea of celebrating as often and as largely as possible.
WW: Moët & Chandon is known for its Impérial. Can you tell us about how the brand’s estate gives it the diversity and consistency it needs?
BG: It’s been 149 years since our flagship was named Impérial in memory of the relationship between Claude Moët and Napoléon. As Napoléon was born in 1769, a century later the house decided to contribute to that relationship by calling its flagship Impérial.
I would say that what makes Impérial special and Moët & Chandon different from the others is our estate and our grape supply. Jean-Rémy Moët very early had not only the vision that champagne was too good to be kept for local people, but had the vision that to secure the prestige of his name and the quality of his champagne, he had to own land. He had to own the vineyards to really secure the core quality of the blend, so he started to buy vineyards. Since then, generations after generations have continued to buy vineyards in Champagne.
The estate we have today is by far the largest in Champagne, as we own 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres). It is one of the biggest in France. But quantity and quality are not enough. Ultimately, what we are looking for is diversity—blending wine from different harvests. We produce over 800 different wines each year to re-create our different ranges of champagne. So it’s a treasure and a luxury to have access to so many nuances.
WW: What is the process of harvesting grapes and creating the champagne like?
BG: Usually, the harvest in Champagne takes three weeks, maximum. Most of the time it’s concentrated in two weeks, so it’s quite short. Everything is harvested by hand in Champagne in order to preserve the integrity of the grapes—by law. And no irrigation. We don’t need it because we have enough rain and our soil is mostly made of chalk, which tends to keep the moisture. And the cellars are chalk, so even if it’s dry they keep moisture, too.
Then pressing. Pressing is also regulated. There are specific presses that are allowed by law in Champagne and ways of pressing. Fermentation, you do whatever you want, but you are limited. Then we do the full malolactic fermentation to reduce the acidity, in the stainless steel vessels—since the beginning of the 1960s (and we were the first ones in Champagne to do this). That takes about two to three weeks, so usually about mid October we have the first wines ready for tasting. And that’s the first of three fermentations. We usually have around 6,000 different wines to taste during harvest, so we can’t taste that within a day. That takes a few weeks.
WW: What are your thoughts on the new 2009 vintage?
BG: 2009 is a modern style of vintage. It’s a style you have more and more often now due to global warming, which is good for us so far because the challenge in Champagne has been to reach enough maturity in the grapes. In 2009 everything was so ripe and so clean that everything was good—in the pinot noir, meunier, and chardonnay. I was seduced by the pinot noir in 2009. It’s more emotional. I chose it not because its acidity or the structure was perfect, but because it was different and special.
In 2009 we were very fortunate because the climate was perfect, so we reached a level of maturity where the structure of the pinot noir was extremely sophisticated and re ned.
WW: You said that opening champagne can make a moment special, rather than opening champagne for a special moment. Tell us a bit about this mentality.
BG: I open a bottle of Impérial and I make the occasion special. If you only wait for the special occasion when everything is perfect—the right place, the right people—you wait and wait, and most of the time it’s disappointing. The idea of Impérial is that spontaneity and sensibility is immediate pleasure. That’s also part of the universality of Impérial—to be good whatever the circumstance is.