on champagne vintages
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by GIASCO BERTOLI
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you define your work at Dom Pérignon? Oenologist? What is your official title?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Officially, I am the chef de cave, the cellar master. It’s a very complicated mission, quite technical, because the job is making the wine. There’s the vinification, the process — this is what we call oenology, the science of wine. Then, for me, there’s the true dimension of being the chef de Cave for Dom Pérignon: designing the champagne to your own specifications — this is the blending and compositional stage. Then, accompanying the work until the wine actually leaves the cellar…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Taking the wine to the people…
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Being outside, in the light, the limelight, being its director in terms of words and staging it. And the beauty of this mission is to be complete, fully integrated. My job begins at the vineyard — because the great wines begin on the vine — and it ends at our meeting today. It is such a pleasure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Wine and words connect?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes. Although I would say that words do not need wine, but wine does need words. And I have heard people waxing lyrical about wine. For me, words are a natural extension of wine. They’re inseparable.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And describing a wine or a Champagne, which I’ve heard you do, requires a very precise vocabulary, a certain sensitivity. You have to be able to translate the sensations of the palate.
RICHARD GEOFFROY — But the trap, for those who work with wine, is to speak of it in purely technical terms, in esoteric, oenological jargon, which only makes sense to technicians. For over 20 years, I have tried to find words to use as substitutes for the expert terminology, words from real life, without losing accuracy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — All right, talk to me about Dom Pérignon, because unfortunately it seems that Champagne has been rendered somewhat common. It seems shameful to say that in our privileged world of soirées and dinners, but it has become the common beverage for celebrations. We forget that it is a wine, with the same complexity and variety as other wines.
RICHARD GEOFFROY — I would say that Champagne can be easily lost in the codes of celebration — it is now considered a prerequisite for all kinds of gatherings. Obviously when you are having Dom Pérignon or some other high-end Champagnes, there’s a wine dimension and a dream sensation, which goes much further. Dom Pérignon’s claim is an ambition to create a presence, prestige and standing. The project here is to create a vintage, meaning from one year exclusively, and thus to be able to speak of the characteristics of each year fully, profoundly, in great detail, and to then have many distinctive, completely unique vintage wines. It’s imperative; it’s a perpetually renewed project. In fact, repetition becomes the enemy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So that people will understand better — and because I didn’t know this myself — many Champagnes mix different wines of different years together.
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Exactly. The heart of Champagne production, meaning more than 90 percent of Champagne, is not vintage; it is blended with several successive years of grape harvests, creating a certain consistency and continuity, delivering a highly recognizable and rather fixed identity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Between different Champagnes?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Exactly. So the Dom Pérignon position is to have on one hand, a vintage wine, exclusive to a single year, and at the same time, the recognizable, inimitable quality of a Dom Pérignon. It’s a game, a balancing act between the vintage grapes of one year and the extremely well-known Dom Pérignon brand.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But there must be risks, because sometimes you have a bad year?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes, because Champagne growing depends on the climate. There are many ups and downs: years where there is almost no harvest, years without the right quality of grape or taste, years without the typicality required, which means that none of them may be used to make Dom Pérignon. We only make an average of six to seven vintages in a decade.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But when you have “bad” years, doesn’t it affect your sales? Obviously there are some years that are not represented?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes, there are. If you look at the recent history of Dom Pérignon, right now we are working on the 2003 vintage; soon we’ll get to the 2004. This is since the magical, glorious 1990 vintage. There was no ’91, no ’94, no ’97, no rosé in ’99 or in 2001. It’s the price we pay for being so demanding in terms of quality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now please explain to me the whole wine “journey” — what affects the vines? Rain, sun, snow, wind?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — All of that. However, sometimes certain events that may seem adverse end up contributing to the greatness of a vintage. It is the sum of all these inflections, aggressions, and beneficial periods. You can tell during the year, you can predict a little by tasting the grapes at the time of the harvest, but in truth you have to have already made a lot of wine before you can even think of blending them or of having a correct, objective idea about the vintage. Time is part of the equation of Dom Pérignon. Time, and sufficient distance to be able to ascertain and certify the year’s quality, as well as the time it takes for the wine to develop in the cellar. We are currently presenting our 2004 vintage, meaning we’re nine years away from a vintage.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the person who decides the moment to begin the harvest is you?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes. Great wines are made on the vine. In fact I would say that modern oenology is as much about the vine as about the cave. And the crowning moment is the decision of exactly when to pick. This is when you decide about the maturity level of the grape and therefore the level of richness in the final wine. One of the great principles of Dom Pérignon, is not to be too much, either in terms of strength or intensity.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So there is the vineyard then afterward the assemblage. What does that mean exactly?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Dom Pérignon is the assemblage, the blending, of two varieties. For the white, it is Chardonnay, and for the black it is Pinot Noir — they’re among the greatest varieties available on the planet, sourced from not less than 20 villages, what we call the 17 Grands Crus, and we produce each one individually. So it is the blending of different geographic vineyards and varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And you create a completeness based on this constellation of origins.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you can taste the variations?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Of course. You have to taste them individually, understand them intimately, organically, before even thinking about the blend.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re by yourself or you have a team?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — There is a team, but there is no committee making decisions. I am the person responsible for this.
OLIVIER ZAHM — When do you make the blend?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — We wait until the wines are true white wines: dry, filtered, complete wines. We need to wait until there is stability in their expression before we can consider blending them. Time-wise, if we are assuming that we are harvesting in September or October — although there have been exceptions in August, but that is pretty rare — the blending stage doesn’t begin until the end of the year or the beginning of the following year. The blending needs to be done, in theory, by March or April, seven months later.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where do the bubbles in Champagne come from?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — It is a natural effervescence. In the Champenois jargon it is called the prise de mousse (the sparkling or carbonation process). The wine begins its carbonation in the same bottle that ends up on the table, through a second fermentation that we set in motion. It could happen spontaneously, but that’s a little too random, so we decided a long time ago to control it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you have to know how to stop it?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — It just sort of peters out naturally. Then the wine, over the nine to 10 years until it comes out of the cellar, will continue to mature with the remaining sediment of the yeast, which gives it depth and a phenomenal complexity. It is one of the great secrets, this absolutely magical connection to nature, to the seasons, the soil.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this the case for all Champagnes?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — No, I am speaking of Dom Pérignon exclusively. We go much further than anyone else. It’s the minimum required, for a Champagne to be labeled Dom Pérignon.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In this relationship to time, are fewer years not as good, and more years taking a risk?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Well, fewer years means the wine is not as good because it has not been finished, it isn’t worthy of the Dom Pérignon label, and it is still becoming. I do not see any risk in waiting for too long. All the vintages of Dom Pérignon have a potential for phenomenal maturation. These wines — as long as they stay in the cave of Dom Pérignon in Champagne, as long as they still have the sediment of the yeast that made them effervesce in the bottle — are almost eternal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In 100 or 150 years, we can take out a bottle of Dom Pérignon and celebrate its success.
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Absolutely. It is such intriguing magic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do we know where Champagne came from? How it appeared? Was it an accident in the beginning?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Like many things in the history of man, it was discovered by accident. Champagne, as we know it, dates from the late 17th century.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s still relatively recent: the 17th century makes it a modern invention. But wine goes back to 2000 B.C. So was Champagne an aristocratic beverage right from the start?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — It didn’t take long — maybe 50 years — to reach the Regency, making it early 18th century, when it was definitively adopted. The monk whose name was Dom Pérignon — whose name we proudly carry — is the spiritual father, the discoverer of Champagne. It was he, through patient trials of observation and experimentation, who succeeded in capturing this effervescence — which initially was natural, but which only needed to be fixed, set, then appreciated and consumed in the bottle. It’s quite special developing the wine that carries the name of the man who is unanimously considered its founder. How many brands in the world bear the names of the creator of their category? It’s quite unusual.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I had no idea. Was he successful back then?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes. That monk, Dom Pérignon, in the latter half of the 17th century, was as much an entrepreneur as he was a creator and discoverer. It worked. It was quite inspiring at that time…
OLIVIER ZAHM — And he was religious…
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes, what a fascinating period. It was the century of Enlightenment. I have always thought that Champagne could only have happened at that time. Dom Pérignon was indeed an entrepreneur, an ambassador, in direct correspondence with the courtiers to the King of France. There was even a halcyon period of six or seven years during which the Court of the Sun King drank Champagne exclusively. The wines were sold for so much more than what was normal at that time. The taste for French luxury products was perhaps developed then.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you agree with the idea that wine is a kind of remedy or support?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — It is true that wine in its composition has many elements necessary for many things in the physiology of man. But honestly, perhaps the greatest contribution to our well-being is something mental, a kind of elevation of the spirit, an opening, freedom of expression.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How is the world of wine evolving these days? Do you think it’s going well? In California, I see all these wines that are grown without fertilizer, without pesticides, and I have friends who are wild about all these wines filtered according to the ancient methods. Are you skeptical of this? These wines made the way they were in the Middle Ages, with the ancestral methods? You’re smiling.
RICHARD GEOFFROY — I am smiling because the method is not the finality. The “how” is never the finality. For me, the real stakes in wine are not there. The real stakes are those of accessibility, comprehension, sharing, bringing people together. And there are many different ways of getting there. There isn’t just one. But I think that in the wine community — those who make wine, who talk about it, who love it — their mission is usually to win an audience, something I find a bit narrow in scope. Wine is too intimidating, and it is our responsibility to be accessible, to make sure our wine is friendly. In terms of methods, what I know is that wine must be a faithful representation of nature. That is what people want. So is it necessary to go back to ancestral methods, or in the other direction, very progressive ones? I don’t know. Maybe both can work. I believe in tension, lines of tension. And this tension would be between an assimilated history and progress, which doesn’t scare me at all.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you become one of the great specialists — since you don’t like the word “expert?”
RICHARD GEOFFROY — It was a choice. It’s my love for wine that brought me here, although it wasn’t at all like that in the beginning. My family has been active and working in the world of vines and wine, in Champagne, for seven generations. But I decided to be a rebel … so I studied medicine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To escape?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Yes, and then I came back. It was a choice. There is nothing better than choosing your path, and I did it. What is good is having options. And my privilege has been this choice. It’s my passion.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you consider yourself to be a creator, an artist of this world?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Something between a curator and a creator.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are there vintages that turn out better than others?
RICHARD GEOFFROY — Absolutely, but I’m not going to say which ones. I often say that the years when Dom Pérignon chooses not to make a vintage are as defining of its character as the years in which we choose to create one. It’s very important.
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