For a Champagne house, the chef de cave is an important position. Like a quarterback in football, he (or she) runs the team. In Champagne, this includes both the vineyard and cellar workers, overseeing the grape contracts with growers, guarding the house philosophy and responsibility for replicating the house style each year in blending the non-vintage wines.
Jacques Peters joined Veuve Clicquot in 1979, but has 42 vintages under his belt, beginning with the 1966 harvest. He is passing the torch this year to Dominique Demarville, who joined Clicquot in 2006, but was formerly chef de cave at G.H. Mumm. Peters and Demarville are the ninth and tenth chefs de cave, respectively, at the house in 236 years. I sat down with them earlier this year.
We talked a little about what it means to have consistency in the succession of chefs de cave for a Champagne house. “Our work begins in the vineyards and the relationship with the growers is very important,” explained Peters. “It is crucial to maintain the consistency of the contracts for Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.”
“I knew Dominique had this experience in the 12 years he had worked at Mumm,” he continued. He is young, 40 years old, competent and passionate, so I knew I made the right choice.”
Demarville and Peters worked together at Clicquot for three years and it was clear the admiration was mutual. “You don’t need three years with Jacques to have Veuve Clicquot in your blood,” he said, addressing a group of journalists later that evening. “In one hour with Jacques, if you don’t already have Veuve Clicquot in your blood, you will.”
Peters and Demarville also commented on the 2008 harvest in Champagne. Though the weather was cloudy over the summer, there wasn’t a lot of rain. Three weeks of sun at the harvest, combined with cold nights and a dry wind from the east created conditions that were “perfect to dry and concentrate the grapes,” said Peters.
“I have never seen such clean, healthy grapes everywhere,” he added, noting that 2008 was exceptional for Pinot Noir and Point Meunier, but less so for Chardonnay, which had a better-quality crop in 2007.
The lack of sun and cold nights at harvest preserved the acidity levels, with plenty of sugar at harvest to achieve the right balance for Champagne. Peters compares 2008 to 1988 in that respect. He likened the balance of ripeness and acidity in 2008 to 1995, 1988 and 1979, all excellent vintages.
They brought along some vins clairs, or base wines, to illustrate the quality. We tasted a Pinot Noir 2008 from Verzy, Pinot Meunier ’08 from Ville-Dommange and Chardonnay ’08 from Oger. The Pinot Noir was firm, with intensity and power matched to focused fruit flavors. The Meunier was softer, with less length, yet with vibrancy. The two Champenois found it more rustic. The Chardonnay offered rich, round profile, with citrus and pear flavors.
We also tasted a Pinot Noir 2002 from Bouzy and Pinot Noir 1995 from Verzenay to illustrate the use of reserve wines in the blend. “We use them as spices in the final blend, it’s a very important part of our process,” said Demarville.
Which brings me to the heart of the chef de cave’s job: blending. Each year for the past 30, Peters has led his team in recreating the Veuve Clicquot style for its Yellow Label NV.
They had just prepared the final blend for the NV that will be released in the United States in 2011. The process begins with 500 samples of vins clairs and 400 samples of reserve wines. The reserve wines are kept in tank, separated by grape variety and cru. The oldest is Chardonnay 1988 from Cramant.
Peters’ team of eight tastes 24 samples each day, always blind. They evaluate each sample on the basis of finesse, structure, mineral flavor, aging potential and reduction. Peters prefers to have reduction at this stage to retain freshness in the final blend.
The team assigns a score to each sample and the scores are averaged. Everyone works together at the same level of knowledge. The tasting process is very democratic, with Peters deciding on the final blend.
I recall a tasting I did with Peters when I visited Veuve Clicquot in 2003. He had prepared a tasting of vins clairs from the 2002 harvest, plus reserve wines from 2001, 2000 and on sample from 1995. I remarked that this must be a very difficult process, demanding great skill. Peters shrugged it off, complimenting his team.
Yet, when you consider that the chef de cave not only must decide on the final blend each year to achieve consistency, it’s also necessary to project this blend three years into the future, to the point when you and I are popping the cork.
Just like the quarterback, you have a team for support, but there’s a lot resting on one individual’s shoulders.