Champagne's Dom Pérignon: The Gold Beneath the Glitz

Some might think the wine behind the iconic label is an afterthought, but ultimately the product delivers the goods
Champagne's Dom Pérignon: The Gold Beneath the Glitz
How does an iconic Champagne stay at the top? (Lee Osborne)
Dec 10, 2018

Note: This tip originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2018, issue of Wine Spectator, "Tillman Fertitta."

There's a new chef in the cave at Dom Pérignon. After nearly three decades, head winemaker Richard Geoffroy is passing the baton to Vincent Chaperon. Chaperon, who officially takes over on Jan. 1, 2019, has his work cut out for him.

Just as Champagne has become an international symbol of celebration and luxury, Dom Pérignon, the prestige cuvée from Moët & Chandon, has become one of the most recognizable labels in Champagne. It's seemingly everywhere—in films and pop songs, on restaurant wine lists, in collectors' cellars. And despite its high price and air of exclusivity, it is one of the top-selling Champagnes in the United States, with nearly 60,000 cases of the famed bubbly shipped here in 2017, according to Impact Databank (a sister publication of Wine Spectator).

Some might assume that the wine behind the iconic label could be an afterthought. But no brand can stand on image alone. Ultimately, the product has to deliver the goods. The team responsible for what's in the bottle has a huge task—to maintain the wine's quality, consistency and character.

And Dom Pérignon's track record is about as good as it gets. Since Wine Spectator's first review of the 1975 Dom Pérignon Brut Rosé in a 1985 issue of the magazine, the publication's tasters have reviewed Dom Pérignon bottlings regularly. Of these 68 ratings, about 80 percent comprise scores of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, including 18 in the classic range of 95 to 100 points.

Geoffroy, now 64, joined the Moët & Chandon winemaking team in 1985, working with Dominique Foulon, chef de cave across both Moët and Dom Pérignon Champagnes at the time. Geoffroy's talents were quickly recognized; in 1990, he was named chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, mentored by Foulon until Foulon's retirement in 2000. As Geoffroy looks back on his long career, he reflects on the way Dom Pérignon has changed over the years, and how he has managed that evolution while staying true to the wine's heritage.

Three aspects have had the most impact: reacting to the effects of climate change; adjusting viticulture and vinification techniques to adapt to those changes; and adopting a new strategy of cellar releases to highlight the Champagne's aging capacity. Each of these innovations has revised, in some way, the old idea of Dom Pérignon, helping the brand to achieve new depth and precision.

Respecting the vintage

Lee Osborne
Vincent Chaperon is taking over as chef de cave in 2019.

"Our [Dom Pérignon] style must come through stronger than the vintages," Geoffroy told Wine Spectator in a 1995 interview.

Of course, Dom Pérignon is a vintage-dated cuvée, and thus is hostage to the vagaries of each growing season. The challenge for a great chef de cave is the process of blending dozens of still wines from multiple vineyard sources, creating a still wine blend that will then undergo a second fermentation (and creation of the bubbles), ultimately resulting in an emblematic Champagne.

But Geoffroy's early approach was to submerge vintage character into the classic Dom Pérignon style.

At the time of Geoffroy's promotion to chef de cave, the signature style of Dom Pérignon was that of finesse; crisp acidity and minerality finely layered with subtle fruit, pastry and spice notes. Alongside some of Champagne's more opulent versions, those that spoke at greater volume, Dom Pérignon's quiet elegance was sometimes overlooked—easy to miss. In his first few years as chef de cave, Geoffroy diligently upheld the Dom Pérignon style, producing the finely woven 1995 (93 points on release), the seamless 1996 (93) and the refined 1998 (90), among others.

As the new millennium approached, Geoffroy would begin to shift the overall expression of the wine. "There's been quite an evolution from 2000 onwards to the overall Dom Pérignon style," he says. "It started in 2000, but then it really showed in 2002."

The 2000 vintage marked the beginning of a decade of growing seasons that can be generally grouped as "warm" for the region, but which have very little in common otherwise. Additionally, they largely stray from the typical conditions that Champagne producers worked with in preceding decades. The new normal in Champagne is that there is no normal anymore. This creates challenges for consistency, but also opportunities for greater expression.

"It's a case of reciprocity: You have to achieve Dom Pérignon character within the vintage, and vintage character in the Dom Pérignon," Geoffroy told me last year as I visited the Champagne region. "I think [our wines] are more vintage character than ever before, yet we have very much pushed the Dom Pérignon style."

Moët & Chandon released a Dom Pérignon bottling from 2000 through 2009 with the exception of the lesser-quality 2001 and 2007 vintages—more releases in a decade than at any previous point in the cuvée's history, another subtle statement toward the focus on vintage character. Selected highlights include a pair of 96-point wines: the Brut Rosé Dom Pérignon 2003 and the recently released Brut Dom Pérignon Legacy Edition 2008.

Refining the winemaking

Lee Osborne
Richard Geoffroy (left) and Vincent Chaperon

As Geoffroy and his team applied their expertise to taming the disparate vintages of the early 2000s, they realized that aspects of their grapegrowing and winemaking needed to change. For example, Geoffroy credits the conditions in 2003—including days of unrelenting, record-breaking heat—with leading him to a new way to interpret structure in Dom Pérignon.

"Bitterness is key to 2003," says Geoffroy, "It stands in place of the acidity." The pleasing bitterness Geoffroy was able to capture in his 2003 was the result of the thick skins and high polyphenol levels present among the grapes harvested that year, due to dehydration of the berries as the heat wave went on.

As the overall approach to Dom Pérignon shifted, Geoffroy also saw the opportunity to push the envelope on the rosé version. "We really went for it in '00," Geoffroy told Wine Spectator in 2010, speaking of the 2000 rosé. "We changed a lot of parameters."

At harvest, this included prioritizing phenolic ripeness ahead of sugar ripeness. Though each vintage requires different handling, this concept, which runs in the face of convention in Champagne, would become a guiding philosophy over the coming years for both the blanc and rosé Dom Pérignons.

"Flavors, phenolics, pH—these are the primary things to monitor—not sugars," said Geoffroy in 2017.

In winemaking for the rosé, Geoffroy began employing techniques in the cellar to extract flavor and structure from the fermenting grapes more gently, as well as racking off the skins earlier. The resulting wines offered a more balanced structure, one that would complement a higher portion of still red wine in the rosé's blend. Today, Dom Pérignon rosé includes more than 20 percent blended still red wine, and the wines are more deeply hued and intense in flavor as a result.

Revisiting the cellar

Lee Osborne
Tweaking the approach over time, both in the cellar and in the vineyards, has been key to the Champagne's success.

Most Champagne is non-vintage and meant for drinking on release. But great vintage Champagnes age at least as well as the world's best red wines.

The challenge, as with red wines, is finding bottles that have been kept in correct conditions. And with Champagne, there's another wrinkle: disgorgement. Anyone with a good cellar can purchase and age a Champagne disgorged for initial release; in that case, maturation takes place in an oxidative way, via the slow interaction of oxygen with the wine via the cork. But in the Champagne houses' own cellars, older Champagnes are kept undisgorged, on the enriching lees—the yeast cells and other particulates resulting from the wine's second fermentation. This matter is removed during disgorgement, and therefore not present for Champagne aged in a conventional manner.

Prior to Geoffroy's tenure, connected wine lovers and buyers seeking older vintages could make their requests directly to Dom Pérignon, and inventory would be disgorged to comply. Geoffroy felt this system failed to show aging Dom Pérignon at its best, that there was too much variability. So he created Dom Pérignon's Oenothèque series in 2000, offering the 1985 and the 1973 as selected vintage Champagne disgorged and released at a peak moment of maturation.

But even this approach lacked the precision Geoffroy sought in the wines. So in 2014, he introduced the Plénitude program, which replaced the Oenothèque releases and labels going forward. With Plénitude, Geoffroy strove to select an optimum moment for the late disgorgement of a Dom Pérignon that has aged in a reductive way. The goal is to highlight three different phases of Dom Pérignon: the initial release, with disgorgement after six years of aging; the P2 label, with disgorgement after 12 to 16 years; and P3 with disgorgement after 20 to 30 years.

"Not many people are making a statement of what yeast maturation is all about. Plénitude is to make the statement again and again," said Geoffroy. "To me, yeast maturation is the mystery of Champagne, it's the beauty. ... It's more than being complex in aromatics, it's also a magnificence of mouthfeel and length in the bouquet."

"Time is a constraint as well as an opportunity," said Chaperon while discussing the Plénitude program in 2016. "A constraint because our wine has to defy time, but an opportunity to show that it can be even more with that time when properly attended to."

Currently, Dom Pérignon offers the Brut Dom Pérignon Plénitude P2 2000 (97, $395) and the Brut Dom Pérignon Plénitude P3 1988 (NR, $1,000). Both are available in limited quantities, the P3 in particular. However, the wines offer a fascinating insight into the aging capability of vintage Champagne. In April 2017, a tasting of a conventionally aged bottle of an initial release 2002 Dom Pérignon versus the yet-to-be-released 2002 P2 was particularly instructive. The initial release offered ripe, rich secondary characteristics, while the P2 showed comparable richness, but more vibrancy, with a fresher range of flavor and a lovely creaminess.

Renewing for the future

Richard Newton
Amid a transition, the prestige of Dom Pérignon will endure, says senior editor Alison Napjus.

The official announcement of Geoffroy's retirement took place in June of this year during a hand-over ceremony at the Abbey of Hautvillers, where the historical Dom Pierre Pérignon lived and made wine in the late 1600s. In attendance were the past, present and future of Dom Pérignon, with Dominique Foulon, Geoffroy and Vincent Chaperon all playing a role in the day's events.

"It was very emotional," says Geoffroy. "In fact we did everything we could to make it emotional! But the problem is, when you want to make people cry, there's the chance you cry yourself."

Chaperon honored his mentor with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince. "I had to find a few words to describe my relationship with Richard," says Chaperon, "And it's not so easy."

Chaperon, 42, has a Bordeaux wine-family background. He studied enology at the University of Montpellier and practiced winemaking at wineries around the world before joining Moët & Chandon in 1999, working on a project to study cork supply. In 2000, he returned to Champagne as part of Moët & Chandon's winemaking team before transitioning to focus on Dom Pérignon exclusively in 2005.

Geoffroy's winemaking path to Dom Pérignon was less direct than Chaperon's relatively straightforward route. Though he never practiced, Geoffroy received a medical degree from the University of Reims before turning to wine. But the time that each spent working closely with a mentor (the preceding chef de cave), honing expertise and being saturated in the Dom Pérignon style, is remarkably similar. As I've met them both separately and together over the years, I've noted that if I didn't know who was sitting in front of me and speaking, I'd be torn as to whether it was Geoffroy or Chaperon. They share an ethos that comes across very clearly.

As such, it's doubtful we'll see any immediate changes to Dom Pérignon under Chaperon's guidance. Even Geoffroy's innovations happened slowly, developing from idea to reality over the course of three decades' work. Chaperon will likely take a similar approach, responding to vintage conditions as they come, taking opportunities to evolve where possible, but always staying true to the core style and philosophy of Dom Pérignon.

"The destiny of Dom Pérignon is to continue going further, to improve, and to transmit this message," says Chaperon, "Every event is not necessarily to educate—it's to experience."

Changing an icon isn't easy, yet Geoffroy managed it seamlessly. Many Dom Pérignon lovers from the 1990s remain true to the brand today, while new wine lovers have also come on board.

Like many wine drinkers, my first taste of Dom Pérignon, in the late 1990s, was centered around a special occasion, my college graduation. It was a 1992, not a great vintage for Dom Pérignon or the Champagne region as a whole. Nevertheless the harmony of that 1992 echoes in the current releases of Dom Pérignon from recent tastings, albeit I find greater intensity and expression from newer vintages overall. This is the legacy of Richard Geoffroy, and the reason that Dom Pérignon will endure, rightfully maintaining its place as one of the Champagne region's top prestige cuvées.

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