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Finding the Invisible In Wine

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 15, 2007 10:37am ET

I had lunch a few weeks ago with Richard Geoffroy, the erudite and fascinating chef de cave of Moët & Chandon’s Cuvée Dom Pérignon. He had organized a tasting for me to showcase some recent vintages, some of which will be designated for the Oenothèque program, along with some current and past Oenothèque bottlings.

Geoffroy joined the DP team in 1990 and today oversees the production of all the Moët & Chandon Champagnes. But Dom Pérignon is his focus.

“I’m really pushing the style, the quality,” he said, explaining that the DP style is about the aromatics, the mouthfeel, retaining the character of the fruit and the vintage and a reductive style where the complexity and eventual aromas and flavors develop from long aging on the yeast.

“Let’s make it complex and dimensional in the style of white Burgundy,” he exclaimed.

Geoffroy also said something that got me thinking about how we taste wine. We got talking about Japan when he said: “In Japan, the invisible is as important as the visible."

Like great jazz, the spaces between the notes are as important as the notes themselves.

In Dom Pérignon at its best, the balance of the grapes in the blend, the balance of acidity, fruit and tannin make a seamless connection. The young wines are almost shy, but gain depth and complexity with extended aging on the lees in the bottle. In some vintages, like 1999, 1993, 1992, 1988 and 1973, there’s an absence of volume and immediate impact in lieu of harmony and complexity that emerges with time.

Others have a more immediate impact, like 1996, 1990, 1982 and 1976.

We looked at three decades of DP. The ’90s were represented by 1999 (the current release), 1996, 1990 Oenothèque and 1996 Rosé (the current release). From the ’80s came the 1985 Oenothèque and the 1982. Spanning the ’70s was the 1976 Oenothèque, 1975 (a future Oenothèque), 1973 Oenothèque (from the first release in 2000) and the 1978 Rosé from magnum.

Geoffroy also poured a 1966 Rosé from magnum to reveal the longevity of the Cuvée Dom Pérignon. It was a gorgeous Champagne, still fresh and seemingly getting younger. Gone were the roasted, smoky notes of the ’76, ’75 and ’73, replaced by precise, leafy green aromas of tarragon and privet, with flavors of candied orange peel dipped in chocolate. It was a fleeting, complex wine.

Moët & Chandon introduced the Oenothèque series in 2000. I met with Geoffroy then and we tasted the two vintages shipped to the United States: 1985 and 1973.

The idea behind the Oenothèque concept is that there is an optimum time to disgorge Champagne. Previously, the house disgorged on request, but Geoffroy was tired of the variation in the expressions of a vintage. He decided more control was necessary to ensure consistency in character between vintages.

From his tastings of DP stocks, Geoffroy also discovered three successive stages of plenitude, or fullness, of complexity and expression of a vintage. The first was on release, the second 12 to 16 years after the vintage and the third, 20 to 30 years. These windows also depended on the quality and character of the vintage.

Our tasting revealed the various stages. The DPs from the 1990s were still very young, showing more primary fruit and spice flavors like apricot, peach, pear and citrus, vanilla, ginger and hints of coffee and toast. As they age, the dead yeasts cells add flavor, texture and protect the Champagne from oxidation. “These flavors are always gray [at this stage], never brown, tertiary flavors,” said Geoffroy, referring to the more smoky, roasted flavors that develop with greater aging.

The 1990 was beginning to show more toast and brioche flavors, but it wasn’t until the 1985 that these notes became more prominent.

“By the third release, the fruit has to be absorbed into the wine and the tertiary aromas showing,” explained Geoffroy. This was evident in the flight from the 1970s. There were more smoke, butterscotch, coffee and honey aromas and flavors. Where there was fruit, it was preserved citrus, or citrus peel. The ’76 was all upfront, with power and an immediate impression on the palate; the ’73, on the other hand, was much more subtle in its attack, yet built on the palate to a long conclusion. It was precise, complex and detailed.

“It [the 1973] encapsulates everything we covered today in terms of aromatics, mouthfeel and character, everything,” exclaimed Geffroy. “It’s not the most impressive, but that’s us, that’s our style,” he added.

Which brings me back to the invisible vs. visible components in wine. Some wines reveal big flavors, plenty of body, matched by new oak, wines with outsized personalities. Others speak in whispers, offer finesse, detail, harmony and complexity. As tasters, we have to look closely at such wines, whose absence of easily recognizable, or visible components might cause us to overlook the sheer beauty and pleasure they give.

Charles Smith
November 15, 2007 11:48pm ET
Bruce,When would you recommend opening the 1990 vintage DP regular bottling?
Bruce Sanderson
New York —  November 16, 2007 5:54pm ET
Charles,If you have good storage and you like the flavors of mature Champagne, that is more roasted, nut, coffee, vanilla, toasted brioche, rather than fruit, you could wait another 10 to 15 years no problem. The 1976, 1975 and 1973 were all in great shape and had all the tertiary aromas and flavors you would expect from mature Champagne. Otherwise, you can enjoy it now and over the next 10 years. If you only have one bottle, I would save it for a special occasion.

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