Meeting the Dom Pérignon Cellar Master, Part 2 of 2: The Art of Tasting Champagne

A Dom Pérignon tasting in Montreal // FoodNouveau.com

I recently had the privilege of meeting Mr Richard Geoffrey, the Cellar Master at Dom Pérignon, at a tasting event in Montreal. Because it’s late December, when more champagne is drunk than probably any other time of the year, I thought I’d share the highlights of this conversation with you. This is the second part. In the first part, Mr Geoffrey discusses his creative process, how he finds inspiration and why the Dom Pérignon heritage is so important to him.

What do you like the most about your job at Dom Pérignon?

People often ask me this question, and my answer is:  I like being with people who like Dom Pérignon. This is a very important relationship for me. I live off of people’s passion; with a bottle of Dom Pérignon, at a table with a glass in hand, I discover the real side of people. It’s almost like a case study; I have fun observing reactions, and I notice that emotions are the same in any culture. After a while at a tasting, people can no longer cheat; they speak from the heart.

What has changed in the way people appreciate champagne now, compared to 20 years ago?

(Note: Mr Geoffrey has been Dom Pérignon’s Cellar Master for 22 years.) I think that nowadays people are much more receptive, sophisticated and sensible than before. Champagne makes people listen to their sensible side. When you get back to basics, that is, to human sensibility, there is no culture barrier; emotions are the same in China as they are in Quebec. There comes a time when cultural influences are set aside and then, you reach a state of mind that unites everyone. There’s something very intimate in bringing people together for a wine tasting.

Do you feel privileged to enable people around the world to discover Dom Pérignon wines?

Yes, and it has allowed me to live some incredibly special moments. Five years ago, I experienced a surreal tasting in Tokyo. I was taken to the suburbs to a very upscale wine shop, it was in the afternoon and there were only women  there. These women showed exceptional attention, and even though they didn’t know each other, they seemed united by the same emotion. Then, like a surreal film, a woman stood up, took the floor, and said, “These wines are a mirror of myself. I feel as if I’m watching the film of my life in front of me.” She spoke very softly, everyone was listening to her, and I’ll remember it my whole life. In fact, I think it’s quite true.  Wine brings us back to something that is our own. It’s intimate, much more so than other types of creations are—the big difference being that we ingest wine; it’s not just an external experience. Taste and aroma memory creates links with past intimate moments, and these memories often return without warning, thus the emotion.

The Dom Pérignon caves in Épernay, France // FoodNouveau.com
Photo by Megan Mallen, via Flickr Creative Commons.

What do we need to think about when tasting champagne?

Actually, you shouldn’t think about anything at all. I avoid giving instructions to avoid making wine even more intimidating, because it is rather intimidating already. There is a sort of esoteric nature with wine that is encouraged by some people, and I really hold that against them because they’re doing nothing for the wine. Wine should be much friendlier than that. You just need to be open, understand your own esthetic references, and apply them to the wine. Furthermore, whenever I describe Dom Pérignon wines, I don’t use oenological jargon. My vocabulary comes from the general domain of creation, impressions, and emotions. I often compare wines to individuals and personalities. As with people, beyond the ideals of conventional beauty, there are other types of beauty, such as the beauty of presence and light that is projected through interacting with others. It’s the radiance of Dom Pérignon wines that you should consider when tasting them—the intensity of the taste, the presence in your mouth, the volume, the texture, the way the wine touches and caresses. These wines are sensual; their goal isn’t to overwhelm your with their strength. That contradicts today’s wine world, where power is often judged the most important characteristic. Dom Pérignon refuses the power play and tries to remain on a level of intensity and persistence, and thus of memory. Because, if there is anything important in the world of wine, it is memory.

How important is memory to the tasting experience?

In the fields of fragrance and music, memory is phenomenal. The force and evocation that a fragrance or a piece of music can have on you is incredible: they can literally bring emotions of your life’s experiences back to you. I think wine has that same ability. For me, memory is stronger than is anything else. And memory never derives from power; it comes from intensity. Power is a shock. There is no memory of a shock, only emptiness. It’s neutral. Intensity is what makes memory; it’s penetrating. Complexity is also important. There may be beautiful things that are simple, but great music and great fragrances are complex. Great fragrances never come from one ingredient, and the same goes for wine. Complexities, facets, nuances, and depth; it’s like observing the depth field in a great photograph. It’s a whole, a composition.

According to Cellar Master Richard Geoffrey, Dom Pérignon champagne is best served in wide glasses. // FoodNouveau.com
Photo by Derek L., via Flickr Creative Commons.

You serve Dom Pérignon wines in round, full glasses rather than in flutes.  Why?

The shape of the glass completely changes the taste of the wine for two reasons. The wine breathes better, but the most important thing is that when you drink from a large glass, the wine doesn’t touch the palate in the same way, so you don’t get the same perception. If you are about to have a full meal and Dom Pérignon is served as an aperitif, I like serving it in a flute for my guests to taste something narrower and precise, but then I release the full potential of the wine by serving it in big glasses with the meal. In my opinion, Dom Pérignon is a wine with presence and expansion; it has a way of developing, and it has a volume to express. The best way to let the wine do so is to serve it in a large glass. It’s almost an empirical rule: you taste what you see. If you taste from a narrow glass, you drink narrowly, tightened, stiffly. If you taste from a full glass, you taste fully, and if you have a coupe from the 50s, ample and flared out, it’s beautiful and very glamorous, but the coupe is flat, so the wine, too, will be flat. However, I have to say that that a wine served in a large glass must be able to deliver. It’s not for every wine. You know, it’s like needing to have shoulders wide enough to wear certain suits, if you don’t, you’ll look ridiculous. 

Dom Pérignon is the only producer in Champagne that only produces vintages.  Do you have a favorite vintage year?

Yes. I should say that I don’t have one. It’s like children. You love them all! But actually, you always have a favorite.

Can you tell us which one it is?

Yes, yes. My favorite vintage year is 2003, and I didn’t choose it according to a scale of excellence or for its pedigree. I chose it for the difficulty and the challenge it represented. It’s a completely personal choice. To produce it, I had to take phenomenal risks. I had to know how to win over shareholders, who saw my conviction and let me go with it. Conditions were so extreme that in return, I got more from it. I feel like we literally beat the elements. I’m extremely proud of the work done in this vintage year. There is so much sincerity in this wine, so much love and adventure that naturally, when you drink it, you taste all of this.

Are there years when it is impossible to produce?

Certainly, it happens regularly. When we are in such a quest for excellence, there are times when no matter what we do, we can’t reach it. There are three or four vintage years every decade that are not made. When this happens, nothing is lost. The grape harvested leaves our facilities and is sent to other vineyards. The grapes are still very high quality and will produce great wines. The choice to produce or not is very personal and subjective to Dom Pérignon. The Dom Pérignon grape is always a great grape, but to produce Dom Pérignon, you need excellent grapes. We make no compromises.

Dom Pérignon champagne bottles // FoodNouveau.com
Photo by Max Mayorov, via Flickr Creative Commons.

What’s the difference between a vintage Dom Pérignon and an oenothèque Dom Pérignon?

An oenothèque is the treasure trove of Dom Pérignon. It’s the cellar master’s cellar, a library containing all past vintages. For example, the 1996 vintage was put on the market twice: once in 2003-2004, and second time this year. When a wine is brought out a second time, it becomes oenothèque. We started selling oenothèque wines only 12 years ago as a sign of gratitude to Dom Pérignon enthusiasts. We wanted to allow them to build a closer relationship with Dom Pérignon wines, because the wines that have spent time in an oenothèque are even more “Dom Pérignon”, their features are even more pronounced.

How many bottles are there in the oenothèque?

That number has never been revealed, just like the location of the cellar. It’s a company secret. We have a significant portion of all vintages. When we stop selling the 2003 vintage, for example, we will make sure that we will always have this portion to send to the oenothèque for future releases. All Dom Pérignon wines have a phenomenal keeping potential; I don’t even know if there is even a limit. As long as they the wines stay in the oenothèque, they can keep for well over a century. From the moment a customer acquires it, they can age it for at least 20 or 30 years.

Read the first part of this interview here: Meeting the Dom Pérignon Cellar Master, Part 1 of 2: Inside the Mind of a Champagne Creator.

Big thanks to Stéphanie Morissette and Chloé Lefebvre, from Bleu Blanc Rouge, and to Catherine Cormier, for inviting me to attend the Dom Pérignon tasting event in Montreal.

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