THE RELEASE OF THE latest vintage of a prestige French bubbly is always a highly anticipated affair – especially if the brand is none other than Moët & Chandon, the biggest-selling champagne in the world. This is a widely heralded moment because vintage bubbly is never guaranteed for release in strict sequence year after year, hence its advent is ordinarily trumpeted as a rare occasion. Notably, for any vintage champagne to be declared vintage it depends on Mother Nature to contrive the best possible weather elements so the harvest can yield the best-quality grapes.
Inevitably, the release of the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2009 has been awaited with much eagerness – more so by the posse of bubbly lovers endowed with deep pockets. True, the best things in life tend to cost a little more, pretty much the same as a vintage wine or vintage car, – all because of their rarity and pedigree. The Champagne region produces about 300-million bottles of the sparkling wine each year. Noteworthy, though, is that not all French bubbly is champagne as any genre produced outside the Champagne region may not legally be termed as such. Hence, wines of the same genre produced elsewhere in France are labelled Cremant or Cap Classique or MCC, as in the case of South Africa. So, when the invitation arrived for me to meet internationally renowned Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoît Gouez for an exclusive interview and tasting, my heart raced with excitement. A chef de cave translates to chief Cellar Master in everyday parlance. Yet, this is no ordinary vocation for a man saddled with the responsibility of such magnitude, making the biggest-selling champagne in the world and producing more than 26- million bottles of it annually.
With this billion dollar task on his hands, Gouez is arguably one of the most inﬂ uential ﬁ gures around the world today, and surely enjoys an open line to the French President – by virtue of the grand champagne house’s contribution to that country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Moët & Chandon’s chef de cave since 2005, Gouez believes his path to becoming a champagne maker for the world’s most-loved bubbly was purely a consequence of “series of chance encounters and fortunate circumstances.” As he is wont to point out: “I wasn’t brought up in the world of vintners.” Thus, the circumstances surrounding his appointment bore the hallmarks of the breaking of the mould as he was literally parachuted into a closed industry which places much store in knowledge being handed down through a lineage consisting of a small trusted circle in order to preserve tradition for future generations. Were it not for Gouez’s unparalleled mastery of his art, his career would possibly not have been catapulted this far with him becoming as celebrated a ﬁ gure as he is today. Thanks to the distinguishing qualities which apparently captivated Moët & Chandon’s gatekeepers, who were impressed with his peculiar sense of style, integrity and intuition.
My meeting after lunch with the man behind the famous brand was in a way low key. The venue – the ritzy Four Seasons Hotel ensconced in the hilltop of the leafy Joburg suburb of Forest Town – offered a sedate backdrop with its spectacular views of the city. As we lock our eyes for the first time, Gouez reaches out for a handshake, flashing a welcoming warm smile. He stands tall just as I am; sports big, round spectacles and a dark suit matched with a light blue shirt, adding a corporate touch to his medium frame. I feel a bit under-dressed in the presence of such French sartorial elegance – jacketless and clad in a colourful beach shirt and black jeans. But dress decorum – or lack of it – hardly comes in the way of the business at hand. His demeanour is rather laid-back and alluringly cool for a man with august credentials behind his name.
It turns out Gouez arrived in South Africa the previous night, just to present the new vintage, and it is his second trip in as many years. He is evidently tired from the long-haul flight from France to South Africa, but contrastingly upbeat for the private tasting. We promptly take our seats at the table. Two coupe glasses and the august bottle of Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2009 – wrapped in sassy black packaging – await the business of the day on the table. There is no flute, the ubiquitous tall slim-rimmed glass, in sight. Notably, the flute has been declared an anachronism in France and elsewhere, because it has been found to hide the true flavours and nuances of prestige bubbly. Champagne cognoscenti have decreed that the coupe glass (not the flute) is now the proper apparel to enjoy the full splendour of bubbly. Gouez pours the champagne into our glasses, and, as he does, the room is instantly filled with fragrance of the fizzy drink. Before we nose, he waxes lyrical about the exacting standards observed by the champagne house from vineyard to cellar.
For the 2009 vintage, Gouez has opted for the blend Pinot Noir (50%), 36% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Meunier – a departure from the norm of several past vintages when Chardonnay generally dominated the nectar. Gouez pauses to nose the bubbly. There is a pregnant silence as he contemplates his impressions of the aromas to which he has obviously become accustomed, but needs to make sure that all is in order. Then he takes his first swig… “The first impression is that of an obvious and reassuring maturity. Gentle and comforting; initial nuances of harvest notes and notes of callisson and vanilla gradually expand into darker, toastier notes of grilled sesame seeds, roasted almonds and mocha,” says Gouez, which sounds rather a mouthful for the few seconds his sip took.
Tasting further, he senses hints of fleshy fruits that create a deeply warm, serene sensation reminiscent “of an orchard of peaches and apricots” in the middle of summer. “Overall, the palate is simultaneously accomplished, generous and airy,” he says, taking a longer sip this time. For my part, I am utterly seduced by the sweet, opulent aromas reminiscent of freshly squeezed grape bursting with nature’s goodliness. The first sip reveals a quiet, mouth-filling explosion of delicious, fleshy fruitiness, hints of apricot and citrus notes – all followed by an utterly luscious and longlasting finish.
A second full swig unravels – in slow motion – a symphony of flavours in the mouth while sensuously tickling the taste buds with its fine mouse. The bubbly’s unfettered fruit expression exudes the distinct ornate style for which Moët & Chandon has come to be known. It is definitely unlike some of the heavytoned old styles that tend to punctuate offerings from other houses. Entranced, we both gush at the rich endowments bestowed by nature on the 2009 vintage and especially, Gouez’s unmistakable suave and highly skilled hand which nurtured this nectar to its full splendour.. It would have been nice to do a vertical tasting with the 2006, though, just to compare apples with apples. Gouez believes this vintage will turn out to be one of the best – after the 2002 – which, he says, has been declared Moët & Chandon’s greatest in the 20th century. What drew him to the world of champagne? “Champagne is all about sharing— it’s a rich, passion-filled world. I love to share,” Gouez says, his fingers tapping the coupe glass. “I love dinners with friends, good conversation, exchanging ideas and different points of view.” What was his assessment of the South African market, when it comes to French bubbly? I ask.
WE BELIEVE TIME HAS COME FOR SOUTH AFRICANS TO GO BEYOND THE CLASSICAL VINTAGES AND BECOME AWARE OF THE PREMIUM AND PRESTIGE CHAMPAGNE.
“South Africa is a country with a great potential, especially when it comes to premium and prestige champagne,” Gouez adds, pointing out that the maison would be focusing their efforts on marketing their top-end offerings in 2018. “We believe time has come for South Africans to go beyond the classical vintages and become aware of the premium and prestige champagne.” As we part amicably, Gouez drops something of a bombshell. Disappointingly, there will not be a bottling of the 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014 vintages of Moët & Chandon in the future, he confides. Why, because these years did not yield a crop worthy enough for him to classify them as upcoming vintages. Bad news! Happily, there is good news to hang on to, though. And that is, Moët & Chandon’s Grand Vintage 2009 is truly something of a tour de force. More so, it will tide the prestige bubbly romantics over the coming barren years when there will be no new Moët & Chandon vintage to herald… and with which to toast.
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