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db profile: Dom Pérignon’s Richard Geoffroy

As the effervescent Richard Geoffroy prepares to bid farewell to an industry that he helped revolutionise, in his final published article, Nicholas Faith looks back on the life and achievements of Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave.

Richard Geoffroy arrived at Moët & Chandon 1990 as the first chef de cave devoted exclusively to Dom Pérignon

When Richard Geoffroy retires on 1 January 2019, after 28 years as winemaker at Dom Pérignon, he will have two major achievements to his credit. One is that he has supervised the production of a record number of vintages and has extended the number of wines in the range of the brand. The other is as the first winemaker in the history of Champagne to have been able to promote his wine in a sophisticated and imaginative manner. It helped him that Dom Pérignon had always been different.

It was Laurence Venn, a British journalist hired by the Champagne community as a PR officer to help promote Champagne in the midst of the Great Depression, who had the idea of creating a luxury brand. In May 1931, he presented the idea to the Commission de Propagande et de Defense du vin de Champagne – the first institution bringing together growers and merchants. But they brushed aside his plan. Nevertheless, Robert-Jean de Vogüé, the former army officer who had just begun his life’s work rebuilding Moët, seized on the idea.

In his long career at Dom Pérignon, Geoffroy has not changed the source of the grapes, all of which come from the Montagne de Reims, Aÿ and the Côte de Blancs

Four years later, the first shipment – of the super-ripe 1921 vintage – was on the maiden voyage to New York of the Normandie, the world’s most elegant liner, in time for Christmas. When a couple of bottles of the wine were sold at auction decades later – for £43,000 – they were by no means dead.

Indeed, Geoffroy claimed that they retained aromas of “sandalwood, vanilla and praline”. Moët has never revealed the number of Dom Pérignon bottles sold every year. But a reliable source told db that by the time Geoffroy arrived at the house in 1990, the production limit was about three million bottles.

The liquid was made from Moët’s own vineyards, together with an unknown quantity from a handful of regular suppliers. But within a few years of Geoffroy’s appointment, Moët had bought Pommery then sold the brand to Paul Vrancken, not including its famously superior vineyards.

This provided a unique opportunity for Moët to expand its output to more than four million bottles. This enormous figure – greater than the total sales of several of the region’s most famous producers, such as Pol Roger and Bollinger – is unique, not only in the world of wines and spirits, but in luxury goods in general, a market in which exclusivity and rarity are key elements.

Quality control But for a long time Dom Pérignon’s quality was not taken as seriously as it should have been. In Britain at least, this was because of sheer snobbery; people thought that it was a drink for the nouveaux riche; film producers and their ilk, rather than the gentry and the royal family, who stuck with their normal diet of Krug, Bollinger and Cristal.

I remember a tasting years ago of ultra-premium Champagnes to help readers of the Financial Times decide which expressions they should buy for Christmas.

The panel, which included some serious palates, such as Jancis Robinson MW and wine writer Eddie Penning-Rowsell, decided unanimously that they preferred the Dom Pérignon, a decision that we were not proud of because it seemed rather vulgar at the time. So when the young Geoffroy arrived in 1990 as the first chef de cave devoted exclusively to Dom Pérignon, he had to widen its appeal. He had a doubly useful background and education. He was from a family of vignerons that had been established in Vertus for generations.

His father, Henri, had been the president of Union Champagne, the upmarket cooperative in Avize, as well as an important figure in the industry. But Geoffroy staged a teenage revolt when he decided to train as a doctor, a move applauded by his father because it involved a step up in the social and professional hierarchy, and one that, in France, required superior academic qualities. But by the time he had qualified in 1982, he had decided to return to wine.

After a year studying at the viticultural college in Reims, he went off to the Napa Valley to work at Domaine Chandon, followed by working with all the firm’s fizzmakers outside France, and a fruitful year at Mercier, where he vastly improved the quality of the wine.

Amazingly, from graduating from college, it took him a mere eight years before he was entrusted with the production of Moët’s most prestigious – and profitable – product, which previously had not had a winemaker devoted solely to the looking after brand. In his long career at Dom Pérignon, for all its initiatives, Geoffroy has not changed the source of the grapes, all of which, he insists, come from the Montagne de Reims, Aÿ and the Côte de Blancs, with no Pinot Meunier or grapes from the Aube.

Article continues on the next page…

New horizons: Richard Geoffroy will hand over the reins at Dom Périignon to Vincent Chaperon in January

In one respect Geoffroy has been lucky. Climate change has ensured that at least a small quantity of Dom Pérignon, which relies for much of its basic quality from being produced exclusively from seriously ripe grapes, can now be made virtiually every year, whereas it was produced only three times in the 1940s. Geoffrey recognised this when he said: “In an ideal world I’d make a vintage wine every year.” But, he added: “It’s about taking a risk and reinventing ourselves with every vintage” – recognising that the key element in its production is the rate at which the vintage matures, each one of which is different.

The result is that at least once he released two vintages in the same year – a small quantity of the 2005 and a much larger amount of the 2006. Geoffroy was not content with a substantial increase in production. For the first time in the brand’s eighty-year history he widened the range, enabling him to offer even more expensive wines. He soon increased production of the rosé expression. The reputation of Dom Pérignon as a ‘blingy’ product had been strengthened in 1971 when it offered its first rosé at a time when, generally, it had a deserved reputation as a rather overly rich inferior wine.

Changing of the guard: Vincent Chaperon will become DP’s new cellar master next year

It did not help that a significant proportion of the inevitably small first vintage was sold to the Shah of Persia to be offered to guests at the super-bling celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the creation of the Persian empire.

Nevertheless, today’s rosé is a classic assemblage with a stout red wine element, not necessarily from Bouzy but from other serious communes. The result is a deliciously crisp and fruity wine. But his most ambitious extensions are based on the French word plénitude, which is officially translated as ‘fullness richness, completeness’.

To Geoffroy it signifies the age at which the drink has fulfilled its maturation process. Geoffroy immediately appreciated that, “the challenge of making Dom Pérignon lies in carving out the time needed to blend it, then giving it time to reveal its full oenological quality”.

With the ‘basic’ expression he feels that, depending on the qualities of individual vintages, a window of opportunity arrives once the wine opens, at about seven or eight years old. This is opposed to 12 to 15 years for a P2 expression, and a breathtaking 30 years for the much rarer P3, far and away the oldest Champagnes on the market, apart from truly exotic rarities like those produced by Bollinger from its pre-phylloxera vines.

But there is another dimension to Geoffroy’s influence. As his colleague, Moët cellar master Benoît Gouez puts it: “He taught me that beyond technique was the winemaker’s personal sensibility that gives Champagne its soul.”

Geoffroy has been happy to share his feelings as well as his techniques more openly than any other winemaker in Champagne. He has been happy to work with experts in a number of creative fields, including chefs like Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià, artist Jeff Koons and musician Lenny Kravitz. Mercifully, he has managed to combine these experiments in publicity and appreciation without damaging his winemaking standards.

On January 1 2019 a changing of the guard will take place at Dom Pérignon, when its much-admired cellar master, Richard Geoffroy, hands over the reins to his protégé, Vincent Chaperon, after 28 years at the helm of the house. Bordeaux-born Chaperon has worked closely with Geoffroy since 2005, so the transition should be smooth. He began his wine career in Montpellier, where he studied oenology, and after graduating cut his winemaking teeth at Concha y Toro in Chile before returning to Bordeaux to work in Saint-Émilion and Sauternes.

Feeling slightly claustrophobic in his birthplace, Chaperon made the move to Champagne in 1999 when he joined Moët & Chandon. In just a year he had worked his way up to the role of assistant winemaker for the house. Chaperon believed his Champagne sojourn would only be temporary, as the climate was too cold for him and he longed to be near the sea, but something kept him there, and in 2005 he joined the Dom Pérignon team, Geoffroy taking him under his wing.

During his time at DP he has taken part in 13 harvests and declared four vintages with Geoffroy: 2005, 2006, 2009 and 2008. Asked how he plans to make his mark on the Champagnes, he admits that any changes he makes will be subtle, slow and continuous; “like adding a small touch to a picture”. “It’s important to keep a sense of balance, but there has been movement in the Dom Pérignon style since the 1990s,” he told Nuvo magazine.

*This is the final published article by respected wine and spirits writer Nicholas Faith. Shortly before it appeared in the October issue of The Drinks Business, Faith passed away. The Cognac authority and senior business editor of The Sunday Times died in late September aged 84. You can read his obituary here

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