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Moët & Chandon chef de cave presents vintages back to 1959

Moët & Chandon chef de cave Benoït Gouez was in London last week to run what has been described as the biggest vertical tasting of Moët Grand vintage and vintage Collection wines that’s ever been held in the UK.

Put on specifically for members of the 67 Pall Mall club, Gouez presented vintages from the current 2015 release in bottle back to great historical releases from the past, ending with the 1978 and 1959 both in magnum.

To set the palate, as Gouez likes to do at his tastings, the evening started with Brut Impérial served in Jeroboam, the larger format showing impressively developed mouthfeel, thanks to the extra lees ageing. Gouez explained that while in magnum this wine is based on 2017, in Jeroboam the harvest base is 2015.

The first flight of Grand Vintage wines in the tasting are made up of a trio of ‘current’ releases served in different format sizes which kicks off with the 2015 in bottle — 75cl or ‘half-magnum’ as Gouez likes to call it.

He sees this as “the awakening; the first vintage we were fully conscious of global warming. It was hot and dry, the warmest vintage since 2003 and there was a very fast maturity for the grapes. While the period between flowering and picking shrunk to 92 days in 2003, in 2015 it was 81 days for Chardonnay and 85/85 for Pinot Noir and Meunier.”

“We had the driest spring ever in Champagne – until 2022, which was exactly the same. Moët Grand Vintage is about the singularity of the vintage [not conformity of style] – you have to tell the story of the year,” says Gouez.

“People talk about a lack of acidity [in Champagne today], but freshness is a different sensation. It’s a wine with a higher phenolic structure, the idea of having tannins in Champagne, even in the white grapes, is a new one. We try and only to keep the ‘noble’ tannins and they help deliver intensity and summer fruitiness. There’s a grapefruit character to the fruit and a dry freshness.”

He commented later that there are some who see an unattractive vegetal character in the 2015 vintage wines, but he doesn’t see that problem in the Moët 2015.

There’s more Pinot Noir in the blend than usual (44%) which, he says, gives the palate density and more Meunier which brings the juicy, fruity element and acts as an important bridge between the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

“All our vintage champagnes are now finished with 5gm/l dosage and so they are Extra Brut in style. When I started working at Moët back in 1998, Brut Impérial was 13-14gms/l and vintage 11gms/l, so the dosage we use has been halved in that period (fewer than 20 years). We are picking earlier and earlier in Champagne. In the previous century we only harvested once in August which was in 1976. Since the Millennium that has happened seven times.”

Like some other chef de caves in the region, he views global warming so far as better [for quality] in Champagne.

“We don’t say Champagne is ‘green’ anymore. No-one talks about it being too young or not ripe, it doesn’t happen.”

After the intensity and palate richness of the 2015, the 2013 in magnum we sample next is exuberantly fresh, a wine which had barely changed one iota since launch, its relative tightness and energy emphasised by showing it in magnum. This was, Gouez notes, the only harvest in October that he has experienced in his 25 years at Moët.

“The whole [viticultural] cycle was delayed,” he said.

“Budding was two weeks late; spring wasn’t good and flowering didn’t happen until early July. Then the summer was good, but not extreme. The average potential alcohol was 10.5deg and a high acidity was left because the acids were not burned off by excess heat.

“Aromas and flavour are all redolent of the autumn — apple, chestnut, forest floor aromas. It has a lot of energy that comes from the Chardonnay and the chiselled structure from Pinot Noir. The blend is 41% Chardonnay, 38% Pinot Noir and 21% Meunier.”

This trio of ‘current’ releases in different format sizes is completed by the 2004 in Jeroboam, a magnificent example of a vintage underrated at the outset, but in many wines from the top producers tasted over the past two or three years, right up there with the very best in terms of quality, attractiveness and complexity. It was one of the stars of the tasting.

“The larger the format, the longer the lees ageing,” says Gouez as the wine is poured.

“This is super important. It was disgorged in 2013, with 19 years on its lees, it’s a lovely vintage and one of my preferred ever. It’s important in Champagne [to understand any vintage] to look at the previous year and what happened then.

“This 2004 followed 2003, when there was a very big frost, then it was very hot and dry and virtually no Chardonnay was made. So there’s lots of energy in 2004 and while it was the largest yield for a very long time – only to be beaten by 2018 and 2023 – the grapes ripened well, an average alcohol potential of over 10deg being reached.”

“This has produced Champagne of airiness and sophistication, so great as an apéritif and also great to be paired [with food] at the table. There’s so much smoke and toast on the nose and it’s very citrussy on the palate.” Gouez says.

“It wasn’t seen as good at first, partly because of the large volume produced that year,” but now its quality is recognised.

Next up we had the Grand Vintage Collection wines from 2006, 2002 and 1999 all served in bottle (75cl).

“In the Collection programme, both bottles and magnums have been kept in our cellars longer on their lees before release and since 1993 we have reverted to cork closures, not crown caps, as they were before, up until the late 1960s. In 1993 my predecessor Dominique Foulon bought back the cork closure [for lees ageing] because it is the least permeable to oxygen and better suits our reductive style [when longer ageing is involved].

“This 2006 was disgorged in March 2022 and that for me is the sweet spot for these wines, which you reach at about 15-16 years of lees ageing, when you get a change in profile,” says Gouez.

In 2006 it was very hot and dry in July, wet and cool in August, returning to warm dry weather at the start of September, enabling final ripening. “2006 and 1999 are elder brothers of the same family as 2015 so you get an idea of the ageing potential of 2015 here,” he says.

It’s a 42% Chardonnay, 39% Pinot Noir, 19% Meunier blend.

“Silky in the mouth it’s very concentrated with notes of preserved citrus fruit, a lot of texture on the palate, crystalline fruit, smoky with grapefruit on the finish.”

The 2002 we taste between them was, says Gouez, “considered the perfect vintage, like 1990 before. Everything was considered to be right; it was a very easy harvest; all three varieties were in balance and of equally high quality. However, Foulon decided to use a higher amount of Chardonnay in the blend (51%) with 26% Pinot Noir and 23% Meunier.”

Disgorged in 2015 after 15 years lees ageing, so it’s had six years on the final cork. “The longer you keep Champagne on its lees the more you increase its ageing potential,” says Gouez. “It’s like inoculating the wine which is enriched by the long contact with the yeast cells.”

Rich, concentrated and complex, while Gouez acknowledges it as an undoubtedly great wine, produced from a truly harmonious and pretty well perfect, viticultural year, he thought the bottle we had was showing a little too much butterscotch character.

The 1999, which was Gouez’s second year at Moët, he characterises as “full of energy and similar to 2004, 2018 and 2022”.

Although having very little colour, compared to rich golden 2002 alongside, it has distinctive “coffee, toasty nutty, chocolate notes,” and what he calls “a dark character”.

It has more black fruit here: 38% Pinot Noir and 31% Meunier with 31% Chardonnay and was also disgorged in March 2022 at 5gm/l dosage.

Gouez then introduced a flight of what he calls the first modern Collection wines (ie aged under cork, not crown cap): 1993, 1995 and 1996, all disgorged in 2017.

This trio for him includes the “most overrated vintage ever produced and the most under rated”. After the famous trilogy of 1988, ‘89 and ‘90 – another group where the originally relative perceived quality of the three changed over time – “no-one needed to make vintage champagne in 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1994,” although the two middle vintages had the potential.

“The 1996 vintage was declared the vintage of the century even before the grapes were in the press house,” says Gouez.

“It was a year of ten and ten – 10 degrees of potential alcohol and 10 degrees of acidity; so basically it was picked unripe. People [mistakenly] thought this was the perfect balance, high sugar and high acidity, but it wasn’t.”

While he does concede that “the best wines from 1996 are top quality and ours is a great example, there were a lot of skinny and disjointed wines made, often ageing too fast for my taste too. If I am faced with a 1996 and a 1995 from a producer I don’t know, I will always go for the 1995.”

With 50% Pinot Noir and 45% Chardonnay and only 5% Meunier, the Moët 1996 has certainly stood the test of time.

Interestingly Gouez notes that of the “30 highest rated years in the Moët Collection wines, 24 reached an alcohol potential of above 9.5deg and six were below 9.5deg alcohol potential and 1995 and 1993 were two of these.

“Today we would see the 9.3deg as being unripe”.

He says the “1993 is close to the 1995 in terms of profile, I love it. A blend of 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 20% Meunier, it’s the first of the new wines to be aged under cork and it’s the only one to have that nutty Burgundy character in the profile.”

The 1995 with more Chardonnay (40%) and less Meunier (10%) shows a lovely subtle balance and complexity, he also clearly admires.

The climax of the tasting is reached with the 1978 – Gouez doesn’t know the precise blend, but he suspects there is a lot of Chardonnay – was disgorged at 26 years in 2004 and is an astonishing wine, barely showing its age.

He says it hasn’t changed at all since he’s first been tasting it. It’s a blend of 36% Chardonnay and 64% black grapes, he doesn’t know the breakdown.

“The 1959 is still the ripest vintage ever in Champagne and was picked at 12.5deg potential alcohol,” says Gouez. “They had to dilute with water to do the second fermentation.”

Disgorged in 2020 “the density and richness in an amazing example of what Champagne was like up to the end of the 1960s.”

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