Hubert Burda Media

NOUVEAUX RICHES

HERVÉ DESCHAMPS, chef de caves at champagne house Perrier-Jouët, reveals to GERRIE LIM that the best vintage is always the next one.

NOUVEAUX RICHES

HE HAS A WAY of appearing sagacious yet dissolves often into mischievous giggles, for his conservative demeanour clearly hides a more playful inner self. Maybe he has a secret penchant for kinky sex, like all sophisticated Frenchmen do? I have no clue, not when Hervé Deschamps is urging me to drink with him three classic back vintages of his beloved Belle Époque champagne, the top-tier range from Perrier-Jouët in Epernay for whom he has now been chef de caves for exactly 20 years.
When so appointed in 1993, he was only the seventh cellar master in the 203-year history of the house, and to me his career might well be figuratively reflected in the youngest of these wines – the 1996, given its nice balance of acidity and sugar, which also implies potential for greater maturation. “Yes,” he agrees, “and the balance between acidity and alcohol, too, can result in less bitterness, but then each year is different.
“The previous one we've been drinking here, the 1985, shows the results of a strong winter. Normally the blend is made at the beginning of the year and the colour is more golden if you compare with the 1996. For me, from November until March is a stressful period – I spend a lot of time tasting and managing all the possibilities to make the best blend, to preserve the quality and to maintain the style.”
Well, I remind him, his own first vintage for the company was from the very year before, 1995, so I'd been wondering if he'd felt the pressure to do even better, to outdo even the two other vintages we'd been sharing for the past hour at Amber in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong – the aforementioned 1985 with its blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and the even more spectacularly complex 1982, all lovingly paired with Hokkaido sea urchin (in a lobster Jell-O with cauliflower, caviar and crispy seaweed waffles), followed by a Kagoshima Wagyu striploin and braised short ribs (served with his Belle Époque Rosé 2005 in magnum).
Deschamps shrugs at my reminder of his own provenance. “Well, I joined Perrier-Jouët in 1983 and I worked with the previous winemaker for 10 years, and had a lot of experience in tasting old vintages,” he muses. “I had an oenology diploma and I knew very well what they had created, but I also realised it was necessary to understand how to make consistent blends that reflect the spirit of the house. Nineteen-sixty-six is a very good year, but I remember I initially had a problem with the acidity and I had no reference for the blend in terms of the acidity, so that became my own challenge. Because you have to deliver, every vintage.
“We make 3 million bottles usually, but sometimes we will decrease that if it's not going to be done in the Perrier-Jouët style, like we did back in 2003 when we decided not to make a vintage. We have had five years when the cellar master decided to make no champagne, because the quality was very bad. We've had good years like 1995 or 1996 or 1998. And then there was 2001, when it was raining – before, during and after the harvest!”
He has 237 hectares of vineyard at his disposal so his job, he explains, is always about “curiosity and expecting the future, living in the dream, where you are always on a new project but also maintaining the consistency of the Perrier-Jouët design”. Does he then review his past two decades of achievements with a certain wistfulness for things that perhaps could have been? What's an apparently sanguine romantic like him doing in a mercurial business like this, anyway?
“It's a long story,” Deschamps laughs, “but my grandfather was a champagne grower and my father at the beginning worked with another brand at the vineyard, but he preferred to go to the army. So off he went – to Vietnam and other parts of Asia and then to North Africa. I was born in North Africa, in Morocco. I went to France when I was six years old. Every holiday I spent time with my grandparents, to work in the vineyards. I started out doing veterinary studies but I changed to do agricultural studies with a specialisation in oenology. I worked with an exceptional teacher in making sparkling wine and learning about ageing with lees contact, not only with champagne but German and Burgundy wines.”
“I've been doing that for 30 years now, and it has been a very good experience.” Then his eyes light up. “For me, it's different with champagne. With red wine you extract a lot of character from the grapes, and with white wine it's more tricky, more delicate in style. With champagne, it's not only about terroir and grape variety but it's also about what happens after the second fermentation, where you extract the style and character of the wine. The second fermentation is part of the life of the wine, since you increase the alcohol level but you also have new combinations to work with, like the lipids and how the yeast works with the grape skin. When you bottle it, it's impossible to change the quality, so from the beginning you must know what is the best wine for your blend or your style.”
Every chef de caves I've met has said much the same, that were it not for that critical second fermentation – and the gauntlet it so brilliantly throws – they would be making other wines instead. Yet, at his level of expertise, how does he equate his high-end product with the price it commands, supposedly commensurate with pleasure?
“It's very important for me not to just make the best wine but to make sure it translates into pleasure,” he replies. “I don't like speaking from price but rather from pleasure. If you focus on the price, you destroy a part of the pleasure. I think when you are experiencing pleasure it should be an immersion. The ratio between price and quality is very emotional.”
Meaning, I infer, that these Belle Époque wines with their unique bottles, featuring those floral anemones designed by the art nouveau glassmaker Émile Gallé, represent more than a job to him.
“You remember things – for many people it's about the first time they had that drink, so it should be part of your life,” Deschamps says slowly, ensuring he doesn't sound pretentious. “You can drink alone a bottle of this champagne but it's more important to share your passion with very good friends. It's about the experience.” He then beams, almost as if he's just been asked why he's even alive. “Every day is a new day for me. The best vintage is not the previous vintage. It's the next one. Always.”