Hubert Burda Media

CHAMPAGNE AND CHARADES

CHRISTINA KO travels to the abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers to meet Dom Pérignon's eloquent Chef de Cave, Richard Geoffroy, and to sample a repast most strange.

CHAMPAGNE AND CHARADES

A FELLOW FOOD WRITER once expressed to me the utter futility of our chief endeavour, as even the most colourful narrator simply cannot encapsulate the experience of tasting a dish without resorting to generic descriptors: sweet, spicy, yummy, so delectably delicious. By contrast, in the world of wine writing there exists a wealth of adjectives rich with meaning, a veritable dictionary of nuanced comparisons that essentially exist to describe variations on a mead, finely tuned to an exacting standard. This ability to render a taste from words is not a gift possessed by all, but it is exactly what makes Dom Pérignon's Chef de Cave Richard Geoffroy one of the most respected and socially adept winemakers in the realm of champagne. His easy lyricism rivals that of any great author, and coupled with his intimate understanding of wines, makes for captivating monologues and dialogues on the subject, a revelation to which I'm privy on a recent journey to the birthplace of Dom Pérignon champagne on the occasion of the launch of its 2004 vintage.

Geoffrey's gift for expression seems particularly pronounced when a guided group tasting is immediately preceded by a unique solo session, one that takes place in a clear tasting bubble outfitted with a single desk and chair, a petite booklet of tasting notes accompanied by a pencil for further contemplation, and a speaker that spills classical notes towards a panorama of cerulean skies and verdant vineyards. It would seem there is no better way to sample the champagne house's latest release than in this envelope of solitude, the world and a glass at your fingertips. Geoffroy easily oneups the first act with a passionate soliloquy on the consummate qualities of the wine, a bold and typically Dom Pérignon mix of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, a “naturally gifted” concoction that sings almond and powdered cocoa, white fruit and dried flowers.

“So far, the wine has been mine,” he begins. “It's time for it to be ours.” The 2004 vintage, he shares, offers a “superlative coherence” that eluded both its predecessors, the 2002 and 2003 – but then again, “every vintage is the opportunity to reinvent ourselves; repetition is the enemy,” he opines. There's a darkness within the wine, a minerality that carries throughout the tasting and holds through the finish, focused and driven and very much apart from the 2002 and 2003, the last two vintages that were proclaimed by the maison. “Two to three years ago, it was not ready,” says Geoffroy. “The wine becomes Dom Pérignon when it is mature enough.” And further down the line, when it has grown and developed yet more, will the 2004 reach oenothèque status? With a secret smile, Geoffroy responds: “If I'm not convinced it can, it's a good reason not to declare a vintage.”

That evening, we're treated to a third style of tasting the wine – at a 100-strong VIP dinner for global connoisseurs, featuring one of the most unusual menus I've ever encountered, and housed dramatically on the grounds of the abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers where Dom Pierre Pérignon once lived. As cellarer and procuratour of the monastery during his time, Pérignon enlarged the vineyards and modernised the abbey to expand its commercial influence, eventually transforming the way that champagne was cultivated and blended, so that the wines of Pérignon found their way to royal and aristocratic tables. Centuries later, we are seated in a clear tent imbibing his legacy, and the experience couldn't be more poignant. Wine-tasting dinners are more than common, with perfect pairings able to showcase wine and food synergies in unimaginable ways, but this is a menu crafted not to bring the best out of the cuisine: this is about the vintage. What seems like a twig on a plate is grilled liquorice; biting into it as a prelude to a sip pulls out the wine's secret sweetness, a cloying foil against its natural acidity. A heavy dollop of Prunier Saint James caviar, by contrast, brings out the salinity. And square blocks of jelly are identified as preserved lemon and balsamic aspic respectively, whose strong flavours should threaten to overpower the 2004, but instead only enhance all of the tastes involved.

Darkness blankets the Champagne region late, and we are almost at the end of the meal when the chandeliers appear to shortcircuit in tandem. From out of nowhere, the projection of a giant white dove is cast across the body of the church, symbolic of the bird that Bishop Saint Nivard of Rheims saw and interpreted as divine inspiration to build the abbey of Saint Pierre d'Hautvillers. Music commences and an inventive projection performance by Leo Kuelbs and Glowing Bulbs brings the structure back to life, reimagined as the abbey in its original splendour, as a cellar, as a fabulous dinner party. It ends, as good things do, and all that's left of the evening is dessert – not, traditionally, the best bedfellow for a drink that exhibits such fizzy acidity. But, as if anticipating this complaint, there are three sweet treats to end the evening – almond blancmange draws out the duplicate flavour in the champagne, while poached pear with mace echoes the evening's liquorice. But the night culminates unusually in soft pillows of orange blossom- and jasmine-tinted marshmallow, coupled not with the 2004, but a 1970 oenothèque, not just a special treat for the guests but a nod to the future of the 2004 vintage, as well as homage to the maison's shining past.

Do you have to be a romantic to be a winemaker?
First we have to agree on what romantic means. If you mean that it's something beyond technicalities, that's a yes. I think that wine is more than just the physical content of alcohol and a few molecules, and I never thought that speaking of sugar content or whatever was really the way.

For me, it's very important to come up with correspondences, as long as the words are legitimate and directly related to what I consider the truth – the actual scientific, technical truth of the wine. I'm rather keen on the different fields of creation, and many of my friends are in creation, but for me, the art of communicating is the ultimate. But I don't want to be lured by the music of the words; these words have to be totally meaningful, relevant.

You're definitely one of the most eloquent winemakers I've met.
Frankly, the beauty is that it's all integrated. I'm making it, I'm talking it. Otherwise, there's somebody making the wine, there's somebody making the strategy for communication and the content of communication, and then there's a spokesperson. I would be very uneasy or uncomfortable in delegating the speaking to somebody else. As soon as you delegate to someone else, there's sort of a filter down. You lose in the process of transmitting to someone else. My philosophy with the words is consistent with my philosophy in the making. I believe so much in integration.

Speaking of integration, you've been with the house for some time now…
Twenty-three years, let's dare to say it. It's a fact!

Well, after 23 years, how do you know how much of the wine is you, and how much is Dom Pérignon?
This is a good question, and very hard to make out…I told you about integration, and my answer is that it's integrated. I cannot separate it any more. When I started it was all very clear, but now I cannot draw any line, I don't know any more. The older I grow the less I know – of course! [Laughs.] Personal, professional…there is one thing that is so fascinating: when I joined Dom Pérignon, my personal values were so close, that it was like my values. My whole personal life, family life, everything, my friends, it's about harmony. I hate conflicting tensions; I love positive tensions, because you need tensions. I like caring, empathy; I love precision…and it just happens that those are the house values. I came from medicine and I decided that I wanted to go into wine. I was very conscious and active in the move. So to answer your question, it's one. Sometimes it makes it almost too much, too demanding.

Do you also feel that in 23 years you've infused new elements into the house?
Hopefully, yes I did. But just getting the path deeper, the same one path, but maybe more profound, c'est tout. And maybe getting the team and the vineyards even more together with one aim, like in sport when you are all synchronised to one aim. It's close to integration again, synchronisation. I am also keen on management, I love management. It's one of the beauties of my job. I'm not alone making this wine. When it's that harmonious and synchronised in the making, I think you can taste that.

Now, let's talk about the 2004 vintage – was it a harmonious journey?
It was faultless and smooth, so no accidents, no frost, not so much rain in the summer. Very straightforward, no-brainer. But that alone wasn't enough to make it great. Then we went through a span of three weeks of dry, hot weather, and then we made the vintage. The whole thing was so fluid. My dream from the start was to reflect that ease of the seasons and Mother Nature in the wine. Not trying too hard.

For you, what's the best way to enjoy this wine?
The reason I love this house, it's not pretentious. More than ever I like the state of ease and well-being. Not too much pressure, like “What am I going to do with that bottle…” Sit down and enjoy it, easy. Very few people are available to an experience. People are so much under pressure or stress, nobody is available nowadays. In Asia, I see people as being more available. The syndrome in the West…I was in New York, and people are just so programmed, I wonder if they ever even listen. So it's a matter of personal availability to the experience, to the wine, for oneself.

Wine, you don't share right away. You share beer. But wine, before sharing, it needs to go through your own filter, and then in turn, you are able to share. The truth is that the [2004 vintage], it could be paired with anything, maybe besides hot spice or dark solid chocolate or a handful of exceptions. Sometimes it will go 92 percent, sometimes 102…who cares? I'm trying to make it easy. Wine has been all too intimidating: the rules, what's good, what's not. Life is enjoyment. Life is too short.

In that case, is wine education important for enjoyment?
It's a yes and a no. It's a yes because if the wine industry wants to relay its message and the facts of the wine, there's education to go through. But on the consumer level, people just get it. They don't have to be knowledgeable, they have to be available and they have to be themselves. When there's a sensitivity and emotion, I'm so excited. Often wine puts a distance in front of itself and I'm not liking that. Wine should be friendlier.

Why the mystique, historically speaking?
Frankly it comes from the makers, the producers. There, I've said it. If we want the wine to be friendlier it's up to us. It's our job, our project. It's our business, and we have to look after our own business.