Interview with Benoît Gouez Chef de Caves of Moët & Chandon

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Benoît Gouez, Chef de Caves of MOËT & CHANDON, by far the largest Champagne House and the most popular champagne brand.

Benoit Gouez Chef de Caves of Moët & Chandon

Benoît Gouez joined Moët & Chandon in 1998 as a winemaker and became Chef de Cave in 2005 at only 35

Founded in 1743 by Claude Moët, a French vintner and wine merchant, it was the first Maison in Champagne to exclusively produce sparkling wines.

Among its most loyal customers were Madame de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of King Louis XV, and Napoleon, who would always make it an objective to visit the Maison to pick up cases of its champagne.

Today, the House is part of luxury group LVMH and firmly stands as the market leader in virtually all countries where champagne can be found.

Given its incredible reach, MOËT & CHANDON style is purposely accessible and uncomplicated, even though it has gained in complexity and elegance in the recent years, resulting in an irreproachable product meant to satisfy the most diverse palates.

Benoît Gouez, the architect of this work of precision on a large scale, is not your typical Chef de Caves: with his inquisitive mind and good looks, he could have been a successful lawyer, researcher, or actor.

He explains with great lucidity and openness how to properly make millions of bottles of champagne, stressing the fact that technique is as important as good grapes and crus, and that constant adaptation is key.

In doing so, he confirms what we firmly believe at BEST CHAMPAGNE: that champagne is first and foremost, an idea of pleasure, that is created with the grapes and the man’s work, and that is eventually expressed in the wine.

This interview is more than a text to better understand MOËT & CHANDON, it is about understanding champagne and where it is heading, from the perspective of one of its greatest actors.

Read on and take notes, and pop a bottle since you are at it!

BEST CHAMPAGNE: You are not from Champagne and you have not studied at a wine high school. How has your path crossed that of champagne?

BENOIT GOUEZ: My story is quite unusual. My roots are in Brittany and Normandy, and until my twenties, I had no particular interest in wine. I was interested in scientific studies and I entered the School of Agronomy in Montpellier.

Once there, I realized that the school’s flagship specialization was viticulture and enology, and that three dimensions of this world interested me.

First, the idea that wine is a combination of science and sensitivity, where without a technical knowledge, you can do well from time to time but you cannot do well consistently.

Then the cultural and social dimension of wine. Wine is a moment of sharing, conviviality, and exchange.

But travel is perhaps the aspect that pushed me the most towards this work. Being a French oenologist gave me opportunities to travel to the wine regions of the world: I went to California, and then to Australia.

But there were two regions where I did not want to work: Bordeaux that I considered to be a closed world, and Champagne because I had an industrial idea of it: I did not see the excitement in having to reproduce the same wine every year.

And then an accidental meeting brought me to MOËT & CHANDON, and I quickly changed my mind about champagne, especially thanks to Dominique Foulon and Richard Geoffroy (former Chef de Caves of MOËT & CHANDON and Chef de Caves of DOM PERIGNON), two visionary individuals of great humanity.

When I look at where I am today, I think that no other product than champagne and no other House than MOËT & CHANDON best incarnate these three dimensions: technicity and sensitiveness, culture and society, travel.

BC: You were talking about the industrial vision of champagne, a concept often associated with large Houses like yours, rather than with the smaller growers who are perceived as having a more artisanal approach to champagne making. What is your opinion on this?

BG: The idea that being the largest producer of champagne forces us to an industrial approach is wrong. For me, it is very clear that the distinction between craftsmanship and industrial production is not a question of size but of philosophy and mentality.

An industrial producer applies recipes, whatever the circumstances, and I think that refers to many small producers who have been doing the same thing for generations and call it tradition without taking into account the evolution of the world, and without questioning their way of working.

I think we should rather oppose those who are content with not much and those who have a vision, an ambition, and who question themselves.

In my idea of champagne, we must be in a spirit of tailor-making and flexibility and be able to undergo selections and adaptations at any time.

Houses and growers have complementary visions of champagne, with sometimes-different principles, but with the same ambitions.

In addition, the most famous growers contribute to the visibility of the richness and diversity of Champagne and also force us to question ourselves.

I consider that our greatness and our wealth at MOËT & CHANDON come from our technical skills and our financial means, but also from our vineyard of 4,000 hectares of which 1,200 hectares are directly owned, of which 50% of grands crus and 300 hectares in premiers crus.

BC: Tell us more about your vineyard and how it participates in the creation of your champagnes.

BG: Our vineyard is important for quantity, quality, and diversity with almost 250 crus out of 320 in Champagne.

We are therefore luckier than any other producer because we get the best grapes wherever they are, not only in the grands crus.

In Champagne, a crus is a whole village, but not all the villages are necessarily exposed South (resulting in riper grapes).

A grand cru increases the chances of getting grapes of good quality, but it is not a certainty and it does not mean we can’t obtain interesting grapes from more ordinary crus.

It also depends on the champagne that we are looking to produce. A grand cru is interesting for its pronounced characters in older wines of 5-6 years or more, i.e., prestige or vintage cuvées, whereas in a Brut non-vintage, meant to be drunk within 2 or 3 years, it does not make much sense because these characters will not fully express themselves.

Our size is our strength because we have the largest vineyards, the largest pressing centers, and the best tools so it is up to us to use them intelligently.

But the technique is not enough. We could fall into an industrial one-size-fits-all approach, without personality, and this is where this notion of sensitivity comes to play.

BC: How does this sensitivity participate in the production process?

BG: There is no recipe to produce MOËT & CHANDON. Even if we have the most sophisticated techniques in champagne, all our decisions are taken at blind tasting.

We do not accompany our choices with technical analysis; we just use them to make sure that the physicochemical processes run smoothly.

A chemical analysis does not tell us the taste of wine, it does not tell us if the wine is oxidized, reduced, lactic, if it is long, if it has texture, etc.

You can have wines with the same chemical profile but with radically different tastes, and the tools capable of integrating all these data with taste are our nose and our palate.

Personally, I taste wines very quickly and I try to be as intuitive and spontaneous as possible, always listening to my first impression.

BC: How do you define the characteristic style of MOËT & CHANDON? What are you looking to transmit with your wines?

BG: Through the production process, we look for three elements: the fruit, the balance, the maturity.

We look for intense fruits aromas so that when drinking MOËT & CHANDON, we really have the idea of a fruit basket. We are looking for freshly ripe fruit, not too acidic.

In Moët Impérial, the cuvée most representative of the style of our House, we find especially white fruits, citrus fruits, and floral notes.

Then a tasty, generous palate with pulp, but always with a certain elegance not to fall into heaviness or an excess of richness, but not too much acidity either. We look for texture but not through the dosage, which today is less than 9 g/l for all the cuvée Brut.

Finally, an elegant maturity, with a certain complexity of aging on lees with notes of pastries, biscuit, fresh bread, fresh walnuts, muesli, which complement the fruit without dominating it, for the right balance.

There should always be a very smooth transition from the attack to the finish, with a series of continuous sensations sliding in one after another.

At MOËT & CHANDON, there is a common thread of progressive pleasure, with a dimension of spontaneity and accessibility, given our nature to please the greatest number of consumers.

We have never lost sight of the fact that we make champagnes to be drunk and enjoyed easily before being tasted. For this, we listen to our consumers and have this capacity to be always contemporary while remaining true to our identity.

Our philosophy is, therefore, a form of balance between authenticity and contemporaneity: we keep the best of the past that still makes sense and we enjoy it with the best of today.

For example, our enology is very progressive: we are the only House to have an R&D laboratory that employs 30 people on viticultural or oenological projects to study how to do differently and better, how to face the new challenges related to climate change and sustainable viticulture.

We are therefore constantly thinking about how to adapt and evolve.

BC: How do crus and grape varieties participate in the creation of MOËT & CHANDON style?

BG: Grape varieties and terroirs complement each other in the assemblage, at the heart of champagne making, which is based on the idea that 1 + 1 does not make 2 but 3, obtaining nuances that result in something more complete and harmonious.

In this context, Moët Impérial is a comprehensive assemblage that doesn’t highlight a particular grape variety, a sub-region or a village, but it’s really the idea, a snapshot, of the whole terroir of Champagne.

Moët Impérial is also very representative of the three grape varieties of Champagne with, on average, a larger 1/3 of Pinot Noir, 1/3 of Meunier and a smaller 1/3 of Chardonnay. The percentages vary from year to year, when we can reach 35-40% of Pinot Noir, and even within the same year because we make different assemblages of Moët Impérial every three months.

If we made one assemblage per year, the difference between the first and the last bottle of the year could be perceived (given the different aging period of the bottle before commercialization).

As the underlying idea of Moët Impérial is to perpetuate the style of our House, the consumer shouldn’t perceive any difference, and performing the assemblage at different moments in time is part of it.

The first assemblage of the year will include more reserve wines because the wines of the year will be more “closed”, but the last assemblage will include fewer reserve wines because in the interval of time, the wines of the year will have “opened”.

This is an example of our artisanal spirit of adaptation and flexibility, in a dimension of inheritance and transmission of know-how.

BC: Your vintage champagnes include Meunier, a grape variety that tends to age quickly, something rather atypical for champagnes meant to be cellared longer. How do you properly include this grape variety?

BG: Meunier has fewer tannins than Pinot Noir and these allow a better resistance to oxidation, keeping in mind that the champagne production process is rather oxidative.

At MOËT & CHANDON we do not add sulfites to Meunier during pressing, but only at the end of pressing, to allow certain enzymatic oxidations to happen.

These are surface oxidations that will not attack the structure of the wine and the aromatic precursors but only the fragile elements on the outside of the wine. This oxidized material will precipitate at the bottom of the tanks and will be removed.

From this moment, our winemaking is very reductive and very protective of the wine. So we induce oxidations at the right time to get rid of them. This gives the Meunier, a fragile grape variety, a greater aging potential.

BC: The current trend is to look for the quality of champagnes in their terroirs and grapes. What role does vinification play?

BG: Undoubtedly, the better the grapes, the easier the winemaking, but this is still necessary.

Wine is not a natural product in the sense that it is not made by itself, but is the result of the human intervention and creation.

Our approach to winemaking is minimalist, simple, harmonious, without forcing things.

BC: How do you define a good dosage? Is dosage really necessary?

BG: When I arrived at MOËT & CHANDON in the late 90s, the dosages of the wines were around 14 g/l with a finish in the mouth where the sugar could be perceived.

Today, dosages of more than 10 g/l are no longer adequate for our wines. But I do not consider that a low dosage makes a good champagne and that with less sugar it is more authentic: there is a level of balance that we propose.

In addition, the dosage, which is made of sugar but also wine and sulfite, is not only a way to add balance to the wine but also help it recover from the oxidative shock of disgorgement (part of champagne making), and contributes to the wine’s aging potential.

So if the dosage exists in Champagne, there is a reason, but with global warming and the improvement of viticultural techniques, we obtain riper grapes. These, combined with higher proportions of reserve wines and a longer aging time in the cellar, contribute to a natural richness in Moët Imperial that allows us to use less sugar in the dosage.

In our Vintage champagnes, the dosage has only an antioxidant function and we limit the amount of sugar to 5 g/l to respect the nature of the wine while sufficiently protecting it during its aging.

But for a large part of consumers, champagne without dosage might seem incomplete and too harsh.

BC: How do you see the future of champagne with the increasing competition of other sparkling wines that are evolving in quality and production volumes?

BG: Champagne represents a tiny percentage of the sparkling wine market, and I think that as this market continues to grow, champagne will always have its place.

We are lucky to be able to produce great sparkling wines on a large scale, as opposed to other regions that can produce very good sparkling wines but not on a scale similar to ours.

The challenge for us is not to lose our identity and uniqueness and to remain at the top of the sparkling wine pyramid.

Therefore, we must be even more demanding with ourselves in both viticulture and production and always continue to increase the level.

The best champagnes are totally at the top of the sparkling wine pyramid, but some mid-range ones must continue to rise in quality and this is a collective ambition.

Our intention is to progress, to always move forward, but there are still so many things that we don’t quite understand and we shouldn’t be afraid to question our knowledge.

For this, we have the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Reims and the technical services of the CIVC (the champagne bureau).

At MOËT & CHANDON, we go a little further in this R&D exercise with our own department and equipment.

The good practices based on empirical observation always end up being explained by science and we regularly discover new things. The important thing is to use this knowledge to improve the quality and sustainability of champagne and Champagne.

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