Benoît Gouez joined Moët & Chandon in 1998 as winemaker and became chef de cave in 2005 at only 35, and has since been the architect of a work of precision on a large scale. He is not your typical winemaker; with his broad view on all sorts of issues, he could have been a great researcher or a lawyer in my opinion. He explains with lucidity and openness how to properly make millions of bottles of champagne, stressing the fact that technique is as important as good grapes and that constant adaptation is key.
In doing so, he confirms what I firmly believe: that champagne is first and foremost an idea of pleasure which 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 its largest and most successful player.
You are not from Champagne and you did not study at a wine college like many of your peers. How has your path crossed that of champagne?
Wine is sharing, conviviality, and exchange.
My story is rather 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 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 sharing, conviviality, and exchange. But travel is perhaps the aspect that pushed me the most toward this job.
Being a French enologist 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. But 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 chefs de cave of Moët & Chandon and of Dom Pérignon), two visionary individuals of great humanity.
No other product than champagne and no other house than Moët & Chandon best incarnate these three dimensions: technicity and sensitiveness, culture and society, and travel.
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, and travel.
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?
The distinction between craftsmanship and industrial production is not a question of size but philosophy and mentality.
The idea that being the largest champagne producer 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 philosophy and mentality. An industrial producer applies recipes, whatever the circumstances, and I think it 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 work.
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. And 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 ha, of which 1,200 ha directly owned with 600 ha in grands crus and 300 ha in premiers crus.
How do you benefit from such an extensive vineyard in crafting your champagnes?
Our vineyard is important for quantity, quality, and diversity with almost 250 crus out of 319 in Champagne.
Our vineyard is important for quantity, quality, and diversity with almost 250 crus out of 319 in Champagne. We are therefore luckier than any other producer because we get the best grapes wherever they are, not only in grands crus. In Champagne, a grand cru is a whole village, but not necessarily all of it is 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 five or six years or more, i.e., prestige or vintage cuvées, whereas, in a brut non-vintage, meant to be drunk within two or three 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.
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.
How does this sensitivity participate in the production process?
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 the wine, it does not tell us if it is oxidized, reduced, lactic, if it has texture, or a long finish, 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 palate. I taste wines quickly and I try to be as intuitive and spontaneous as possible always listening to my first impression.
How do you define the characteristic style of Moët & Chandon? What are you looking to transmit with your wines?
Through the production process, we look for three elements: fruit, balance, and maturity.
Through the production process, we look for three elements: fruit, balance, and maturity. We look for intense fruit aromas so that when drinking Moët & Chandon, we 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 our style, we especially find white and 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 our brut cuvées. Finally, an elegant maturity, with a certain complexity from the 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 capability to be always contemporary while remaining true to our identity.
Our philosophy is, therefore, based on a 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 and enological projects to study how to do differently and better and how to face the new challenges related to climate change and sustainable viticulture. We constantly think about how to adapt and evolve.
How do crus and grape varieties participate in the creation of your style?
Grape varieties and terroirs complement each other in the assemblage, at the heart of champagne making.
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 subregion or a village, but it’s 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 one-third of pinot noir, one-third of meunier, and a smaller one-third of chardonnay. The exact 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 periods 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 base wines 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.
Your vintage champagnes include meunier, a grape variety that tends to age quickly, something rather atypical for champagnes that ages longer. How do you properly include this grape variety?
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.
The current trend is to look for the quality of champagnes in the grapes and terroirs used. What role does vinification play?
Wine is not a natural product in the sense that it is not made by itself but is the result of human intervention and creation.
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 human intervention and creation. Our approach to winemaking is minimalist, simple, harmonious, without forcing things.
How do you define a good dosage? Is dosage really necessary?
When I arrived at Moët & Chandon in the late 1990s, 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 good champagne and that with less sugar, it is more authentic. There is a balance that we propose. Besides, 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 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. Also, in our vintage champagnes, dosage has mostly 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.
How do you see the future of champagne with the increasing competition of other sparkling wines that are evolving in quality?
Champagne represents a tiny percentage of the sparkling wine market, and I think that as this 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 on smaller scales.
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 winemaking and always continue to increase the level.
There are still so many things that we don’t quite understand, and we shouldn’t be afraid to question our knowledge.
The best champagnes are totally at the top of the sparkling wine pyramid, but some mid-range ones must continue to raise 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 Comité Champagne. At Moët & Chandon, we go a little further in this R&D exercise with our department and equipment. The good practices based on empirical observation always end up being explained by science and we regularly discover new things. What matters is to use this knowledge to improve the quality and sustainability of champagne and Champagne.