Hervé Deschamps was appointed seventh chef de cave of Perrier-Jouët in 1983 and signed all its champagnes ever since. A witty and elegant Champenois, he crafts gorgeous wines with much passion, humbleness, and precision. He applies the same precision in choosing the words to describe the aromas and taste of his wines, and in explaining how he creates them. For him, champagne starts in the vineyard and is sublimated with the assemblage, an art more than a technique, which requires much sensitiveness and experience in champagne making. He has both, and his champagnes show it, and I am proud to share his definition of champagne: above all, an idea of pleasure.
Perrier-Jouët is known and recognized for its light and elegant champagnes with distinctive floral notes. Where does this style come from and how is it built?
The founders of our house, Pierre Nicolas Perrier and his wife, Rose Adélaide Jouët, had a passion for botany and flowers. They even built a greenhouse to grow orchids, palm trees, and pineapples (a first in champagne). This passion for nature is found naturally in the champagnes that we make, with their floral and intricate style. Chardonnay plays an essential role; it’s the house’s emblematic grape. Even in blends where it isn’t as present, chardonnay’s image must stand out.
Chardonnay it’s the house’s emblematic grape but we selected specific vineyards to keep or enrich these floral notes brought by chardonnay.
But we cannot separate the grapes from the villages. For this, we selected specific vineyards in the Champagne region to keep or enrich these floral notes brought by chardonnay. Since the beginning, Perrier-Jouët has planted vines in terroirs that match its style and has bought grapes in particular zones with this light, aerial side.
It’s this lightness from the chardonnays, pinot noirs, and pinot meuniers from certain vineyards that I want to keep by adapting the vinification process to preserve these notes of flower fragrances. The fruitiness of our blends is mainly of white and mature fruits and not of stewed fruits, with a simple vinification process to preserve the lightness of the grape’s primary aromas. The magic of the blend will then beautify these floral notes.
Your Grand Brut non-vintage champagne perpetuates the Perrier-Jouët floral and elegant style. How is this blend built?
Grand Brut is the wine that summarizes the idea that is found, to different extents, in our other champagnes. In this blend, there are 20% of chardonnay, 40% of pinot noir, and 40% of meunier on average, and 12% to 20% of reserve wines that are 10 years old at most. Chardonnay brings the freshness that is always there after aging for three to four years on lees, with roundness in the mouth brought by pinot noir and meunier.
However, it is not just a question of grapes; the origin of the vineyards, between 50 and 70, allows us to obtain this blend. The pinots noirs come mainly from grands and premiers crus in the Montagne de Reims, in Mailly, Verzy, Aÿ, and Rilly-la-Montagne. The meuniers are from the Vallée de la Marne in Dizy, Damery, Venteuil or Vincelles. Finally, the chardonnays come from grands crus of the Côte des Blancs: Cramant, Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Chouilly.
How do reserve wines take part in creating your style? Which characteristics are you looking for?
Reserve wines must not stand out in the blend–we must not find them in the nose or taste, or else it will be like a dish that is too salty or spicy.
Reserve wines bring roundness to champagne and help to keep consistency in the house style. However, reserve wines must not stand out in the blend–we must not find them in the nose or taste, or else it will be like a dish that is too salty or spicy. We choose meticulously. We do not use very old wines because they bring toasted oxidative notes. Our reserve wines are previous blends, rather than wines of individual crus, which help to rebuild the house style year after year.
Reserve wines also have ambivalence because the second fermentation rejuvenates them, giving them back freshness. The second fermentation transforms champagne; the yeasts do not just create bubbles and alcohol, but also new aromas. The grapes and terroir are the starting points, but the second fermentation emphasizes these elements and, if they are too present at the beginning with too much maturity, they will become exuberant with the second fermentation.
We are experiencing global warming, which favors a quick evolution of the sugars in the grapes, and a quick degradation of the acids. As a result, we obtain wines that have more sugar and potential alcohol but have less acidity. However, we look for this acidity that allows the wines to age longer. Therefore, we look for wines that have a potential that will be revealed by the second fermentation. That is why we prefer the cuvée to the taille, which is a lot richer in aromas. If the still wine is already beautiful and “done,” it will not have the potential for great champagne.
Perrier-Jouët was the first house to make brut champagne in the middle of the 19th century. How did that choice come about? What is your approach to dosage today?
Perrier-Jouët has traditionally positioned itself toward what we call the “English taste” which is drier.
Perrier-Jouët, like the other houses based in Epernay, has traditionally positioned itself toward what we call the “English taste” (with a dosage of 22 to 66 g/l), which is drier than the American, German, and Russian tastes. These houses exported their champagnes through the Marne river (that passes through Epernay), and then through the Seine river to Paris. From there, they were exported to London through waterways and maritime transport. The English have always looked for drier, more vinous champagnes. As a result, Perrier-Jouët created the first champagne that you could define brut to adapt to the English palate.
Conversely, the houses in Reims exported through another river, the Vesle, to reach the canals of the north and the Rhine river and therefore the Nordic countries and Russia, who looked for sweeter champagnes that were marked by pinot noir rather than by chardonnay.
Dosage is part of building a cuvée; it’s the final touch that enhances its style.
Dosage is part of building a cuvée; it’s the final touch that enhances its style. To me, it’s like adding the finishing touches to a sculpture by smoothing the edges, by adding one last dash of harmony so that there aren’t any bitter or sour hints. However, I find that we have put too much emphasis on dosage in the last few years. To me, focusing on this detail is like asking a chef how many grams of salt or sugar he used in his recipes or desserts. I understand that we want to compare champagnes on something like the number of grams of sugar added, but this information is not enough because the dosage is not only sugar but also reserve wines that bring a nice coating and complete the champagne. The perception of sugar is also lower in sparkling wine than in still wine: the bubbles bring forward the wine’s bitterness and acidity by allowing the sugar not to appear.
The reputation of your house is also built on the notoriety of Belle Epoque, your prestige cuvée. What makes it so special and successful?
Belle Epoque is the house’s iconic blend of the three grape varieties: 50% chardonnay, 45% pinot noir, and 5% meunier on average. The chardonnays come from the Côte des Blancs, and the pinot noirs come from two zones: Mailly, Verzy, and Verzenay in the north of the Montagne de Reims, less sunny, where we often harvest last, and Aÿ, in proximity to Epernay. The meunier comes from our vineyard in Dizy and with aging, it will bridge the gap between chardonnay and pinot noir and allow the blend to gain harmony and richness.
Pinot noir is the pillar of this blend by giving it the structure while leaving the chardonnay on top with its brilliance, its elegance, and its lightness that we must always find even after six years of aging on lees. But without meunier, we would get two different expressions at different times–first the chardonnay and then the pinot noir–whereas we are looking to achieve a harmonious expression. With Belle Epoque, we get an impression on the mouth and nose of fullness, of fine aromas, a structure, and especially a long finish that allows you to go from chardonnay to pinot noir without realizing it.
In this blend, we find Perrier-Jouët’s typical flowery side, but after aging on lees for a longer period, we find notes of honey, white fruits in syrup, candied citruses, spicy notes like ginger, and the notes of butter and brioche are more intense. Finally, the bubbles are creamy, also thanks to chardonnay with its composition in proteins that favors the creation of finer and more elegant bubbles.
How do you give meunier, a variety that matures quicker, the ability to age in your blends?
Our meuniers mainly come from the Vallée de la Marne, from Dizy to Château-Thierry and only from the right bank, which is sunnier. However, the meuniers used to make Belle Epoque only come from Dizy, rated at 95%, with higher aging potential. This vineyard is south facing and its meuniers have a richness and potential that allow them to accompany the pinot noirs and to not crush the chardonnays.
In 2017, you launched a new cuvée, a non-vintage blanc de blancs. Why? How does it differ from Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs?
This new blend follows the success of Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs that was launched for the year 2000. This blend is the epitome of the Perrier-Jouët style, produced only during exceptional years and in very small quantities. To make this vintage champagne, we only use two of our oldest parcels: Bouron Leroi and Bouron du Midi, in Cramant, a grand cru in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. After aging on lees for eight years, this champagne reveals the unique floral character of chardonnay from these parcels, with light notes of melons and pears, dry fruit, candied fruit, nougat, almonds, honey and vanilla. This wine still has a certain nervousness in the mouth but is rich and powerful.
On the contrary, our non-vintage Blanc de Blancs is to me the pure flowery expression of spring and the house’s brightest blend, with its very delicate aromas of hawthorns, elderberries, acacias, but no notes of heady flowers, and that are followed by notes of white fruits like peaches, pears, and citruses, such as lemon and grapefruit, and citrus flowers–orange tree, lemon tree–that make the transition between flowers and fruits. We find chardonnay’s signature on the palate with its freshness and liveliness, but the blend’s aftertaste is still very Perrier-Jouët with that round and charming side that makes this champagne different to other blanc de blancs; once again, thanks to the use of specific vineyards. We include 15% of reserve wines in this champagne to accompany this sensation of freshness with a hint of warmth and sun in the aftertaste, which is the most pleasant thing in wine and makes you want to drink more and more.
This double expression is also found in your rosé champagnes, one prestige and one non-vintage. How do they differ?
Blason Rosé (non-vintage) is a blend of 50% pinot noir, 25% meunier and 25% chardonnay, including 12-15% reserve wines, from around 50 different crus. To obtain a constant color that lasts with time, we include 15% of red wine. With the same dosage as Grand Brut of 8-10 g/l, Blason Rosé is rich, generous, and spontaneous. We use red wines that are not marked by tannins, from sunny vineyards in Vincelles in the Vallée de la Marne and Les Riceys in the Aube and are supplied by growers with a lot of experience in producing red wine. Blason Rosé is a very generous champagne with notes of red fruits, such as strawberries, and a powerful taste, but it also contains notes of citrus fruits, such as blood orange and pomegranate with a sour side.
Belle Epoque Rosé (always vintage) is also a rosé d’assemblage, but has a pale salmon color. The aim of this blend is to keep the flowery note, but mainly of roses or peonies instead of white flowers. The fruits include wild strawberry, raspberry, and pink grapefruit, accompanied by notes of brioche resulting from longer aging on lees. We include a little less red wine (12% for the 2006 vintage) and more chardonnay (50%) compared to Blason Rosé. It is a light rosé, velvety and supple.
Is your work more technical or creative? What are the most complicated and most pleasant aspects of it?
My work is rather creative, but technique helps me. You need sensitivity, to listen to your emotions and to know how to express them.
My work is rather creative, but technique helps me. You need sensitivity, to listen to your emotions and to know how to express them. The most difficult thing is making the assemblages because you always question your choices. You always want to do better but, at some point, you have to take a final decision.
The most pleasant thing is discovering a blend after fermentation during the frequent tastings that we do every six months to analyze the evolution of the wines. To me, it’s like having a child and guiding him when growing up to help him become an adult.
The chef de cave also takes part in creating the value and recognition of a champagne by providing the key to understand it and sharing his own experience. It’s great to talk to our customers about our wines. The chef de cave incarnates the house’s identity; he’s the guardian of its style. I am the seventh chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët in 200 years of history of this house and I am perpetuating its heritage. Some wines that I make will be tasted and presented by my successor who will work to continue our house style.
What characterizes Perrier-Jouët’s identity?
The freshness and purity of Belle Epoque, its floral style, and the prevalence of chardonnay immediately made it the emblem of Perrier-Jouët champagnes.
The identity of our house is found in its connection to nature but also to art, which has been the case throughout the house’s history. Our founders and all of our presidents were art lovers and/or collectors. When Art Nouveau was animating the beginning of the 20th century, Octave Gallice, the grandson of the founders of Perrier-Jouët, asked Emile Gallé, one of the pioneers of this artistic movement, to make a motif for our 1902 magnums. He designed beautiful and original Japanese anemones that reflect the content of the bottle: champagne that emphasizes chardonnay’s flowery notes. This is how Belle Epoque was born. We reintroduced this cuvée in 1964 and used only the best vintages since then. The freshness and purity of Belle Epoque, its floral style, and the prevalence of chardonnay immediately made it the emblem of Perrier-Jouët champagnes. To continue our association with the world of art, we have been partners of the Design Miami contemporary art fair since 2012 and we regularly commission artists that reinterpret the heritage of Art Nouveau.
How do you see the future of champagne in consideration of the growing competition of other quality sparkling wines?
Other regions make high-quality sparkling wines, but they do not have a magical history like ours, which goes through kings and emperors and the excellence of our know-how. I think the magic aura of champagne touches the consumer more than its technical details. That is why champagne must remain associated with excellence, pleasure, and French art de vivre.
What does champagne mean to you?
Champagne is, above all, pleasure.
Pleasure. Champagne is, above all, pleasure. Pleasure is an idea, an image that I want to transmit with our wines. Champagne is a part of life and its happiest moments.