Richard Geoffroy has been chef de cave of Dom Pérignon from 1990 till the end of 2018 when he passed the torch to his pupil Vincent Chaperon. Given the prestige of this brand and the incredible wines he had been making that are consistently at the very top of the champagne world, Richard is an icon for champagne lovers and a reference in the region.
Ironically, this Champenois didn’t realize he wanted to make champagne until he graduated as a medical doctor and then had an epiphany. He decided to go back to his roots and enrolled for the Enologist Diploma at the University of Reims. This is how he ended up making for almost three decades, what is for many, the best wine in the world. Following his inclination for life twists and turns, and new challenges, in 2019, he moved to Japan, a country he loves, to work on his next project: brewing saké, sparkling I assume. His imprint will remain at Dom Pérignon for some time, as its latest cuvée, the 2018 vintage, will most likely not hit the market before a decade. A man of voracious curiosity and truly open spirit, tasting with him many of its champagnes inside the very same Abbey in Hautvillers where the monk Dom Pérignon lived and worked, and sharing views and opinions on so many subjects, was the most enriching and inspirational meeting I had in Champagne. And I was so content to realize that I have similar opinions with such eminence in Champagne. For example, on terroir and how the use of this word has saturated any discussion about champagne making, almost leaving aside the crucial relevance of superior elaboration work in the cellar that makes champagne, first and foremost, a wine of creation. Or how pervasive intensity, common in my experience to many of the most renowned growers’ champagnes, is not that desirable in fact. And that great champagne is first and foremost a matter of will, ambition, intention, and aesthetic ideal, hence the result of an intellectual process. If you have mixed feelings about Dom Pérignon hopefully this interview will give you some perspective.
Dom Pérignon, Moët & Chandon prestigious cuvée, is so emblematic that it has become a brand in its own right. What characterizes and distinguishes Dom Pérignon? How do you explain its style?
Dom Pérignon is the charismatic leader of Champagne.
If Moët & Chandon is the flagship of Champagne and the market leader, Dom Pérignon is the charismatic leader of Champagne. The identity, the style of Dom Pérignon is not an aromatic character; Dom Pérignon is above all an aesthetic vision, an idea of harmony and completeness. In the blend of Dom Pérignon, made from chardonnay and pinot noir, there are opposites that complement each other in harmony. The essence of Dom Pérignon is this harmony.
These opposites, yin and yang, are at the heart of its seduction, with dualities, ambivalences, sometimes also ambiguities, that I find extremely attractive. This duality is represented by the pinot noir, more powerful and the chardonnay, more elegant. It is this ambivalence that interests me and Dom Pérignon is made of that.
Dom Pérignon has a way of kissing the palate, is never tense and stiff, or sharp as many champagnes are. Champagne exists for drinking and that’s why I give great importance to its drinkability.
Dom Pérignon has a particular body, almost as if one could chew the wine. The weight in the mouth and the aromatic intensity of chardonnay and pinot noir are complementary and do not impact the palate at the same time. Chardonnay will be more on the attack while pinot noir will take some time to develop to culminate at the same level and last longer. From start to finish, there are no gaps, always with aromatic persistence. Finally, there is an element of gray: some speak of minerality, smokiness, iodine notes, which is very specific to Dom Pérignon. This is the envelope of Dom Pérignon, its spirit, and is very large. If your style is too defined and narrow, in some years you can have nothing that fits in.
Dom Pérignon is above all an aesthetic vision, an idea of harmony and completeness.
Why is Dom Pérignon always vintage? And why did you craft it also in some challenging years?
When I joined Dom Pérignon, the idea of declaring only the best vintages was still very much rooted in Champagne. But to me, it doesn’t mean anything anymore. It is rather a question of witnessing the years for what they have remarkable in them. It’s like human beings: they don’t have to be perfect to be interesting, it’s their inner light that makes them shine.
I think that Champagne must be careful to never be just non-vintage. In this continuity, we need variations.
I think that Champagne must be careful to never be just non-vintage. In this continuity, we need variations, deviations to express all the Champagne terroir, including its seasons and vintages. We therefore have, at Dom Pérignon, the duty, the mission, to express the vintages of Champagne for whatever remarkable they have. In this approach Dom Pérignon carries the idea of the character of a year, of its identity, as far as possible, to give the best of that year. The raw material always varies and you have to listen to it and try to get the best out of it. So, Dom Pérignon is the ultimate expression of the year. Dom Pérignon serves the vintages and exists through the vintages. If champagne is very much in the renewal, in the consistency, in the continuity of its brut non-vintages so that they are recognizable, Dom Pérignon is a series of discontinuities, since the characters of each year are different. It is an open continuity, where repetition is the enemy of Dom Pérignon.
We are the only ones in Champagne to have declared five vintages in a row (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006) and we are very proud of it.
Making a vintage is a constraint because combining different years is a less risky exercise with more certainty, so we get out of the comfort zone, especially with difficult years like 2003. There are therefore many risks in developing Dom Pérignon. It appears so harmonious and serene but there are lots of doubts, risks and challenges to make it. You have to dare, question yourself and push your limits. We are the only ones in Champagne to have declared five vintages in a row (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006) and we are very proud of it. Some consumers are even waiting for our wines to judge a vintage in Champagne.
The Dom Pérignon brand is alive and much comes from this risk-taking in winemaking. We are never complacent. Our wines have a meaning: we want to communicate a harmonious world where intensity is not necessarily brutality or uber-power, where harmony is more intense than power.
From time to time, there are insurmountable limits, as in 2001 and 2007, which did not allow us to produce Dom Pérignon. The only vintages that we cannot make are those where the grapes are not ripe, because the essence of Dom Pérignon is in the depth of the wine, but everything else is possible. In the years when we do not manage to produce Dom Pérignon, all the basic wines of grands and premiers crus are used in Moët & Chandon, for their cuvées but above all to feed their stocks of reserve wines.
In this discontinuity in Dom Pérignon vintages, are there any aromatic characters that are recurrent?
In Dom Pérignon, there is always a vegetal element with notes of mint and lime zest, which enhance the other aromas.
In Dom Pérignon, there is always a vegetal element with notes of mint and lime zest, which enhance the other aromas. Many wines stifle this plant element, which comes from the grape, due to their elaboration. To keep these green notes, you must not be oxidative in style, but rather reductive. There are also plant extracts, which emerge from the long aging of wine in the cellar, which can appear after 30-40 years and are very intriguing. For example, Dom Pérignon 1966 has a privet character.
What is the role of terroir and winemaking in the creation of Dom Pérignon?
We rely on the terroirs and we respect them scrupulously, so we don’t work the wine much.
All great wines start in the vineyard and we have access more than any other house to 16 of the 17 grands crus of Champagne and to five premier crus, with, therefore, a phenomenal range of supply. We rely on the terroirs and we respect them scrupulously, so we don’t work the wine much. For example, using wood for us would not be respectful of the terroir. We make our wines individually before blending them in the purest way to express what comes from the terroirs and the vintage. But today, there is a formatted, repetitive speech, which wants wine to be only its terroir. Terroir has always existed since wine exists, but it was not evoked as clearly and articulated as today. We have always been in osmosis with our surroundings and today, we have put a word on it.
But there are other things beyond the terroir: the elaboration, the assemblage, and the maturation on the lees. Champagne is the most elaborate wine, so it is the most intellectual one. There is an approach, and choices to be made. At Dom Pérignon, we have the ambition to elevate the terroirs to another level, with a creative spirit, inspired to sublimate their sum to obtain something superior. The terroirs are elementary colors, but an array of elementary colors is not complete. Dom Pérignon’s ambition is that of creation and we have the means of our idea, with our grapes and our human resources. Dom Pérignon is therefore tremendously conceptual, it is a wine of will, ambition, intention, aesthetic ideal, the result of a voluntary, intellectual approach. For me, beauty must be everywhere. The world of Dom Pérignon is a world of beauty and harmony, in a universe of dreams, of emotions, with a certain lightness of being.
You have introduced the concept of plenitude in your wines, dubbed P1, P2, P3, according to their development stage during the aging on lees. Why three different phases?
Plenitude is a term that is very dear to me and which is not specific to wine but to the living, to individuals. It’s this period when we shine, when we have enough maturity. It is not a permanent state unfortunately, but there are periods of remarkable plenitude long enough to be distinguished and represented.
These three wines represent three different, successive plenitudes. P1, P2 and P3 are the same blends of the same year but found at different and interesting times in their lives when the wine sings louder and louder, reaches a peak of energy and intensity, while remaining pure and precise. It’s like someone you see only three times in life but at different and very important times in his life. After about nine years, Dom Pérignon reaches its first fullness, its first harmony (P1, under the commercial name Vintage). It takes 15 to 20 years to reach P2, this moment of the plenitude of the substance, the thickness of the wine, of the touch, and minerality; here everything is carried a little higher with more energy. Paradoxically, these wines are older and yet they have a deep and penetrating energy that marks this second moment in time. It takes more than 25 years to arrive at P3 when all the elements are perfectly integrated, and the wine is at the top of Dom Pérignon’s expression.
Dom Pérignon is at the top of champagne, which is at the top of the pyramid of sparkling wines, an industry that keeps on growing. What is your vision of the future of champagne?
The sparkling wine industry produces three billion bottles per year, of which champagne represents only 10%. People’s aspiration for champagne and the demand for sparkling wines are growing, with a rapid progression. The more this market increases while the production volume of champagne remains the same–given that the Champagne terroir is limited–the more its relative market share decreases. So, champagne is destined to always be on top but in doing so, it moves away from a number of people, for a simple logic of supply and demand. We must manage this relative shortage of champagne without arrogance, without losing touch with our consumers–all those who have followed us for a very long time and who made our success. The price of champagne will necessarily increase but champagne is not that expensive compared to other great wines.
Wine must be relevant to respond exactly to the aspirations of people and to understand the evolution of the world.
In this context, the way champagne producers interact with their consumers is crucial. It’s about continuing to offer the right product for the right occasion. Wine must be relevant to respond exactly to the aspirations of people and to understand the evolution of the world and be contemporary, and for that, you have to be very close to the people. Consumers right now experiment; they want excitement, discovery and surprise, and that goes beyond price. We must therefore always remain legible and recognizable so that our consumers understand what we are doing.
What have all these years at Dom Pérignon brought you?
Through champagne and all the meetings that are part of my work, I have broadened my vision of the world.
I was lucky and privileged to be part of the champagne world and thanks to that, to open myself to the world. I am a doctor and I should have been a doctor, but through champagne and all the meetings that are part of my work, I have broadened my vision of the world. I also learned that you should never let go and never give up; the story of each vintage of Dom Pérignon is a story of constraints and challenges where nothing was obvious and that everything can have a way of working out in the end.
What does champagne mean to you?
Champagne is magic; it’s an aesthetic utopia; it’s a dream.
Champagne is magic; it’s an aesthetic utopia; it’s a dream. Champagne carries energy, which inspires, with its cheerful and festive side, and background that nourishes the spirit. Great champagne is more than great wine, with this emotional charge that makes it more alive, deep but at the same time light, with the feet in chalk and the head in the stars.