My base wine tasting voyage with Moët & Chandon cellar master, Benoit Gouez
The Blend, the Blend
Champagne-making is all about “blending.” There’s the blending of the grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay), blending of 319 possible villages and blending base wines across vintages.
Recently, I sat down with Benoit Gouez, cellar master of Moët & Chandon, for a lesson in blending — a still component wine tasting of the house’s flagship Moët Impérial Brut NV. This wine, which accounts for the majority of Moët’s production, is just coming onto the U.S. market, a fact that might seem as shocking to you as it was for me. Let me get things straight: In 2009, Moët conducted market research on the evolution of the American palate. The report dispelled the myth of the “sweet” American palate, concluding that it has gradually become very close to the French and English palates. In light of this, Moët & Chandon said au revoir to its heavily dosed U.S.-only White Star (18-20 grams of sugar per liter) and introduced a much drier Moët Impérial (9 grams of sugar per liter) ($44.95). The goal was a lighter and more elegant expression — in Gouez’s words, a champagne of “finesse, précision et légèreté.”
The Impérial is a true study in blending, as more than 100 component wines make up the final cuvée. Gouez walked me through 12 still wines: three pinot noir, three pinot meunier and three chardonnay (all from different villages), as well as two reserve and a still “assembled” Impérial blend.
The champagne geek in me loves component tastings. It’s a very important part of the champagne-making process that I take every occasion to experience. Gouez made a point to explain that the atypical order of the tasting was deliberate — pinot noir followed by pinot meunier and then chardonnay — to highlight the grape varietals from most to least grown in Champagne. Pinot noir, which has the fullest body and fruit profile, is usually tasted last, but Gouez put it in the limelight because it is the most planted, therefore the most important varietal for Moët. This was a first for me.
Everything is more poetic in French, n’est-ce pas? Gouez called our tasting “le voyage de la construction de l’Impérial.” Swoon. The exercise emphasized the typicity as well as the diversity of the grapes and reinforced what a delicate process it is to produce a non-vintage Impérial of consistency and balance, batch after batch, year after year.
Gouez led me to consider a few aspects of blending that had never dawned on me before:
The final blend of the Impérial consists of nearly equal parts of the three grapes — a lower percentage of pinot noir and higher percentage of chardonnay than White Star, so less structure and more elegance. It’s aged for 24 months before release. At the end of my “lesson,” I mentioned how much I love these base wine tastings and how one has to really get used to them since the wines are quite raw and acidic for the non-initiated palate. Gouez agrees: “ça peut être un peu peturbant!” Well, it surely wasn’t disturbing to me, au contraire!