Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sure, Solid, Successful Steps at Moet

Benoit Gouez, chef-du-cave, Moet e Chandon

When you are the largest house in Champagne, you don't make a change for change's sake. Rather, decisions that will take your company in a new direction take place with the experience of the past and the foresight to do what is best for the long road ahead.

One such decision that has recently taken place at Moet e Chandon in Epernay has to do with one of the firm's loveliest wines, the vintage Champagne. Keep in mind that a vintage bottling is not the typical release from Moet or any Champagne producer, but rather is something that is produced only in the finest years - years that are proclaimed vintage years by each house. 

Moet has just released its 2002 vintage Champagne and to show you how precious a vintage bottling is, this is only the 69th release of one of these wines from the firm, a very small percentage for a company that has been producing Champagne since 1842.

I mentioned changes at the start and the 2002 besides being a typically fine and elegant Moet bottling, is a wine that represents some important new avenues for the company. First and foremost is the name "Grand Vintage", which will be the new designation for the vintage offering. Perhaps it's just a marketing decision, but I think this new marque lends an added touch of class.

Then there's the aging process for the wine. The minimum for a Vintage Champagne by law is three years, but for Moet, five years has been the norm. But starting with this 2002, the chef-du-cave is looking at seven years of aging before the release to the market. In fact, as he believed this wine needed more time than usual given its delicate nature, he made the decision to release the 2003 vintage bottling first. As the 2003 was from a very hot vintage in which the grapes achieved higher than usual ripeness, Gouez felt the forward nature of that wine would show better sooner than the more subdued manner of the 2002.

Also, with this 2002 bottling, Gouez has decided to lessen the dosage to make the wine a bit drier. The addition of the dosage - often sugar blended with a base wine - is done for several reasons, but primarily to balance the overall acidity of the wine. This small addition of sugar also serves to round out the finish, as many Champagnes are too austere if they are not given a final dosage.

But Gouez has lessened the dosage amount for the 2002 Grand Vintage, believing that the extra two years of aging in the cellars have resulted in a more complex wine with a lengthy finish and ideal structure. Based on my initial tasting of this wine at a special dinner last week in Chicago, I would say he has made a wise choice. The wine is medium-full with beautifully complex aromas of lemon biscuit and a round, elegant finish - this is a Champagne with great finesse and style!

Benoit Gouez with two bottles of the 2002 Grand Vintage. The bottle with the chalk numbers on the label will replace the standard package.

Interestingly, few houses in Champagne made the decision to call 2002 a vintage year. Gouez, however thought that 2002 was an excellent year, perhaps the best since 1995, in his opinion. As the 2003 has already been released, the 2004 will be the next Grand Vintage, followed, surprisingly not by 2005, (which most houses did declare as a vintage year), but instead by the 2006, 2008 and 2009. 2005 and 2007 were not declared as vintage years by Moet, as Gouez believed that the grapes in those years "were not very ripe." Since the vintage wines will be from growing seasons that yielded more mature grapes, Gouez is confident that an extra two years of cellaring will result in better balanced wines. "Champagne is all about consistency," he notes, and while each vintage will still have its own characteristics, the additional aging for the new vintage offerings will guarantee a more recognizable style for Moet.

Along with the Grand Vintage 2002, we also tasted the new Grand Vintage Rosé 2002; this wine has ripe strawberry flavors and a rich palate with a long finish. The wine is quite attractive now, but it will evolve into a more complex offering with another 2-3 years in the bottle, while the Grand Vintage 2002 is a bit more approachable now. Gouez blends both white and red wines for his rosé, as he believes this is the best way to create a more subtle and balanced wine.

The wines were served with the ingenous cuisine of Stephanie Izard at her new restaurant in Chicago called Girl and the Goat. Izard became sort of a national overnight sensation when she was the winner on the tv show "Top Chef" a few years ago. Chicagoans had been waiting for her new restaurant and they are turning out in record numbers. I arrived at 6:00 PM on this particular Thursday evening and the room was packed- it seemed more like it was 8:00 or 8:30 at night.

Our small group dined in a private room and we were delighted with the menu. Izard finds so many wonderful and unique combinations; a dish of fennel, squash, kohlrabi and toasted almonds was a perfect accompaniment to the Grand Vintage, while a fried loup de mer was a marvelous companion to the rosé.

This event was a wonderful look at the world of Moet, not only from the standpoint of the quality of their wines, but also as a view into their future. As successful as they've been since 1842, I get the feeling their products will only improve in the upcoming years.

P.S. By the way, if you have a collection of the older bottlings of Moet vintage Champagne, keep an eye out for the 1921. Benoit Gouez remarked that it was "the best year for white wines in Europe in the 20th century." I'm guessing that vintage bottling may still have some life to it, so if you do find a bottle, will you let me know?

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