On a cool summer’s day in June of this year, a fleet of black Mercedes-Benz snaked through the French countryside heading for the vineyards of Hautvilliers Abbey, the spiritual home of Dom Pérignon, in the Champagne region. It looked presidential, as more than a hundred guests arrived for a once-in-a-few-decades event – the handover ceremony of the champagne house’s chef de cave.
Richard Geoffroy was retiring after 28 years in the role as “the guardian” – as the job has been referred to – handing over to Vincent Chaperon who will officially take over the role on January 1, 2019.
It might seem like overkill to host such a large event for one person’s retirement, but a chef de cave is key to a champagne house’s identity. These revered experts must have an encyclopedic knowledge of the house’s vintages to decide on the new and reserve wines to blend for each cuvée, and often stay with the brand for an extended period of time, thereby defining its DNA for decades to come.
Geoffroy had overseen 28 harvests and released 11 roses and 14 white vintages during his tenure, and his “swan song” has been the best yet, the 2008 vintage. “The conditions were close to perfect for this champagne,” said Geoffroy, who was recently in Hong Kong with Chaperon to launch this limited- edition must-have vintage. He has left quite a legacy, but as Geoffroy admits, it is not all about the perfect weather or the terroir when making the perfect wine; each chef de cave must have good instincts and must bring his own personality to
“During Dominique Foulon’s time [Geoffroy’s predecessor, who was chef de cave for 15 years with Dom Perignon] he played more by the rules, but I have been looser, more playful,” says Geoffroy. He pointed out that Dom Perignon himself had wanted to “revolutionalise the trajectory of champagne”.
“This means from the beginning, the DNA of Dom Perignon was to look more to the future than to the past,” says Geoffroy, adding that although the brand is traditional in the sense of its history, the champagne is always evolving.
With many winemakers looking to the future using new technology in the process of winemaking, the chef de cave’s instincts are still crucial. “A good chef de cave must be a good winemaker. We must be involved in making wines for several years before becoming chef de cave. The tasting skills are very important. We must have a good nose and palate. Intuition and creativity are key,” says Dominique Demarville, chef de cave, Veuve Clicquot.
Knowledge of the house and its style is crucial. Before one can be promoted to chef de cave, a few years of training with the former chef de cave is key to keep the consistency of the brand. In the case of Champagne Deutz, for example, education is meticulously passed down through the decision-makers. The brand was founded in 1838 by William Deutz and Pierre-Hubert Geldermann and has since been run by successive generations of the Deutz and Geldermann families.
“The philosophy has been transmitted through the decades and through the generations,” says Michel Davesne, chef de cave, Champagne Deutz. “[This includes knowledge of] the vineyard, use of reserve wines for the consistency of non-vintage cuvées, winemaking techniques which would include [decisions on] the use of wood, malolactic fermentation, ageing, and strategy for the liqueur de dosage.”
That is not to say that technology has no place in the vineyard. On the contrary, it goes a long way toward facilitating the many processes involved with winemaking.
“Technological breakthrough is synonymous with progress and champagne is no exception to that,” says Davesne. “It can make the process more efficient and reduce the fastidious and – in the old days – potentially painful operations.”
The new equipment Deutz uses at the press-house, for example, include thermo-regulated vats instead of barrels, the use of crown caps instead of traditional corks for ageing-on-the-lees, as well as the use of gyropallets instead of hand-riddling.
While technology is essential for efficiency, however, the actual taste and character of the champagnes – what actually makes them enjoyable and marketable – comes down to the human touch, hence the unequivocal importance of chef de caves.
“The traditions are based on the terroir, the winemaking and the ageing. We [have been] doing the same process for hundreds [of] years. But new technologies such as temperature control, the use of stainless steel to improve hygiene, the selection of natural yeast, help to make more precise wines – the purest, more fine, without oxidation,” says Veuve Clicquot’s Demarville. “Science is used along the process to better control the fermentations, the ageing, the level of oxidation. Instinct is used in the creation of blends by using our nose and palate, our memory and intuition.”
Davesne agrees with Geoffroy and Chaperon, when it comes to important traits for a successful chef de cave, that “there is no place for egos”, he says. “Our mission is to perpetuate the house style … try to make it better without deviating from the line which has been drawn by our predecessors all through the generations. This doesn’t mean we are ‘motionless’ and even lessor that we don’t keep our minds buoyant. Since the 1996 vintage, cuvée William Deutz has gained, I believe, richness, complexity and elegance.”
It’s clear that these chef de caves are playing a dangerous juggling act with their cuvees, having to preserve the history and heritage of a brand, while injecting their own personality and interpretation of the company’s identity codes, and yet never forgetting to keep an open mind for the years and evolving tastes to come.
As Chaperon puts it, “When talking about the future, we have to be agile and prepared – physically, technically and spiritually.”