The Moët UK Sommelier of the Year finalists enjoyed a trip to Épernay in Champagne in France, the home of Moët & Chandon and its newly reopened cellars, where they learned the finer point of viticulture and tasted some ancient and rare vintages. Fiona Sims reports
Fort Chabrol is our first port of call in a lightning visit to MoÁ«t & Chandon HQ. The building was declared a historic landmark in 2012, and this is where the first viticulture school opened in the region, at the turn of the 20th century, after phylloxera had ravaged the vines. It played a major role in the fight against the disease and it's where the grafting process was developed to meet the region's needs.
Fort Chabrol, home of the first viticulture school in the region
The idea of the trip is to familiarise the finalists with the finer points of the brand and with Champagne production in general - they are certain to get Champagne-related questions in their finals. Not that there's much you could tell this lot that they don't already know.
I feel a bit sorry for MoÁ«t & Chandon vineyard director Philippe Lesne. He can't do the usual general introduction he might offer the less wine-savvy visitor, and the finalists dive straight in with technical questions such as, what is the difference in the date of flowering between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir? (Answer: Pinot Noir is a little later.) Have you had any problems with the rot-infecting suzukii fly? (Yes, but not this year so far.) And what rootstock have you got here? (41B.)
There's a snap of cold in the air. There was a frost last night and the finalists want to know if the vines have been affected. "This year we are very late in terms of budding. You can lose 80% of the buds in one night in a bad frost, but so far we've been OK. It's difficult to estimate the damage after a frost - it's a bit like the salad you leave in the fridge too long," says Lesne, with a frown, staring at the sky.
"Which is the easiest to grape to grow here?" asks Romain Bourger, from the Vineyard at Stockcross. "Chardonnay is planted everywhere in the world. It's the good guy in school. You can rely on it every year and it's easy to manage. Pinot Noir, on the other hand - he can be a bit of a troublemaker," grins Lesne.
"Pinot Meunier is the poet in the classroom - sometimes here, sometimes elsewhere. It's a surprisingly sensitive variety - you have to sort often. The real art, though, is blending all three together. It's a bit like a painter blending colours," suggests Lesne.
You don't say. MoÁ«t & Chandon has a dizzying number of variables to play with. It's the largest estate in the Champagne region with 1,200 hectares of vineyards, divvied up into 1,000 different lots, reports Lesne. Each vineyard is managed by lots: Pinot Noir makes up 40% of the planting, while Chardonnay accounts for 35% and Pinot Meunier 25%.
Pick of the crop
"What are the biggest issues for you?" asks Terry Kandylis, from wine-savvy London private members' club 67 Pall Mall. "The most difficult thing is the picking. It's all done by hand, so you have to foresee everything around 10 days before we harvest. We have 3,300 pickers to organise - it's a bit like D-Day. If you don't get the logistics right, you'll mess everything up. Then it's about sorting the grapes - it's important to isolate the good ones. The goal is quantity and quality," he adds.
How do you manage to maintain quality and consistency in the vineyard every year?" asks Lime Wood's Christopher Parker. "Every year we prepare the vineyards for making Dom Pérignon. But not every year is like 2002, so it's about managing expectations. It's about minimising risk and maximising quality. Sometimes we make mistakes - you have to be humble, even here at MoÁ«t & Chandon. But we are learning all the time," admits Lesne.
"Can you see the young buds?" he asks the sommeliers, as they gather for a quick lesson in the art of pruning. "How has global warming affected the region?" questions the Old Course hotel's Remi Fischer. "Until the mid-1990s, we started picking on 20 September, on average. These days, the first day of picking is now closer to 12 September," says Lesne.
The bracing air has sharpened palates, which is just as well as next comes a tasting of still base wines with Benoit Gouez, MoÁ«t & Chandon's cellar master - the highlight.
Gouez is one of the Champagne region's most famous winemakers, looking after more than 26 million bottles every year. Gouez has made big changes since he took over as cellar master in 2005, including the launch in 2011 of MoÁ«t's Ice Imperial, the world's first sparkler designed to be drunk over ice, and last year's release of MCIII, a blend of different vintages matured in three different vessels - stainless steel, wood and glass - at £355 a pop.
"Yes, we have the largest estate, the largest winery and the biggest toys - but it's how you use those toys that counts. We adapt to everything; we are flexible. We change things when we need to change them and we aren't stuck in the past," says Gouez.
"My definition of tradition is to blend the past with today's innovations. We are always looking to improve what we do. It's important that you understand our philosophy," he continues. Forget the image of the cellar master of old, instead Gouez travels the world, promoting, pairing and pouring his brands.
There are numerous glasses lined up in front of us, variations of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (which Gouez calls simply Meunier) and Chardonnay, all from the 2015 harvest, which was the driest year to date, says Gouez.
"There might not have been any fuel left in the engine for grape maturation, but in the end we achieved good levels of maturity and everyone was satisfied - no rot, good maturity and little variation. We don't have one way of making our wines - we try to work as simply as possible to get the best expression," he says.
"Let's start with Meunier. It's not the most difficult grape to grow or wine to make, but it's as important as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It gives flesh to the blend and acts as a bridge between the two. We don't make it in the classic way - we have a more reductive approach."
It's all about the base
After tasting the base wines, we get a better handle on what's at stake. Gouez works with around 800 base wines a year. "In the case of MoÁ«t Impérial, our customers want fruitiness and brightness, with a dosage of 9g per litre. We have to be very precise, but this means there's nowhere to hide," says Gouez. In fact, the only hiding going on is in the cellar.
MoÁ«t & Chandon boasts 28km of chalk cellars, housing more than 100,000 bottles. It's the largest in the Champagne region and the deepest parts are 30 metres below ground. The cellars reopened at the end of last year after an extensive renovation and we are among the first to visit. When it rains, the water seeps through the chalk sub-soil, dripping on to visitors' heads and pooling on the gravel floor, though we thankfully keep dry.
And it is still very much a working cellar. As we make our way in the murky light (chosen so as not to spoil the wine), we can make out a couple of the 30 or so cellar workers adding wine to a gyropalette, a piece of equipment that loosens the sediment thrown off by the second fermentation.
Last year, Unesco granted world heritage status to the hillsides, houses and cellars producing and selling Champagne, in particular Épernay's imposing Avenue de Champagne, home of MoÁ«t & Chandon.
Most of MoÁ«t & Chandon's cellars are open to the public - they get over 100,000 visitors a year. That's except for the Grand Vintage Reserve cellars, which are off-limits to everyone but a special few, including us, as it turns out, where we taste a few bottles of vintage MoÁ«t.
"This is the family cellar, where they keep the special bottles," announces Gouez, as we arrive in the cathedral-like cellar that is kept naturally between 10ÂºC and 12ÂºC.
We walk past rare bottles covered in thick layers of mould, gazing in awe at the methusalems of Dom Pérignon, the largest format for DP - the 2000 vintage will set you back â¬7,400 (£5,710) or how about a limited-edition gold jeroboam of DP 1995 for â¬13,000 (£10,000)?
We stop by to pay homage to the oldest bottles in the cellar, dated 1892. "These have all been riddled, but not disgorged. We always keep them on their lees as it's the best way to prevent oxidation," explains Gouez.
"What's the oldest bottle of MoÁ«t in existence?" asks Coq d'Argent's Olivier Marie. "There's one bottle left of 1869," replies Gouez. "The oldest I've tasted? An 1878 rosé. It had a 100g dosage - it was very sweet. Hey, it won't all taste good," grins Gouez.
The current vintage of MoÁ«t & Chandon is, of course, 2006, which we taste later, finding mango, peach and honeysuckle on the nose, with a crisp, creamy apple waxiness on the palate. And we get to try a magnificent, truffley 1978. But Gouez also gives us a sneaky peak at the 2008, which will be the next vintage release.
"I would say that 2007 was not quite up to it - it wasn't a bad year, but it had no special character, whereas 2008 was a cold year and a cold harvest with high acidity - a more classic style of Champagne," explains Gouez. The dates of the entire MoÁ«t & Chandon vintage releases are projected artfully onto the wall behind him.
We play around with more Grand Vintage MoÁ«t over dinner with Gouez in the impossibly grand Trianon Residence, sitting where Napoléon once sat (he visited five times, apparently), while chef de cuisine Bernard Dance cooked up a MoÁ«t-friendly storm. The dinner starts with a simple dish of skate and capers in a Champagne beurre blanc, followed by a clever play on canard Á l'orange - guinea fowl with a Mandarin sauce, which is paired with, among others, the 1962, and finishes with a jelly of berries and pink grapefruit sorbet.
"I don't believe in the perfect match," declares Benoit, daringly, considering the company. "It depends on the mood and the people you are with as much as the food. I believe there are always different options. What I like most is when the food makes you taste the wine in a different way, when it makes you notice things in the wine that you didn't notice before." And the sommeliers don't argue with that.
Benoit Gouez leads the tasting of still base wines
Not all the 2016 finalists of the MoÁ«t UK Sommelier of the Year 2016 got to take part in the trip to Épernay to MoÁ«t & Chandon HQ at the end of April before the final, but those who could spare the time jumped at the chance to meet MoÁ«t cellar master Benoit Gouez and be among the first to visit the newly renovated cellars. Those who attended were:
- Ladislav Basta, the Kitchin, Edinburgh
- Romain Bourger, the Vineyard at Stockcross, Berkshire
- Mathias Camilleri, the Five Fields Restaurant, London
- Tamas Czinki, Northcote, Blackburn
- Remi Fischer, Old Course hotel, St Andrews
- Terry Kandylis, 67 Pall Mall, London
- Olivier Marie, Coq d'Argent, London
- Christopher Parker, Lime Wood, Hampshire
- Petri Pentikainen, the Three Chimneys Restaurant, Skye
- Niels Sluiman, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
"It makes you a better sommelier" - what the sommeliers thought
"I enjoyed the tasting with Benoit best - it was an opportunity to really analyse the wines and discover why he did certain things. It was interesting to see the quality of the base wines, their individual profiles and the thought that goes into blending them.
"The best wine? The 1962 was pretty special. It's great to taste those older vintages to see how they are ageing. We sell a lot of Champagne, but what Gouez said about the need to educate customers is true. We live in our micro-world and forget that the consumer is not aware of the basic terms that we get excited about, such as dosage and disgorgement, so it's up to us to inform them."
Terry Kandylis, 67 Pall Mall
"Wasn't Gouez impressive? He knows every little detail about why and how he does everything. The way he presented the wines showed us that big can be artisanal too. Eighty per cent of our guests take the wine pairing option, so we don't sell a lot of Champagne, but when we do put it on there, we get six minutes per wine to explain it to the guests and they are so much more interested than they used to be. In fact, Sat often asks me to show him a wine first, and then he builds a dish around that, so I think I'll show him some more Champagne in future. Last year I was a finalist but I was too busy to do the trip, so I'm glad I did it this year."
Niels Sluiman, Restaurant Sat Bains
"Benoit Gouez is the most influential winemaker in this region, so of course it was great to meet him and taste wines with him - he's a legend. It was particularly interesting to see the different perspective he brings to it as a winemaker. We're always tasting wines in such depth that we often don't look at the product as a whole - we don't see the quality sometimes.
"It's so important to enter competitions like this as I think it makes you a better sommelier, and it certainly gives you more confidence when facing a table of enthusiasts. In fact, I enter as many competitions as I can - it helps you to widen your knowledge, and helps you to hold your nerve."
Tamas Czinki, Northcote
Video: Watch the highlights of the MoÁ«t UK Sommelier of the Year 2016 final
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