A visit to Moët et Chandon in Epernay seldom lacks for indulgence. First the convoy of black cars from Paris (the back windows were blacked out too, Mafiosi style); then the sumptuous lunch in the Château de Trianon (described , somewhat modesty, as ‘brunch’) and finally the stay in the indescribably luxurious Château de Saran, Moët’s palace in the heart of the Champagne vineyard (located in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly, it used to be a vendangerie), where each bedroom basks in thematic plush. I was in the Roaring Twenties room but could have just as easily have been in the Chambre Louis XV, all velvet and pomp, or, say, the Hollywood Bedroom, its walls adorned with Oscar-worthy glitz and daguerreotypes of Marlene Dietrich and Marlon Brando.
I digress. The purpose of the trip was to taste the new releases of Moët's new vintage-dated wines, known as the Grand Vintage, a Brut and Rosé and both from 2015. The tasting took place, with no little ceremony, in the Napoleon Cellar of Moët’s HQ on the Rue de Champagne in Epernay and was conducted by their charismatic Chef de Caves, Benoît Gouez.
Charismatic for sure, but also incredibly gifted and very thoughtful. Benoît’s idea was to take us through a familial vertical, by which I mean a series of wines nominally sharing characteristics with the 2015, child, it transpires, of an exceptionally warm vintage. Benoît showed a diagram to the lucky tasters (Champagne gurus Richard Juhlin and Essi Avellan in our number) which divided the vintages since 1942 into quartiles according to the interface between the levels of acidity and sugar at harvest. In the bottom right quartile sits 2015, a humid and at times nearly tropical year notching up a potential alcohol on picking of 10.5 % ABV (which is high) and a total acidity of 6.8 grams of H2SO4/l (which is low).
All wines tasted were from (very) recently disgorged magnums with six older vintages after the 2015, the stats of which are also anchored in the bottom right square of Benoît’s diagram. The magnums had been prepared especially for this tasting with no dosage added (additional sugar would only distract, at whatever age) and therefore, age notwithstanding, we were comparing like with like. Like with like a lot as it turned out!
Benoît was far too subtle to rehearse an agenda, but it soon became clear that the subtext to this tasting was a demonstration that such warm vintages do not necessarily cloy and give up the ghost in adolescence. The interplay between acid and sugar, indeed, is merely a precursor to structural analysis and one has pay equal attention to factors such as the phenolic compounds which are also key in informing the style of the Champagne and in underwriting its longevity.
The vintages in question? After 2015, it was 2009, then 2006, then 2003, 2002 and 1999, all in magnums of Brut and in Rosé. And finally, the pièce de résistance was revelled with a Gallic flourish. We had to guess. No Rosé this time, only Brut, disgorged just for us….no (psychological) pressure to guess correctly, but plenty of pressure in the magnum judging by the bubbles on display. Everyone guessed far too young; so fresh so floral, so beguiling and charming was the wine…eventually Richard Juhlin, who is a past master at blind tasting, spared everyone’s blushes by suggesting that it might, just might, be 1961. It was.
My tasting note (unedited from my scribbles) reads something like…’ incense, mandarin, citric, lovely soft honey, tension is high, no sugar here but very pure and expressive, singing secret harmonies, lovely balanced acidity, very very elegant, bittersweet, long. Up to 62 it was fully fermented in barrels, then concrete /steel for a while; very complete, smoke, a hint of fennel. ‘I haven’t edited this note, and certainly don’t recommend its style for anyone contemplating WSET exams or similar, but hopefully it gives a flavour of the excitement that we were all feeling by then. Benoît, should he have had a point to prove, had proved it with aplomb. And the moral of the story? Don’t be tempted to overlook warm years in Champagne and don’t underestimate the fact that such wines can age. You may miss something rather special! QED for 2015, underlined in triplicate by the magisterial 1961…..