Hand­ing over: chef de cave tran­si­tions

Pass­ing on the art of the Cham­pagne blend is never a quick process. Anne Kre­biehl MW finds out what it takes

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BLEND­ING CHAM­PAGNE is an art. most Cham­pagne is the an­tithe­sis of a sin­glevine­yard wine, a care­fully cal­i­brated com­po­si­tion made from nu­mer­ous base wines: dif­fer­ent grape va­ri­eties, dif­fer­ent sites, dif­fer­ent vini­fi­ca­tion meth­ods, and dif­fer­ent vin­tages. This is es­pe­cially true when it comes to non-vin­tage Cham­pagne. Con­sis­tency is all. how will the still base wines evolve to­gether af­ter a sec­ond fer­men­ta­tion and years of lees age­ing? What is their tra­jec­tory? What will the fi­nal Cham­pagne be like?

Achiev­ing con­sis­tency takes more than skill: it takes ex­pe­ri­ence, in­tu­ition and imag­i­na­tion. But how do you train for that? By trans­mit­ting knowl­edge from one chef de cave to an­other – while the world around them keeps chang­ing. some­times it’s a more or less care­fully planned han­dover, some­times it’s fam­ily suc­ces­sion. Ei­ther way, the aim is for the changeover to be im­per­cep­ti­ble in the fi­nal wines. All of the Cham­pagne houses pro­filed be­low ac­knowl­edge that the han­dover is a mu­tual ex­change rather than a one-way street. Be­com­ing chef de cave is a slow process of as­sim­i­la­tion. The tran­si­tion is a cu­ri­ous mix of preser­va­tion and re­newal; re­spon­si­bil­ity and pos­si­bil­ity; evo­lu­tion and as­pi­ra­tion.

Bil­le­cart-Salmon François Domi & Florent Nys

When out­go­ing chef de cave François Domi joined Bil­le­cart-salmon in 1985, he worked along­side Jean Roland-Bil­le­cart him­self who, at 94, still forms part of the house’s tast­ing com­mit­tee. it was Roland-Bil­le­cart who de­fined the del­i­cate, taut and long-lived house style by in­tro­duc­ing very cool, slow fer­ments of the base wines. Domi made his first as­sem­blage to­gether with Roland-Bil­le­cart in 1989 and the first of his own in 1990.

Florent Nys joined Domi in 2005 and took over as chef de cave in Jan­uary 2018. This amounts to 33 years at the com­pany for Domi, who now con­tin­ues on the tast­ing com­mit­tee, and 13 for Nys. ‘my first as­sem­blage was the brut and the brut is al­ways the most dif­fi­cult,’ Domi re­mem­bers, mean­ing the Bil­le­cart­salmon Brut Réserve. ‘it starts with a blank sheet. it’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe what a plea­sure it is to blend all these wines and to work out what the best as­sem­blage is. it is the most in­ter­est­ing task of all.’

Domi stresses the idea of a con­tin­u­ous quest for im­prove­ment, in equip­ment, in the team, in all tech­ni­cal as­pects, but al­ways based on achiev­ing and find­ing the best qual­ity of grapes. he ex­plains how much the house has grown: ‘We have quadru­pled our vol­ume from 500,000 bot­tles a year to two mil­lion, while main­tain­ing the same qual­ity. We have also ex­panded our range. We used to have brut, rosé, blanc de blancs mil­lésime and Ni­co­las-François; just four. To­day we have 10 dif­fer­ent wines. But the spirit of the house hasn’t changed at all. We’re al­ways push­ing things to the limit and ques­tion ev­ery­thing.’

Nys, who is a little shy, has sub­mit­ted a sug­gested as­sem­blage to the Bil­le­cart tast­ing com­mit­tee for the past three years. To­gether with Domi he was re­spon­si­ble for the as­sem­blage of the Bi­cen­te­nary Cu­vée, which was re­leased in sum­mer 2018 to mark the house’s 200th an­niver­sary. Does he feel ready to step into his new role? ‘Yes, i feel ready… i think,’ Nys con­fesses and laughs be­fore em­pha­sis­ing that ‘ev­ery year things are very dif­fer­ent.’ Domi pauses when asked what it takes to be a chef de cave. his an­swer is telling: ‘You can achieve 99% with a good as­sem­blage, but it is that last one per­cent that is the most im­por­tant thing.’

Bil­le­cart-Salmon, Brut Rosé NV 93

£ Farr Jer­oboams, 51.33-£70 Vint­ners, JN Berry Har­vey Wine, Bros Nichols, Laith­waite’s, & Rudd, He­donism, Dunell’s, Lea & Sande­man, Mil­lésima, Rod­ney Fletcher, The Finest Bub­ble, Un­corked Vivid, al­most lus­cious straw­berry aro­mas. Flecks of nut­meg and clove spice amid the lively, re­fresh­ing fruit on its slen­der, fresh body. A real and joy­ful clas­sic. Drink 2020-2022 Al­co­hol 12%

Bil­le­cart-Salmon, Cu­vée Ni­co­las François 2002 96

£ 110-£ 150 Dunell’s, He­donism, Laith­waite’s, Lea & Sande­man, Mil­lésima, The Finest Bub­ble, The Good Spir­its Co, Un­corked, Z&B Sub­tle nose of lemon-spiked raw pas­try; har­mo­nious palate of in­cred­i­ble fi­nesse. Scent­ed­ness and per­fume, of lemon balm, short­bread and lemon zest, fill mind and senses. Ut­ter el­e­gance and hap­pi­ness fol­lows. Drink 2019-2035 Alc 12% ➢

‘It’s about un­der­stand­ing the style, the dif­fer­ent cu­vées and learn­ing to ex­press them’ Odilon de Varine

Cham­pagne Gos­set Odilon de Varine & Gabrielle Bouby-Malagu

Both tran­si­tion and con­sis­tency are in the very DNA of Cham­pagne’s old­est mai­son. Cham­pagne Gos­set was founded in 1584 and each chef de cave takes his or her place in that suc­ces­sion. Cur­rent man­ager and chef de cave Odilon de Varine im­me­di­ately says about his ad­junct chef de cave Gabrielle Bouby-Malagu: ‘I have noth­ing to teach her. She is a bril­liant oe­nol­o­gist with great ex­pe­ri­ence in Bur­gundy and Cham­pagne, so she doesn’t need any help.’

De Varine had been chef de cave at Cham­pagne Deutz be­fore he joined Gos­set as a man­ag­ing di­rec­tor in 2006. When Gos­set’s chef de cave Jean-Pierre Mareigner died sud­denly in 2016, de Varine took over, ‘as a sort of in­terim chef de cave’. De Varine ex­plains that he had worked closely with Mareigner for 10 years, on vini­fi­ca­tion, as­sem­blage and dosage.

‘Pierre needed to have a sec­ond opin­ion. That’s why it’s very im­por­tant to work with Gabrielle be­cause we, too, need two opin­ions,’ com­ments de Varine. ‘The idea of the house is to make it grow – and I do not mean vol­ume, I mean to grow in spirit. Hand­ing over to Gabrielle in­volves us mak­ing the as­sem­blage to­gether. She does not need train­ing as such, just the spirit of mind – be­cause tech­ni­cally I have noth­ing to teach her.’ Here he looks to the house’s his­tory: ‘You don’t have to be part of the fam­ily in or­der to be a piece of the puz­zle. It’s about un­der­stand­ing the style, the dif­fer­ent cu­vées and learn­ing to ex­press them.’

Bouby-Malagu, who joined in June 2017, says she has a ner­vous ten­dency: ‘We’ve set the bar very high. But it’s easy to work with Odilon be­cause he’s calm – the op­po­site of me. Be­tween the two of us we re­sult in a nor­mal per­son,’ she laughs. ‘I am also im­pa­tient, be­cause the wines are fer­ment­ing…’ She is ea­ger to see how this vin­tage will turn out.

Bouby-Malagu loves the qual­ity and di­ver­sity of ter­roirs she can work with at Gos­set, and the way the long age­ing soft­ens the steely acid­ity. Gos­set al­ways avoids mal­o­lac­tic fer­men­ta­tion: ‘I dis­cov­ered the power of this style of wine. At first I was scared, but while the acid­ity is present, it is bal­anced with aroma and struc­ture.’ She clearly rel­ishes the chal­lenge. There is no set time for the for­mal takeover of the role – but de Varine adds: ‘She’s al­ready do­ing the job.’

Gos­set, Grande Réserve Brut NV 94

£45-£ 50 Widely avail­able via UK agent Louis La­tour Agen­cies The nose opens with the fresh ripeness of yel­low ap­ple and high­lights of Granny Smith. Beau­ti­fully sub­tle au­tol­y­sis on the palate deep­ens into notes of creamy ap­ple crum­ble, Golden De­li­cious and Mirabelle plum while re­main­ing ut­terly strait­laced. El­e­gance, length and ab­so­lute fresh­ness are in­her­ent and qui­etly con­vinc­ing. Drink 2019-2028 Alc 12%

Gos­set, Grand Blanc de Blancs Brut NV 95

£ Louis 50-£60 La­tour Widely Agen­cies avail­able via UK agent A notes hint of of au­tol­y­sis chalk ap­pears be­come even ap­par­ent. be­fore sub­tle The slen­der palate comes with dis­arm­ing fresh­ness and poise, re­veal­ing edges of fresh lemon, sub­tle patis­serie, more chalk and richer hints of lemon oil. Pre­cise in char­ac­ter with very fine mousse, and so long. Drink 2019-2030 Alc 12% ➢

Cham­pagne Bruno Pail­lard Bruno Pail­lard & Al­ice Pail­lard

Cham­pagne Bruno Pail­lard is still run by its founder, Bruno Pail­lard. Over the past 37 years he has man­aged to build a re­mark­able and of­ten ground­break­ing house. His daugh­ter, Al­ice Pail­lard, joined him in 2007. While there has been a chef de cave for the past 24 years, it is Bruno and Al­ice who make the as­sem­blage. ‘It is about cre­ation and in­ter­pre­ta­tion,’ Al­ice says, when she talks about blend­ing the base wines each year. ‘All the ex­ist­ing cu­vées of this house were cre­ated by my fa­ther, and each year we rein­ter­pret what the na­ture of our ter­roir gives us.’

Bruno fa­mously makes the as­sem­blage by smell only, never by taste. Al­ice likes to taste the wines on her own, even with­out look­ing at the names of the vil­lages where the base wines are from, in or­der to avoid be­ing in­flu­enced by pre­con­cep­tions. Her train­ing fol­lowed seam­lessly from a child­hood in which she and her sib­lings were taught to pay at­ten­tion to their senses, in food, in na­ture and in wine.

‘Taste, smell, vo­cab­u­lary and emo­tion – even be­fore we were able to taste we had this sen­sa­tion that there was some­thing great about wine. I think this is im­por­tant. Taste and smell are ca­pac­i­ties which one trains since child­hood, with­out even re­al­is­ing it. It’s not some­thing that de­vel­oped only when I started work­ing here. Of course my fa­ther has taught me a lot, but it has al­ways been part of my mem­ory.’ Bruno echoes her sen­ti­ment,

‘All the ex­ist­ing cu­vées of this house were cre­ated by my fa­ther, and each year we rein­ter­pret what the na­ture of our ter­roir gives us’ Al­ice Pail­lard

ex­plain­ing: ‘The com­po­si­tion of Cham­pagne is not just phys­i­cal, it’s also in­tel­lec­tual. Know­ing how each in­stru­ment in the orches­tra will play in the end is dif­fi­cult. It’s dif­fi­cult to know in­tu­itively. It is a lot to do with mem­ory.’

‘We have al­ready had 10 years to­gether, some­thing very alive,’ con­tin­ues Al­ice. ‘My fa­ther built this mai­son and we are look­ing at this beau­ti­ful her­itage, but we al­ways need to chal­lenge it in some as­pects and cher­ish it in oth­ers; never con­fuse tra­di­tion and folk­lore. It is al­ways the man­ner that evolves, but the spirit stays ex­actly the same.’ Bruno is clear: ‘We have al­ready done the most im­por­tant thing: ed­u­ca­tion and re­spect. We have done that with all four of our chil­dren. Re­spect­ing time and Mother Na­ture and mak­ing some­thing you can be proud of: this was the way we raised our chil­dren and the way I have run this mai­son.’ Al­ice turns to her fa­ther: ‘The les­son you have al­ways taught me is to take the lux­ury of time when it comes to wine.’

Bruno Pail­lard, Pre­mière Cu­vée Ex­tra Brut NV 92

£ 34.70-£42 Exel, He­donism, Spir­ited Wines, The Finest Bub­ble, Vinvm A whiff of flint pre­cedes fresh lemon notes that per­vade the en­tire wine with vivid fresh­ness. The palate is taut and bright, with a rather salty, io­dine savouri­ness. Lovely depth from the great pro­por­tion of re­serve wines. The fin­ish is brisk, with cit­rus and umami. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 12%

Bruno Pail­lard, Pre­mière Cu­vée Rosé Ex­tra Brut NV 93

£43.55-£ 52 Exel, Spir­ited Wines, The Whisky Ex­change, Vinvm There’s a touch of or­ange peel on the nose along with notes of tart red fruit. De­spite the light­ness and del­i­cacy there is con­cen­tra­tion on a creamy palate, where lemon and straw­berry play off each other. The fin­ish re­veals even richer cit­rus on this sub­tle wine. Drink 2019-2025 Alc 12% ➢

Dom Pérignon Richard Ge­of­froy & Vincent Chap­eron

At Dom Pérignon, the han­dover is a mat­ter of slow, con­tin­u­ous re­lay. In Jan­uary 2019, Vincent Chap­eron will take over from cur­rent chef de cave Richard Ge­of­froy. He in turn took over from Do­minique Foulon, who held the role be­tween 1975 and 1990. What did Ge­of­froy change dur­ing his 28-year ten­ure? ‘Vincent and I be­lieve we have brought play­ful­ness into the wine­mak­ing,’ he an­swers. ‘We look back at all our artist col­lab­o­ra­tions... Then there has been so much [in­no­va­tion] in viti­cul­ture and wine­mak­ing. We cre­ated the Pléni­tudes [late-re­lease vin­tages], pushed the rosé… I call it play­ful­ness.’

He is clear about his task: ‘The job of chef de cave at Dom Pérignon is not nec­es­sar­ily hands-on. It’s more about show­ing di­rec­tion, putting things in per­spec­tive. I keep ex­plain­ing to Vincent that the scope of re­spon­si­bil­ity is so broad you have to po­si­tion your­self at the right level. Dom Pérignon con­stantly needs to be put back into the per­spec­tive of time. When you con­sider that a sin­gle blend, a sin­gle vin­tage, takes 10 years,

‘I have been learn­ing, lis­ten­ing, helping in these past 18 years. I have some idea of what I have to do’ Vincent Chap­eron

it gives you a timescale. You can­not shift things rapidly. You test one thing in the vine­yards or the win­ery, it takes 10 years to be checked and ap­proved, and then it’s got to be cross-checked and con­firmed. So voilà.’ He ges­tures to hold back, take things slow.

Tak­ing over the po­si­tion was not a given for Chap­eron, who has been with par­ent com­pany LVMH since 1999 and has worked along­side Ge­of­froy since 2005. He re­mem­bers his soul-search­ing: ‘Would I have the po­ten­tial to add some­thing? You are not here to be a guardian. Dom Pérignon needs peo­ple that are alive to rein­vent the pat­ri­mony and the savoir-faire. Do I have that en­ergy, that de­sire? Can I add some­thing?’

Now he is fully on board. ‘I have been learn­ing, lis­ten­ing, helping in these past 18 years. I have some idea of what I have to do,’ he says. ‘As Richard said, I have to take a dis­tance from a lot of con­straints, project for the long term, start to build,’ he adds. ‘To­day we work on the wine we will sell in 2029. For the next 10 years we will re­lease Richard’s wines. You work for 2030 and have to project your­self. You work for the fu­ture. There is a big team be­hind this and you are at their ser­vice, to help them and to have the col­lec­tive vi­sion.’

Dom Pérignon 2008 96

£ The 147 su­per-fresh Clos 19, WoodWin­ters nose com­bines no­tions of smoky hints at flint, gen­eros­ity. lemon and Mi­nus­cule wet chalk, bub­bles yet cre­ate im­mense creami­ness on a palate that dances on light feet and chan­nels fresh­ness into poise. There’s a prom­ise of fu­ture rich­ness and depth, al­ways with ozone fresh­ness, and last­ing length. Drink 2020-2035 Alc 12.5%

Dom Pérignon 2005 96

£ 148-£ 170 Bak­ers & Larn­ers, Cham­pagne One, Hook & Ford, Mil­lésima, Nick­olls & Perks, The Finest Bub­ble An in­cred­i­bly creamy, gen­tle, al­most emol­lient Cham­pagne. Gen­tle red fruit shim­mers with red­cur­rant fresh­ness, but the Pinot Noir struc­ture is un­de­ni­able. An edge of pleas­ant bit­ter­ness makes this per­fect for the ta­ble and cre­ates real drama. Drink 2019-2035 Alc 12.5%

Anne Kre­biehl MW is a free­lance wine writer, ed­u­ca­tor, con­sul­tant and judge

Above: Florent Nys (left) & François Domi

Above: Gabrielle Bouby-Malagu (left) and Odilon de Varine

Right: Al­ice Pail­lard with her fa­ther Bruno

Be­low: sam­pling base wines at Cham­pagne Bruno Pail­lard – fa­ther and daugh­ter Bruno and Al­ice Pail­lard

Above: Richard Ge­of­froy (left) and Vincent Chap­eron have worked to­gether since 2005

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