an interview with Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave at Dom Perignon

The following is an interview I conducted a few months ago with Richard Geoffroy, the winemaker for Dom Perignon. The wines were exceptional and the chat illuminating. This was conducted as a joint-blog effort and is also available at The Tasting Note.

His enthusiasm and the vigour with which he embraces the responsibility that comes with guiding so iconic a wine is admirable. He was a joy to chat with, and I look forward to more opportunities to discuss some of the topics we touched upon.

Your family made wine in the Cote des Blancs for several generations, but you trained originally as a doctor – was there a comfort going back?
Medicine, for me, was the way of being rebellious. It sounds funny, but it was my way of making it away from something all too predictable. I felt that I had to prove to my friends and family that I could make it on my own. And once I’d made it, I started thinking ‘well, so what’ and so the attraction back to my roots was too strong and my belief is that when you come from the land, you can deny it and think you can leave, but no – you belong. I’m from a family of farmers; I’m a farmer. Even when I’m an MD, I’m a farmer. And I’m glad I came back. I’m happier as a person, and I have a greater sense of achievement in my wine making.

It is often forgotten, particularly in a setting like this (the Scottish launch of Dom Pérignon Œnothèque Rosé at the Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh) that what we make and sell is actually an agricultural product
You are so right. I keep telling our marketing and business people “it all depends on the elements”. You’ve got to be ambitious in business, and ambition is fine, but you have to remain humble at the same time, to know where you place yourself in the picture with nature otherwise, one day, you are in trouble. It is an element of wisdom in a way. And never to overdo things, trying too hard.

Do you find that in your role, not as a winemaker but as, occasionally, a brand ambassador?
Its funny because I don’t think this way. It is like in sport, if you start thinking “I’m Michael Schumacher”, you don’t think of the status you are at, or what you have achieved: you are only trying to make your own thing. It is the best way to have little pressure. I’m afraid of pressure, pressure is always bad because it makes you compromise or not be yourself.

It’s probably why the wines remain exceptional vintage after vintage…
Voila, Voila, Voila. It gets back to my point about not trying too hard, when you pretend… no, no. You’ve got to be yourself. I’m very suspicious of flattery, I’m uneasy with flattery and particularly when it is undeserved.

You said that your favourite vintage was always the most challenging one. You had a few landmark vintages after your first in 1990, and I’ve spoken to winemakers who say the great vintages are always the most challenging because nature is giving you a lot and they want to hold back…
Yes, you have a point because when you are given so much you had better be up to it, so it is a more personal challenge. But in the end I’m more after the technically challenging years like 1980, which I didn’t make but my predecessor did, whenever I taste it I say ‘wow’ – it is alien, it comes from Mars! For me this wine means more than the greater vintages. We released ’80 as an Œnothèque, it was my decision, and I gave it justice, because many people had been critical of it in the first place, and then when it was an Œnothèque they said “the wine is great” and maybe they were influenced in the first place by the pedigree of the vintage which was nothing in France, and I was so happy to give my predecessor justice!

1996 was challenging, there were issues with oxidisation with the Pinot Noir, it was hard to overcome that problem and I think many people failed in ’96 because of that.

You’ve just launched the 1990 Œnothèque Rosé, which was disgorged in 2007. It strikes me that there had to be a very early decision made to release this wine. Was it a few years prior to the disgorgement or was there always a plan to release an Œnothèque Rose?
We had been wanting to do one for a long time, we decided it would be 1990 and I started tasting it on a regular basis and charting its progress, and I could anticipate that the wine would be ready in one or two years and then we disgorged the entire release at once. So the second release will be from that initial disgorgement. The remaining 1990 remains on the lees for a third release. So by tasting twice a year, you see the whole thing moving along.

The British palate likes older champagne, and I was wondering if your personal preference was for an older wine or do you prefer them younger?
I’m not with the British palate; it’s not what I’m really after. I’m after what Dom Pérignon Œnothèque is: so intense but yet little fat and not tired at all. I’m at a point where I cannot separate personal taste and my job at Dom Pérignon. They became so intimate and I don’t have the possibility of distancing myself from my job.

If you are to have a glass of something outside of Champagne, what would it be?
As we speak, it would be Burgundy or Port. I love Port, I have a fascination for port. It is about as rustic and sophisticated as can be! There is a tension. Port is a paradox and I love it. And burgundy, something that is so close to my own world, and it gives a mirror image. It’s intriguing!

Do you see yourself as a caretaker of the Dom Pérignon house or as more proactive, as a builder?
A builder. I’m not good at caretaking. A journalist asked me yesterday ‘how am I maintaining the style?’ – I’m not in maintenance you know, I keep pushing. Consistency is terrible and my brief isnot make it consistent. It is push push push. The chairman of Dom Pérignon allows me to be independent enough; I’m running my business within the business (of LVMH); I’m an entrepreneur. Mark my words, in the coming years there are going to be quite a few stunning things to come… Dom Pérignon doesn’t have to be obsessed with ratings; it is about the quality of the comments. And when I’m asked about the price (of Dom Pérignon ) I say that I have to factor in the vintages that we don’t declare.

Are the vintages you don’t declare some of the more challenging? How early into the process do you realise that it just isn’t worthy of a vintage?
Not too early, I don’t want to have preconceived ideas at picking or vinification, I never comment on the vintage at the time, I wait after several rounds of tasting individual components before I comment, and yet I keep going and blending even in the lousier years, I go to the final blend. I never give up before hand and never have preconceived ideas. It is something I learned in medicine. In medicine you have someone injured coming into emergency, if it bleeds from here (points to his head), the scalp (bleeding) is very spectacular but there could be internal bleeding. It is so easy to be influenced by what you see, but without looking. Stay calm, in control.

Which vintage has proven most challenging for you?
In my time, 1996, because of the highly oxidisable pinot noir. There was a major issue of dehydration in the berries. It concentrated the acidity. It was very difficult to balance the blend, and 2003 is another challenging year because of the heat, which can make the wines very forward, but there were ways of going round the problem.

You’ve done more in the last 20 years at Dom Pérignon than had been done since the forties, and even though the range has expanded, it is a very simple and logical expansion
Its very simple, its very logical. Everyone comes up with a need for a ‘range’, but I don’t speak of a ‘range’ at Dom Pérignon. I don’t like the word range. Its simple, there are two blends and we will never extend it outside the two blends.

Thanks both to Dr Geoffroy for speaking and to Kirsty Duncanson and the team from LVMH for facilitating everything.