Benoît Gouez joined Moët & Chandon in 1998 as a winemaker and became the chef de cave at only 35 years old. He’s been in this role for 12 years, a mere blip in a history dating back to 1743. Today, he’s responsible for producing 30-million bottles of champagne annually, according to The Drinks Business.

What can you expect from a man credited with dramatically improving the quality of the world’s biggest champagne brand? An intimidating breadth of knowledge, passion matched only by ego, French charm… Tick, all present — minus the giant ego. But perhaps less expected, Gouez possesses a great deal of openness.

He has lived in the countryside in Champagne for 18 years now, and travels
far less than he used to, but still a fair amount, because it’s “essential to understand the consumer”.

“I’m a quiet person, so I like to be at home in my garden, enjoying the simple things in life. It would be easy to stay in my ivory tower in Épernay, but it’s important to continue to make the brand, the wines, and the style evolve. I feel the need to be open to the world,” he says.

Unlike many champagne winemakers, Gouez did not grow up in the Champagne region in northeast France. His roots are in Brittany and he was raised in Saint-Lô in neighbouring Normandy, “nowhere near a vineyard”.
“I don’t view this as a weakness, but rather as an opportunity, because I don’t have the weight of tradition on my shoulders,” Gouez says.

He held little interest in winemaking during his early years, and was more focused on the sciences. While studying at École Nationale Supérior d’Agronomie Montpellier, he switched to viticulture and winemaking after conversations with teachers piqued his interest.

He forged an unorthodox path by exploring the New World for his first winemaking experiences. He began with an internship at a winery in California’s Anderson Valley, and then moved on to wineries at Margaret River in Australia and Cloudy Bay in New Zealand.

“I realised that sometimes in France we can be fixated with regulations and the idea of ‘vin de terroir’, meaning the wine should express the place from where it originates. In the new world, the approach was different. It was more open to technical possibilities,” he says.

Gouez says that the truth lies somewhere in-between, because wine is not a natural product. “A wine should be true to its grapes, but at the same time it’s not made by itself. It’s important to have authenticity, in the sense of having roots, history, and a sense of place, but winemakers make decisions too. We influence the expression of local things.”

A wine should be true to its grapes, but at the same time it’s not made by itself

Not being part of a multigenerational family business has spared him a myopic view of winemaking. “People can be a little narrow-minded and try to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done without understanding why,” Gouez says. “They call this tradition, but I call it folklore. Tradition is something that you have to keep alive.”

As custodian of the 274-year-old grand house, Gouez is acutely aware of this, particularly with regards to producing non-vintage champagnes such as the flagship Brut Impérial. This, the most challenging part of his job, involves the tasting and blending of the current year’s wines, together with reserve wines, to produce a consistent signature style.

Despite having the greatest technical facilities, every decision is ultimately based on blind tasting. While convention decrees that we wait until noon before indulging Gouez and his tasting panel of 10 meet ritually at the etiquette-busting time of 11.30am. “It’s physiological. It’s just before lunch, so you start getting hungry and your senses are open and tuned,” he says.

During blind tastings, the idea is to make quick, instinctive decisions. “We taste 25 to 30 base wines within about 50 minutes. We know exactly what we are looking for — it’s about identifying the defects, strengths, and weaknesses, and being able to classify them.” While one or two people may have an off day, the size of the team ensures this won’t have an effect on the final results.

As fastidious as he is regarding consistency and style, Gouez is equally fearless in his pursuit of innovation. A great example is Moët & Chandon Ice Impérial, released in 2011 — it was the first champagne designed to be drunk over ice. “Today there are a lot of people in the ice category, copying exactly what we have done. Yes, it’s new, it’s disruptive, it’s against tradition, but if you look at history, things have always changed,” he says.

Gouez, who is visiting South Africa to introduce the pioneering prestige cuvée MCIII, says it’s been a 16-year project. “The idea was to create a state-of-the-art champagne that encapsulates all of our elements over the centuries.”

The concept of MCIII, whose unique character lies in its texture and complexity, is to use vintage blends that have been aged in three universes: stainless steel, oak casks, or glass bottles on the lees. The most innovative part of this wine for the third millennium is the addition of mature grand vintage champagnes from 1993, 1998, and 1999, aged in bottle, disgorged, and “remises en cercle” (returned to the vat).

“That technique has always been used in champagne, but usually when the finished bottle wasn’t good enough to be released. So this was a first,” he says. Although unlike anything available, it’s been well received.

For Gouez the magic of champagne remains the same. “When we make decisions, we don’t make them on the final product — 95% of the decisions are made at blending time. It’s like a negative of the future champagne. Someone with experience will know that all the elements are in place. I still find that exciting, because it’s immeasurable. It’s just something you feel.”

Image: Supplied

Moët & Chandon MCIII is available in limited quantities, and at select retailers only. Wanted readers can email Xolani Mancotywa at Xolani@rgbc.co.za to discuss their purchasing requirements.

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