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Over a Glass - with Benoit Gouez

Benoît Gouez may be the cellar master of Moët & Chandon, but today he is first of all a foodie – and a hungry one at that. “I only eat one meal a day,” he tells me and his two colleagues gathered at a round table at Caviar Russe on upper Madison Avenue in New York City. “It’s usually dinner, but today it has to be lunch.” And Gouez has all the moves of a foodie, spearing bites offered by his colleagues when his own plate runs bare. Caviar served with blini and potatoes? Got it. Lobster? But, of course! Foie gras? Bring it on. Geoduck? Need one ask? And, being the consummate foodie, he smart phones everything and, with a mischievous smirk, sends off photos to envious friends. No captions needed.

To wash everything down, there must, of course, be Champagne. Before the meal is finished, there will be multiple glasses on the table, but the two being previewed during our caviar-laced lunch are the Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2012 and the Grand Vintage Rosé 2012. In case you’re a Moët fan and think you might have missed something, the last vintage declared was 2009. There were no vintages in 2010 and 2011.

“It’s the first time since 1967 and ’68 that we didn’t declare vintages for two years in a row,” Gouez informs me. “In 2010, it was an uneven year, and there was not enough good quality to make both a vintage and have reserve wine.” (Champagne has a legal requirement that a certain percentage of each vintage be kept in reserve for blending.) 2011, it appears, was troublesome from start to finish. “In 2012, we also had all the climactic problems known to man,” Gouez says, “but the vintage turned out to be a little miracle.  The only thing that was affected in the end was the quantity.”

Turning to the two pours, the 2012 rosé has an intoxicating nose, the fruit is very floral and the texture rounded. The dosage for both it and the 2012 brut, a well-structured, citrusy wine with a hint of toast, is a meager 5 grams. The brut is 41% Chardonnay, while the pink is 42% Pinot Noir, of which 13% is red wine. Each is about a quarter Meunier. Each is delicious.

As the two bubblies have been poured by staff from standard 750 ml bottles, I remind Gouez of a previous lunch in Philadelphia where he referred to the 750’s as “half-bottles,” the indication being that a magnum should be standard size for Champagne bottles. He laughs. “I couldn’t get magnums into my luggage.”

Gouez also notes that Moët is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its primary wine, Moët Impérial, which was first produced in 1869. “It wasn’t the first brut, but brut became identified with us, and it became our flagship wine,” he says. It has become even drier in recent years, now down to 7 grams.  Although it isn’t on the table in the middle of winter, we also discuss the success of Moët Impérial Ice. “We saw people at St. Tropez putting ice cubes in their Champagne during the summer,” Gouez says, “so we made a cuvée that could be enjoyed colder and as [melting] ice diluted it.” That meant a sweeter wine – and some complaints.  “Sometimes, someone will tell me, ‘It’s too sweet!’ Of course, it’s too sweet if you’re drinking it without ice!”

Conversation drifts to global warming, as conversations tend these days to do. Gouet points out that there is now increased interest in the four grape varieties, in addition to the standard Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are allowed but seldom used in Champagne. “Originally, the four were not well-adapted,” he says, “but they may be useful in the future.”  Moët, he says, has yet to try them. What the maison has been doing, he says, “is working on clones of the existing varieties,” having planted 12 different clones of Pinot Noir in its own Pommery vineyard.

As I have a train to catch, I soon excuse myself, but not until downing a quick double-espresso.  The others, however, do not have an immediate appointment, and so remain at the table with their Champagne after goodbyes are said. After all, dessert has yet to be served.

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