Change is not usually a welcome concept among French winemakers. (Just look at how long it took natural wine to catch on in Burgundy.) That mentality is rooted even deeper among some of the oldest châteaux in the country, which have been producing wine consistently for hundreds of years.
But climate change has, well, changed everything. And one of Champagne’s oldest and most critically acclaimed houses is making some dramatic changes, both to steel itself for environmental uncertainty but also to keep pushing the envelope and stay a cut above the rest.
For Dom Pérignon, one of its most recent and consequential changes came earlier this year as Vincent Chaperon became the house’s new chef de cave (the French term for head winemaker), picking up the torch from his mentor Richard Geoffroy, who has served as the famed Champagne maker’s cellar master for 28 years.
“My ambition is to keep being a trailblazer. Dom Pérignon is singular. There’s a vision: Dom Pérignon’s creative ambition strives towards harmony as a source of emotion,” Chaperon tells Fortune. “There’s an aesthetic ideal, a harmony in which its aesthetic and sensory values are played out: precision, intensity, touch, minerality, complexity, completeness, a way of embracing and grasping the note.”
But maintaining that quality while also pushing it further will take strategizing as viticulturists, farmers, and other agriculture industry professionals all rethink how they can do business in a world facing increasingly dramatic effects of climate change. When asked what are some of the challenges he has already faced thus far, Chaperon replies, “First and foremost, nature and its ever-changing complexity, sometimes to the extremes. This shapes the relationship I have with it: listening, watching, and respecting. You must accept the unknown, the mystery but also constraints, while maintaining this humble ambition to elevate and sublimate it.”
The Champagne region accounts for 13% of sparkling wine consumption around the world (in volume), and 40% of its value, according to the CIVC (Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, an organization of champagne producers.)
Dom Pérignon is the premier vintage Champagne of Maison Moët & Chandon, the Champagne portfolio within Moët Hennessy, the wine and spirits division under the wider umbrella of parent company luxury conglomerate LVMH. As the seventh chef de cave at Dom Pérignon, Chaperon’s experience in the region runs deep: the Bordeaux-native has been working in Champagne for 20 years, 14 of which have been with Dom Pérignon. “My work is first and foremost about continuity. Every year, the natural cycle of vines, harvest, and creation repeats itself,” Chaperon says. “These are the same steps, but the scenario is always new and full of surprises and challenges brought to us by climate variations impacting grapes, vines, and their personality.
Moët & Chandon says its production now runs on “100% green electricity” while recycling 99.7% of its production waste. Chaperon stresses the importance of investing in research and development to find more mid-to-long term solutions, including processes for selecting the vine species best suited for climate variations, testing new agricultural systems, and reworking the house’s processes to further decrease unnecessary power consumption.
“Climate change is first and foremost measuring and understanding to be able to make the right decisions when we face ever changing scenarios. Expertise, combined with data and technology, are key in this process,” Chaperon says. “It’s also adding flexibility and agility in our organization to be able to adapt and adjust to the unexpected. Finally, it’s working day after day to make our entire ecosystem of partners part of this sustainable process aiming at respecting the environment.”
Maison Moët & Chandon first launched its modern sustainability initiatives in 2000, with a firmer vision taking hold by 2007 when Moët & Chandon obtained ISO-14001 certification for all its sites and activities. (The ISO 14001 environmental certification is an international standard covering frameworks for environmental management, including best practices for reducing carbon footprints, diminishing the risk of pollution accidents, and other operational improvements.)
“Climate change is happening. We see it,” says Philippe Schaus, chief executive officer of Moët Hennessy. “It requires us to adapt the way we do things. Water is becoming more scarce, so we have to go to drip irrigation. Or we have to sometimes choose other plans that are less water-intense, or better or more adapted to a warmer climate and more sunshine.”
In 2014, Moët & Chandon obtained a double sustainable viticulture and high-quality environmental certification throughout its estate. This certification, verified by independent agricultural organization and specialist OCASIA, has 124 criteria in eight sections, covering soil and plant nutrition, vineyard management, and waste management. In-house, Moët & Chandon conducts trainings for vinegrowers with the local Chambers of Agriculture to foster sharing of similar best practices. Since 2014, Moët & Chandon has conducted more than 150 of these sustainable viticulture trainings.
Like winemakers all over the world who are taking initiative now, Dom Pérignon (like parent Moët & Chandon) is making these changes at the estate level with significant long-term investments in order to continue production and maintain the quality and taste of the wine without disruption. But eco-conscious customers might still be curious and looking for more obvious changes from their favorite winemakers.
Beginning in 2010, Maison Moët & Chandon adopted a new lightweight bottle format for its portfolio of wines, which allowed for a reduction of almost 2,000 tons of glass per year. The Maison also reduced its use of phytosanitary products, with a decrease of 40% between 2008 and 2018. In 2012, it was the first company in Champagne to invest in an electric straddle-tractor for use in viticulture. Today, Moët & Chandon owns eight electric tractors with plans to buy eight more by 2020. An electric straddle-tractor equipped with sprayer can treat 20 to 25 hectares in two days, and it can till up to 18 to 22 hectares, and trim 60 hectares within that same time frame.
And to naturally fight against pests and avoid the use of insecticides, Moët & Chandon uses mating disruption technology in 95% of its vineyards. Radio-controlled robots also assist the Maison’s teams in working the soil and destroying weeds as well as pruning with the added goal of avoiding potential pain or injuries on the part of its harvest workers. In 2019, approximately 5,000 people were working in some capacity during the three weeks of the event to harvest the grapes over 1,700 hectares of the whole estate.
As a result, Moët & Chandon boasts to have seen a 17% reduction in CO2 emissions between 2013 and 2018.
“There will be a continuous adaptation of the vineyard and winemaking as the climate changes,” Schaus says, “so that we can continue to create the same great qualities of Champagne.”
Making a Vintage
Harvest marks the end of the viticultural year, which in 2018 started on November 1. This year, the Champagne region of France commenced with its harvest at the beginning of September. As Schaus notes, harvest in Champagne was three weeks earlier in August and September 2019 than it would have been, on average, during harvest seasons 30 to 40 years ago—a direct result of changing temperatures and climates throughout the globe. “I’ve approached this harvest season the same way I did previous years—with curiosity, but also with slightly more experience and maturity,” Chaperon notes.
In 2019, wine regions across Europe were inundated with several extreme heatwaves. Rosé producers in Provence likely suffered some of the worst hits, while Riesling makers in Germany a few hundred miles away didn’t suffer much—if any—damage at all. Champagne doesn’t often get heatwaves like it the late blooming ones it experienced this year, and that could show in the wine, but only time will tell. One initial indicator: Throughout the last weeks of August, sugars were up twice their expected levels, an atypical evolution of the grape. This dynamic stimulates the maturation process, so Dom Pérignon started to move forward with initial harvesting on September 5 with an expanded effort by September 9.
“Harvest after harvest, everything can change. It all needs to be adapted,” Chaperon says. “The way we grow the vine, the harvesting strategy, pressing, fermenting, maturation in bottle, and lastly, the assemblage of all these elements that leads to the signature Dom Pérignon harmony and balance.”
While there can be minor differences in practice from house to house, there is a general framework to harvesting Champagne grapes. They are usually harvested by hand, not only to ensure the bunch remains whole and unaltered, but it’s also a condition of the certification and a requirement for a qualitative pressing of the grapes.
Dom Pérignon is always a vintage wine, not only as a means of quality control but each bottle is intended to reflect a special year for the region. (A vintage wine is one made from grapes that were all grown and harvested in a single specified year.) The house does not produce a non-vintage wine. This means that some years—if not many years—will go by without a vintage from Dom Pérignon at all. In recent years, 2002, 2008, and 2012 were all exceptionally good years for Champagne vintages throughout the region, and at Dom Pérignon included.
“Dom Pérignon’s ambition is to bear witness of the year. It’s a double movement. You need to listen, watch, and understand the personality of each year; what newness and uniqueness nature gifts us,” Chaperon says. “You also need to know how to decide, choose, and direct the fruit we grow towards the ideal aesthetic we are chasing. That’s why each year is a new dance. Moves and actions are overall the same, but we execute them in a different way to bring it together and guide the year towards Dom Pérignon.”
While Champagne (including Moët & Chandon and sister label Veuve Clicquot) are made from three grape varieties—Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier—Dom Pérignon is made from a blend of just Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, they were choosing the clones of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, which would need less sunshine and could better survive the cold climates,” Schaus notes. “Well, today, maybe we have to go the other way, or we do go the other way now and see which clones thrive better in higher temperatures.
Dom Pérignon is also primarily made with grapes from Grand Cru vineyards (only certain vineyards in the region have this designation). But staying true to its roots, each blend always includes grapes from the original, historic plot Clos Sacré (“Sacred Vineyard”) at Hautvillers Abbey, which is classified as Premier Cru fruit.
Hautvillers Abbey was founded in the 7th century as part of the Benedictine Order, but it was abandoned by the monks during the French Revolution. Its wines were made famous by Dom Pierre Pérignon, the Abbey’s bursar from 1668 to 1715, and even the Sun King, Louis XIV, was said to have enjoyed his Champagne. By 1823, Pierre-Gabriel Chandon and his wife Adélaïde Moët purchased what remained of the old abbey grounds—including the vineyards. The Hautvillers property, a residence of the Chandon family until 1941, was then integrated into the Maison’s estate.
The first vintage of Dom Pérignon, named in honor of the French Benedictine monk, was 1921, and it was first released for sale in 1936. Maison Moët & Chandon’s historic sites—the abbey and vineyards included—are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
It takes no fewer than eight years for a Dom Pérignon Vintage to mature. (By comparison, a bottle of Moët Impérial is matured for more than two years, and a bottle of Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage is matured for at least seven years.) If there were such a thing as a “super premium” Champagne, it would be Dom Pérignon’s Plénitude 2, described by the house as “the second life of Dom Pérignon” as each bottle is matured for approximately 15 years before release. The highest tier is Plénitude 3, which is aged for 25 years.
When asked about what Chaperon’s difference in approach to winemaking might be like from his six predecessors, he replies that “it is the entire paradox: nothing and everything at once.”
“We are humbly aware that Dom Pérignon was here before us and will still be here after we’re long gone. Dom Pérignon is bigger than us. It’s our creative heritage, but also a never-ending creative force,” Chaperon continues. “Dom Pérignon is also all the generations of winemakers that carried it: gatekeepers, go-betweens, builders, and witnesses. I am the seventh Dom Pérignon chef de cave. I need to embody this role, fully, as long as possible, in my own way and with my own personality. I come from nature, I have a visceral attachment to it. My motivation is the dream: the freedom to imagine, project, conceive, and create. And lastly, I like to do, build, undertake—with human touch at the heart of it all.”
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