Yesterday I was tasting with Richard Geoffroy, chef de cave of Dom Pérignon, at the Abbaye d’Hautvillers, the old Benedictine monastery where Dom Pérignon himself worked and made wine between 1670 and 1715. It’s a beautiful and secluded place, up on the hill above the village, and what I like most about the abbey is its austerity: you taste in a plain, unadorned hall that must have been the old refectory or some kind of meeting area, and its spartan drabness is refreshing somehow, the antithesis of the modern tasting room. Yesterday morning was cold and foggy, which only served to increase the sense of atmosphere and stillness about the abbey grounds.
Geoffroy is a fount of information, possessing a keen intelligence and a wealth of knowledge that he is happily willing to share. It’s a pleasure to discuss the finer points of winemaking, champagne culture, history and philosophy with him (and sitting around drinking Dom Pérignon at 11 in the morning is okay, too).
As we were tasting a couple of Oenothèque vintages, he drew an intriguing distinction between grey and brown aromas, the former which he finds desirable and the latter which he seeks to avoid. “I like very much these grey, somber characters,” he said. “Smoke, peat, coffee, these are reductive characters. Oxidative characters are brown—raisin, spice, dried fruits, these kinds of things.” Dom Pérignon is made in a deliberately reductive manner, and Geoffroy credits this as a major factor in the wine’s longevity, balance and grace. It’s true that when tasting an older Dom Pérignon, the flavors remain very fresh, and the wines often acquire these grey tones of smoke, oyster shells, peat, cocoa, toasted bread and the like. They rarely show brown characters of spice, honey, toffee or raisin, and only in very unusual vintages. I think that this reductive character is also the reason that Dom Pérignon rosé is able to age well while some other rosés aren’t. Oxidative winemaking helps a wine to show better in its youth, but for the long haul, grey might be where it’s at.