Benoit Gouez waved off the champagne flute in favor of a traditional tulip-shaped white wine glass. As chef de cave for Moet & Chandon, Gouez is personally responsible for a substantial portion of the champagne Americans drink, and yet during a recent visit to Washington, he was intent on challenging the way we drink it.
“I don’t use classic champagne flutes anymore,” Gouez said. “I like to have my nose in the glass when I drink it.” The flute’s narrow shape emphasizes the bead of bubbles rising from bottom to top, but a bigger vessel favors the development of aroma.
“The larger glass helps the wine open up. The more it breathes, the more fruity and expansive it becomes,” said Gouez (pronounced goo-AY). Then he challenged another popular conception about champagne.
“The larger glass also sends the message that above all, champagne is a great wine,” he said. “Sometimes people think of it just for celebration or as an aperitif, but they don’t think of it as going with food.”
Gouez gave me a quick primer on pairing champagne with food. Younger wines, he said, favor briny, acidic flavors such as shellfish and citrus; older vintages pair well with heartier foods and richer sauces.
“Above all, don’t cook too much. Simpler recipes with fewer ingredients work best,” Gouez said. “And play with salt. Champagne likes salt.”
He used the five classic flavors, or savors as he called them, to illustrate salt’s importance. “Champagne is made with underripe grapes, which gives it acidity and bitterness. Aging on its lees gives it umami, and the dosage” — the addition of a small amount of sugar after disgorging the lees — “gives sweetness. The only savor missing is salt.”
I looked around for caviar, but there was none. So I took another sip of the Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial.
Moet and its sister label, Veuve Clicquot (both are owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton), together account for about 60 percent of U.S. champagne sales, according to Shanken News Daily, an online publication covering the beverage industry. Yet since taking over as chef de cave in 2005, Gouez, 43, has steadily tinkered with the recipe for the Imperial, Moet’s flagship blend, and its vintage bottlings. He has made the wines drier and more sophisticated, and he has spruced up the labels.
Moet’s primary wine in the U.S. market for decades was White Star, with 18 grams of sugar per liter, a level that made the wine somewhat cloying and unfocused but appealing to the American palate. With consumers increasingly favoring drier wines, Gouez phased out White Star and made Moet’s other non-vintage blend, the Imperial, drier by reducing the sugar level from 13 grams to 9 grams. The result is a solid champagne with classic flavors of bread, raspberries and citrus.
Gouez also changed the winery’s approach to vintage champagne. “I no longer think of the vintage as a premium expression of the Imperial,” he explained. “Rather I want to celebrate the individual characteristics of each harvest.”
The Imperial is a blend of dozens of wines, including some from previous vintages, and is kept fairly consistent in its proportions of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay, the three primary champagne grapes. That is a method used by large champagne houses and small growers to create a “house style” that is consistent from year to year. For the vintage wine, Gouez can alter the blend, using more chardonnay in riper years or relying on the steely character of pinot meunier in leaner harvests.
The new label for the Grand Vintage series sports the vintage year in large numerals, while the Moet & Chandon brand name appears modest by comparison. It’s a new look for a new approach from one of champagne’s most venerable houses.