Holding his glass toward the top of its stem, Benoît Gouez swirls his champagne into a golden cyclone. He lifts the glass to his nose, inhales deeply and takes a sip. He blinks a few times and seems satisfied, but he doesn’t smile.
Gouez, who looks a little like a dark-haired Richard Gere, is chef de cave of Moët & Chandon. A chef de cave is the head winemaker—the person calling the shots and ensuring the grape juice in the bottle looks, smells and tastes the way it should. Moët (pronounced “Mo-et,” not “Mo-ay”) is one of the oldest and largest luxury champagne producers in France. So to say Gouez is a big deal in the champagne business is an understatement.
Sitting across from me and my wife at a seafood restaurant near our home in Philadelphia, Gouez explains that in France and much of Europe, men often drink champagne as a pre-dinner cocktail or with food. Especially during the summer months, champagne is enjoyed as a refreshing, effervescent alternative to other alcoholic beverages. “It’s just white wine with bubbles,” he says. But to his and other champagne makers’ chagrin, American men tend not to drink champagne.
Of course, this is true. Like every guy I know, I think of champagne as a niche beverage—something to be sipped on New Year’s Eve and sprayed at others to celebrate a big win. It has never occurred to me to order a glass of bubbly at a restaurant. Gouez says he and his people contacted me in the hopes of changing the way I, and other men, look at champagne.
Our tasting begins with a bottle of Moët & Chandon’s Brut Impérial, which Gouez tells me is a combination of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes. In champagne-speak, “brut” roughly translates to “dry” or “not sweet.” I also learn that unlike “vintage” champagnes—bottles in which all the grapes come from a single year’s harvest—Moët’s Impérial is crafted from more than 100 different wines of varying ages and flavor profiles.
Gouez tells me most champagne is made using a blend of vintages in order to ensure quality and consistency from year to year. “We want people to feel confident about what they’ll taste every time they open a bottle,” he says. Only in select years—once or twice a decade—will Moët release a “grand vintage” bottling.
The Brut Impérial is the gold-green color of straw, and smells (to me) like green apple and minerals. Sipping it, I can taste the apple, as well as fruits like pear and peach. It heightens and complements the briny flavor of the oysters we’re eating, and I ask Gouez what foods he likes with champagne. I expect him to say foie gras or snails—something sophisticated and quintessentially French. “Popcorn,” he says. “Champagne goes well with salted popcorn.”
I also ask him about the glasses we’re drinking from, which are regular white wine glasses—not flutes. He explains that tall, narrow flutes were helpful a century ago because they allowed a champagne’s sediment to fall. They’re still popular today because they nicely showcase champagne’s bubbles, but they deprive a drinker’s nose access to a good champagne’s complex aromas. Basically, flutes are for plonk, he says. If you want to enjoy quality champagne, drink it in a regular wine glass.
As we eat our appetizers, he lays out some other misconceptions and misunderstandings people have about champagne. For one thing, most people don’t know how to open a bottle. That wire cage wrapped around the top of the bottle? It’s there to help you keep a grip on the cork, he explains. So while you want to loosen the cage, you don’t want to remove it until you’ve uncorked the sucker. Also, you want to twist the bottle—not the cork—in order to open it.
‘Popcorn’ he says. 'Champagne goes well with salted popcorn.’
With our second round of appetizers, we (properly) open a bottle of Moët’s Rosé Impérial, which contains more Pinot Noir and less Chardonnay than the Brut Impérial, Gouez tells me. My eyes could be deceiving my nose and mouth, but I taste more red fruits this time—strawberries and raspberries and cherries. The flavors are cool and subtle, not sugary. We drink the Rosé with raw tuna and roasted chicken, and it suits both beautifully. “Just wine with bubbles,” Gouez says again, clearly trying to emphasize this point.
I get it, and I dig it. My wife has lately gotten me hooked on sparkling water. Unlike still, there’s something about the carbonation that makes sparkling tastier and more substantial. Now I’m getting the same pleasant, bubbly mouth feel from my champagne, but with all the complexity and flavor that, for me, makes red or white wine necessary components of a good meal.
I mention to Gouez that we have a bottle or two of champagne at home, but that we never have the chance to open them. “We usually don’t finish a bottle,” I say, “so I don’t want to open it unless we have someone to share it with.” He tells me if I stick a cork or bottle stopper in the champagne after pouring, it will last a good two or three days in the fridge without losing its bubbles.
With our entrées, Gouez has for us two of Moët’s “grand vintage” bottlings: a 2008 and a 1998. A 20-year-old champagne? This was unchartered wine territory for me, and I tell him so.
It’s hard to write about a wine’s “complexity” without sounding like an asshole. But “complex” is really the best word for what I taste. Rather than defined layers of scent and flavor, the 1998 is a latticework of fruits and herbs, minerals and gentle spice. The 2008 has just as much going on, but seems to have more citrus and zest. Drinking them, I wonder how I’ve managed to spend so many nights (and so much cash) drinking the same Cabs and Pinots and Riojas without giving champagne a chance.
By the time we finish dinner, my wife and I are a good half-dozen glasses deep and feeling quite fine. A champagne buzz is a happy buzz, and after thanking Gouez and heading home, we (drunkenly) decide to open one of our own bottles for comparison’s sake.
It’s mediocre—nothing like the Moët we’d been enjoying. But it still goes damn well with the popcorn we make.