Thomas Bywater charts Dom Perignon's rise with the winemaker's outgoing chef de cave

What links the rural French town of Epernay share with the urban New York borough of the Bronx?

Very little, it turns out. But the little that is shared can be neatly bottled and sealed with a wired cork and is reserved for only the most special occasions.

Over the past 28 years, Dom Perignon has become the champagne of choice in the birthplace of hip-hop.

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Name checked by everyone from P Diddy to Jay Z, over the past three decades it has been mentioned more than 200 times on records made in the Mean Streets. It's a surprising legacy for a reclusive monk in rural France, who gave his name to this particular label of sparkling wine.

 Rapper Jay Z is an admirer of the brand. Photo / NZME
Rapper Jay Z is an admirer of the brand. Photo / NZME

One name you won't hear mentioned is Richard Geoffroy.

He is the man whose career as Dom Perignon's Chef de Cave, corresponds with the rise of "champagne rap".

When asked about his role in launching the new era of French fizz and American pop music he answers with a mischievous grin, typical of the 65-year-old born in the Chardonnay wine region.

"You've got to take risks," he explains.

I meet the winemaker heading up a table in the Al Mahara restaurant at the Burj Al Arab Dubai as part of a launch for Emirates airlines. The ceiling-height aquariums and bling-studded gold walls made for an incongruous setting. True to the Dom Perignon recipe, it was one part old-world luxury, another part hip-hop music video.

Beyond MTV, Dom Perignon's global success can be attributed in part to this airline partnership. If champagne and air travel go hand in glove, Emirates is the rhinestone gauntlet of gaudy air excess.

Uncorking a case of the 2008, Geoffroy leaves the airline with a special parting gift: this vintage, now being served on Emirates in First Class and — on selected routes — bottles of 2000 Second Plenitude reserve champagne. The "P2", as it is known, is when a second batch from a particularly outstanding year is set aside for a little longer spent aging on the lees. The mark of a wine worth savouring.

Geoffroy denies chasing after the popular appeal, but neither has his wine label rejected their new-found fans as others have tried.

In 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal famously despaired of its newfound popularity among the rap music crowd. "What can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it," said Frederic Rouzaud, the newly appointed director.

To which Jay Z called for a boycott of the snobbish wine cellar's label.

"I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business," he told the Economist.

And they were.

You can't be too outrageous, chasing the latest fad that comes your way — but then again there's no fun in being too stuffy a defender of tradition.

The answer is somewhere in the middle, explains Geoffroy.

"That's the sweet spot. Where the magic is."

With under 100 years producing wine, Dom P is the new kid on the block — but it is far from fizzy pop for pop musicians. It has earned its place among the top tier of Champagne houses in a trial by fire — led by Richard Geoffroy.

Risk-taking is where the chef de cave made his name, and he took one of the biggest of his career in 2003. Far away from the cares of bucolic France, it was a year graced by the musical highs of Jay Z and Beyonce's Crazy in Love and the lows of 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin. On the other side of the Atlantic — it was a year equally blighted by April frosts, summer heat waves and under-ripe chardonnay grapes.

The conditions for producing champagne were dire, with many prestigious vineyards deciding to call it quits and declare the entire year lost.

However, along with Krug, Dom Perignon under the captaincy of Chef Geoffroy, were among the few winemakers who decided to release a vintage anyway.

This bold move was met with criticism from the remainder of the 260 or so producers, who saw this as the final proof that the rebellious winemaker had sold out to new money.

Dom Perignon had made its name by releasing only the best years. Under Geoffroy, the vintage had become an annual event. Suspicious critics saw this as evidence of the winemaker's greed.

Whereas Dom P was the toast of New York, Richard Geoffroy's name was mud.

He appeared to be chasing after the new demand from overseas by releasing a regular output of bottles, no matter how bad the wine was destined to be.

But the gamble paid off. The risky 2003 vintage is now seen as one of the best ever released by the label.

The decision for an almost annual vintage was perhaps Geoffroy's defining decision.

"My job is now 'witnessing the vintage', to show what Mother Nature gave us," he said.

Looking back he now has a cellar of no fewer than 15 vintages as a testament to the house's winemaking — both the perfect years and the years when a vintage had to be wrestled from the vines.

Among the cases is a record for five consecutive vintages released, from 2000 to 2006.

It's a legacy that has made him a rock star in wine-making circles and a tough act to follow.

However, at the end of 28 years at the helm, Geoffroy is stepping down. Taking his place is his protegee Vincent Chaperon — and the likeness is uncanny.

Dom Perignon's wine master, Richard Geoffroy. Photo / Getty Images
Dom Perignon's wine master, Richard Geoffroy. Photo / Getty Images

At just shy of 43 the bespectacled Frenchman is clearly from the same vine — if a different vintage — as his mentor.

It appears the succession of the wine house is the one thing Dom Perignon is not willing to take risks with.

Checklist

GETTING THERE:

Connecting via their hub in Dubai,

Emirates

flies daily from Auckland to Paris, near the Champagne-growing region of France. Return Economy Class fares start $1789, Business from $7689 and First — where the 2008 vintage Dom Perignon is served — from $13,939.

DETAILS
The airline is now serving Dom Perignon 2008 vintage in all First Class cabins and P2 "Second Plenitude" 2000 on selected routes.