Only a special vintage could draw a wine editor across the ditch to celebrate its launch. The 2015 vintage of Moët & Chandon Champagne is just that, Jo discovers, with a complicated path from vine to bottle.
After years of heat and drought, plus a pandemic, you’d think there’d not be much to celebrate if you are making Champagne. But when I catch up with Moët & Chandon’s cellar master Benoît Gouez at the Champagne house’s event atop Sydney’s suave Shell House, he’s upbeat.
As a waiter wielding a mighty jeroboam pours us an aperitif on a terrace beneath the building’s imposing clock tower, Benoît confirms that, rather than adversely impacting Champagne sales, the pandemic has seen the industry emerge triumphant. “Since 2021, it’s been record year after record year, as people who were only enjoying Champagne when going out are now also drinking it at home,” he tells me.
Benoît is excited to be back on the road to launch Moët’s latest Grand Vintage in Australasia. As only the 76th vintage in 280 years of Moët & Chandon, this is something to be pleased about. However, it’s from the warm 2015 vintage, extremes of heat not being conducive to producing the quality you’d think would be a cause to get the Champenois’ corks popping.
You see, Champagne is all about cool. And that’s not just the groovy young Moët brand ambassadors I’m surrounded by at the launch, or even its optimum serving temperature. Champagne’s ultra-fresh and refined style, which made it the world’s most revered sparkling wine, was historically down to its northern French home possessing one of the chilliest climates of any major wine region.
As we talk, I think back to sweating through a trip to Champagne in the summer of 2003, when the region’s deep chalk cellars provided the only points of refuge. The hottest summer on record in Europe since 1540, this heatwave hit France particularly hard. Such sweltering years used to be far and few between, but global heating has meant drought, heat and greater hours of sunshine are increasingly becoming the norm rather than exceptions even in the cool climes of Champagne.
Nevertheless, Benoît maintains a sunny disposition in relation to Champagne’s potentially calamitous calefaction. The story he’s telling at this launch event for the Grand Vintage 2015 is a bright one, a “Tale of Light” no less.
“It was a challenge to tell the story of the 2015 vintage,” says Benoît, of making an expressive wine in a year with conditions that in the past might not have seen a vintage wine made. “2015 has a lot of records, as it was the most severe drought in the history of Champagne and also the warmest summer since 1961.”
At this event, this story is conveyed through tasting the Grand Vintage 2015 white and rosé alongside two previous vintages from warmer years, the 2006 and 1999, the whites which will all be available as a trilogy later this year. “The 2015, 2006 and 1999 are all influenced by the heat and light,” Benoît explains. “They are the same family.”
We taste the Champagnes, matched with a series of exquisitely light dishes, including a dazzling plate of spanner crab, white turnip, caviar and yuzu that looks too beautiful to eat. Our table is bathed in green light, which my neighbour laments interferes with her ability to take good Instagram shots. On my part, knowing how green can emphasise crispness in a wine, I close my eyes to take in the true characters of the four wines shared over the dinner.
Full, rich and softer in style, the 1999 is still tasting fresh. The first vintage made by Benoît, the 2006 is savoury, with great finesse. With crisp citrussy notes and a complexity that belies the warm conditions of their birth, the 2015s are deeply impressive.
Benoît illuminates us on how fortuitous combinations of conditions permitted past warm vintages to shine. However, “2015 was the first vintage we were fully ready for climate change”, he states. Behind the scenes, Moët has been working on its vineyards, using techniques to produce fresh grapes in hot years, as well as selecting vines that perform best in drought conditions. To safeguard Champagne’s signature style, they’re also harvesting earlier, before the grapes become too ripe, and treating the fermenting wines in different ways.
Rosé Champagne is one of the winners in global warming. “Pink Champagne is our best-kept secret, which now accounts for much more Champagne than in the past,” Benoît explains. “Champagne used to be too cool to make the red wines you need for rosé, which could only be produced in the best years. But in a year like 2015, we had perfect conditions for pinot noir. The quality of rosé Champagne has never been so good.
“We have to accept that the style of champagne will change,” Benoît concludes, “but that’s always been the case. We evolve by adopting new techniques. We have a higher level of maturity (ripeness), so we don’t have green fruit anymore. So far climate change is actually positive to Champagne!”