Dom Perignon Winemaker Vincent Chaperon Guarded Cork in the Military

Even though Vincent Chaperon is only 34, he has about a dozen years of experience in the world of Champagne. He's also the winemaker for iconic brand Dom Perignon, which is located in the heart of France's Champagne region. The handsome, mildly nerdy, bespectacled bon vivant oversees wine growing, developing and aging and working alongside the chef de cave, Richard Geoffroy.

Chaperon recently gave me a lesson in Champagne at the Soho Beach House, which basically amounted to his opening up bottles of Dom Perignon and sipping as we discussed bubbly -- how to drink it, how to make it -- everything but how to afford it (the least expensive 2002 vintage is about $150 per bottle).

New Times: Dom Perignon is the pinnacle of winemaking.

Vincent Chaperon: It is the pinnacle. It's the most famous wine in the world. More than still wine. It's beyond the quality of the wine. It's the brand. You equate it with celebrating and luxury. For me it's very important for wine to be able to recruit new consumers, to get in touch with new people.

What are we drinking?

This is regular Dom Perignon Champagne. I'm trying to find a person who doesn't like my Champagne and I can't find one. This is a 2002. This is the newest vintage. Dom Perignon is always a vintage wine. Our wines have to age for a minimum of seven years. We grow every year, but we don't produce a wine from every year. If it's not up to our standards and quality, we don't use it.

Do you sell the Champagne that's not up to Dom standards under other names?

Yes. There are other brands that mix different years. Moet & Chandon, for instance. We belong to the same group and we can sell them our years that don't meet our high standards. In 2001, for instance, we didn't produce a vintage because we didn't feel the wine was good enough.

There are two of us making decisions. I'm working with Richard Geoffroy. He's the cellar

master. He's been working at Dom Perignon for 25 years now. I joined him

in 2005. We share all the decisions. He has extraordinary experience.

How did you get this position?

I'm from a wine background. My family was in the wine business in

Bordeaux. My father ran an estate in Pommeroy but we sold it in 1997.

I've always been surrounded by wine. For me it's quite familiar. I

graduated the Ecole Nationale D'Agronomie De Montpellier in 1998. I did a

few practices in Bordeaux and South America to see different countries

and different vineyards.

I was in the military service. We can do military service for a

private company. So for 15-16 months I was on a mission to protect the

cork suppliers.

You managed to be in the military but remain in a wine related


I was walking on the trails to protect the corks and when I finished I

was offered a position with a winemaker in Champagne. I remember when I

arrived in Champagne, my head was spinning because I was really rooted

in Bordeaux. I spend my childhood and my studies in Bordeaux. But the

job was so interesting that I stayed.

Not really, but yes. But it would be something that wasn't up to our standards.

How should I drink Champagne? Should I drink it like I drink wine?

Yes. That's a good question. If I tell you about Champagne, Dom Perignon is a wine, as well. It's not as acidic and light as traditional champagne. It's heavier. You can pair it with seafood, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Japanese foods all go well with Dom Perignon. What do you taste?

The wine tastes almost buttery. And it smells rich, earthy.

That's the aroma coming from the aging. The 2002 has eight years of aging.

It has a lot less fizz, less bubbles than Champagne I'm used to drinking.

That's tricky. Sometimes it's because of the glass. We recommend that you wash the glass with very warm water, no product and dry it with a napkin. If you wash the glass in a dishwashing machine, the detergent will leave a light film and affect the bubbles in the Champagne.

We're using regular white wine glasses. Is that what you recommend?

At Dom Perignon we recommend a white wine glass. We don't recommend a very thin flute because it keeps the flavor from expanding. The more complex the wine, the wider the glass must be to allow it to breathe and expand.

What about temperature?
The right temperature to serve Dom is around 10-12 degrees Celsius (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit).

What grapes do you use?

We use only two varieties -- Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. And more than that, we try to play on the strengths of the two varieties. The Pinot Noir is more thoughtful with spicy and woody notes, while the Chardonnay has a density, acidity and freshness. Each year it's like a puzzle. We try to find the best blend of these grapes for the wine.

Now with fine wine, there's a point when it reaches its peak, and then it goes downhill. Is that true for Champagne, as well?

Actually there are three stages of maturation. The first peak is always around seven years. What is interesting for this peak, it's like nine months gestation for a pregnant woman. It's always seven years to reach the first maturity.

Then if we keep the wine longer, in the second stage of maturation there's an intensity and complexity in the nose. There are different aromas, there's smokiness, richness. Though the wine has more complexity, it's still fresh tasting.

The third stage we reach more complexity and achieve more spicy notes, but the palate is creamier. It's more like a still wine. Very rich, the color gets darker.

We want wine to grow. There's a challenge against time. When you're a winemaker. Time is something that's magic. I think at Dom Perignon, our wine has to grow, but we can't lose the liveliness of the Champagne.

There are some people who love wine and there are some people who can take it or leave it.

I think that time and the fact that the wine is alive makes it interesting. Perhaps one day you will meet Richard Geoffroy. If you meet him you'll understand Dom Perignon because he's so similar to his wine. There's a maturity and a precision that he gives to the wine.

What would you like people to take away?

Don't wait for a celebration to drink champagne. Create your own occasion. Let's open a bottle of Dom Perignon, and make a celebration. Because life's too short.

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