The Decanter interview: Richard Geoffroy

  • Friday 4 October 2013

Eloquent, smart, hardworking and fun, Mr Dom Pérignon did his best to shrug off his family's Champagne-making heritage before destiny caught up with him. 'I thought I could do better – and I was right,' he tells Margaret Rand.

Richard Geoffroy

Geoffroy at a glance:
Born: 1954 in Vertus, on the Côte des Blancs
Family: Wife Pascale and three ‘perfect boys’: Charles, Pierre and Etienne
Career: Received his medical doctorate at Reims in 1982, then turned to oenology.
Worked at: Domaine Chandon in Napa before becoming deputy to Dom Pérignon chef de cave Dominique Foulon in 1990. Became chef de cave in 1996
Hobbies: ‘I love architectural photography – things with perspective that you can structure and organise. I read very little, but am fascinated by books and writing: the art of words’

Richard Geoffroy Interview:

Think of a fashion show: Dior clothes, ultra-elegant models. The hairdresser describes the models’ hairdos as ‘very minimal, very unreferenced. The [hairstyle] is about the future but not futuristic. It indicates a forward-thinking kind of woman. It’s assured, confident, graphic. It’s not frilly. She’s very strong.’

And the hairstyle? Ponytails. Perfectly ordinary ponytails, as worn everywhere from Croydon to Chelsea. Dior is, of course, a sister brand to Dom Pérignon within the LVMH Group (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy): this is the world in which we are moving, where merely keeping your hair out of your eyes merits reams of eloquence.

Richard Geoffroy is even more eloquent, but then he’s a bit higher up the luxury goods food chain than a hairdresser, even a hairdresser to Dior. He is, in fact, the avatar of Dom Pérignon. His job description may say ‘chef de cave’, but really he’s the brand’s incarnation. He is ultra-visible, ultra-knowledgeable, ultra-approachable, and he moves, presumably, in a bubble of luxury goods and glamour. Ask him how he is and he says, ‘I’m perfect’ – and he’s probably right. Ask him if he actually is Dom Pérignon made flesh and he says, ‘I can’t draw a line between what is Dom Pérignon and what is not. It’s that intimate. It could put me at risk in a way; it’s a gate, either in or out.

‘There are themes of Dom Pérignon that are intriguingly mine,’ he goes on. ‘These values were mine before Dom Pérignon: harmony, completeness, empathy, being accessible, not haughty, not arrogant.’ Before Dom Pérignon? Yes, really.

Remarkably, he was born in the usual way, grew up and went to university – where he studied medicine. He comes from a Champagne-growing family but medicine was a way of not taking on the family heritage. ‘It was so predestined; I thought I could do better. And I was right.’ The feeling that medicine was the wrong path came on him gradually, over three or four years, and he switched to oenology, but instead of heading home to work he went to California. While he was at Domaine Chandon, he came in contact with people from Moët. They offered him a job as technical advisor, and that in turn led to Dom Pérignon, where he started working for then chef de cave Dominique Foulon in 1990, and took over the top job in 1996.

Poise and privacy

Eloquence is part of the role: from March to July he travels constantly, hosting tastings, being interviewed and answering questions. (The most common include ‘What do you love most about your job?’ and ‘Describe a typical day’. The answers are ‘meeting people’, and ‘there’s no such thing as a typical day’.) But what is so remarkable about Geoffroy is how he manages to be so eloquent, often without saying anything. I pointed this out to him, and he replied, ‘Oh, I’d hoped nobody had noticed.’

Eloquence, presumably because of big-company policy, is tempered with secrecy. He has the knack of appearing open, while always remaining resolutely on-message; and he giggles. He’s a great giggler, is Geoffroy: he rolls around in his chair, giggling. Sometimes he almost slides under the table. Ask him a question he won’t answer, such as: ‘What percentage of Dom Pérignon are you putting aside for Oenothèque [the name given to late-disgorged, older releases of Dom Pérignon] now?’ and he giggles, rolls around and doesn’t answer. ‘There’s so little glamour in percentages,’ he says. I say, ‘Oh, God. Come on, Richard’, and he studies the label of his tie. Then he concentrates on the condensation on the ice bucket. Hard-hitting journalist Jeremy Paxman might do better than I did but, gentle reader, I gave up.

It was odd because only a little while before, he’d told somebody else that until now just under 10% of Dom Pérignon had been put aside for Oenothèque and that the proportion was going to increase. Indeed, he’d be happy to see all Dom Pérignon aged as Oenothèque, but the company accountants wouldn’t allow it. So secrecy is patchy. At the launch of Dom Pérignon 2003, which took place in five cities simultaneously, with Geoffroy present in four of them in the form of a hologram (it seemed weirdly appropriate), some hapless guest asked him the dosage of the 2003. ‘I’m not prepared to get into figures,’ he said. But he’d already given the answer to somebody else: 6%.

When I asked him who actually makes the wine, it was the same. He said, ‘I do’. ‘Richard, I don’t believe you get your hands dirty. Who does the day-to-day stuff?’ ‘There is a person,’ he said. ‘And does this person have a name?’ ‘His name is Pierre.’ ‘And a surname?’ ‘Pierre Brisson.’ We established that Brisson’s job title is ‘responsable des vins’. ‘He is a most outstanding human being, with great wisdom and experience. Rather secretive, but…’

Pushing the envelope

Geoffroy, as you might divine, is invariably good fun – and altogether happier talking about the wine. He describes his work at Dom Pérignon as ‘pushing the envelope’ – he’s always seeing how far he can go, while maintaining harmony and balance. Pinot Noir is a current focus: ‘It’s so demanding, so fickle, so challenging. Anyone in Champagne would agree that Pinot Noir is a lifetime project. There are more top Chardonnay vintages than there are top Pinot Noir vintages. I want to do it justice.’

Perfecting Pinot ‘might be as simple as the ideal yield. The myth of “the lower the yield, the better” must be fought. Yes, it’s applicable to Champagne, but only within a certain bracket. Inside that bracket, it’s not that clear. And then there are picking criteria: how far can you go? Is it a case of the longer you wait the better? It’s not that simple.’

He adds: ‘In winemaking, should you protect fruit flavours or not? Should you be oxidative or not? [Non-oxidative handling] is one of the salient characteristics of Dom Pérignon; it’s a legacy. I wouldn’t consider really affecting it. I’m talking about oxidative handling of the juice, not the wine: it leads to non-oxidative handling of the wine. We’re non-oxidative in the winery; we’re very consistent.’

Ask him his favourite vintage, and he says: ‘Vintages are the sum of Dom Pérignon; I can’t pick one out. In my position it makes no sense. It has to be taken as a whole. Every vintage has an interest, for what it is and in relation to the others. The vintages we didn’t declare as Dom Pérignon are just as important as those we did. Absence is as important as presence. It’s one whole project. There’s as much terrific winemaking in the vintages we didn’t make.’ So only Geoffroy can experience Dom Pérignon fully? (Or perhaps Geoffroy and Brisson?) ‘That is my privilege. I’ve never thought of it like that; I don’t want to put people off.’

Having a whole project, which he can control from the start, is what he likes. ‘I’m not sure that I would have been good at medicine, because I don’t like fixing things,’ he says. ‘I like to get things right from the start. The first intention must be pristine. It’s about building. I’d have liked to have been an architect.’ It’s a masculine trait, he suggests, this wanting the ideal: ‘Women are more down-to-earth, they address things.’ He makes aeroplane arms at this point and pretends to fly. ‘Maybe projecting architecture on to the mission of Dom Pérignon is… I don’t know…’

Drama and intrigue

We taste the 2002 Rosé, 55% Pinot Noir and not released until 2013, which he says is ‘the synthesis of so much in Dom Pérignon’, before adding: ‘There’s the pedigree of the vintage, and the fact that we’d been pushing for a long time – in 2000 we decided to push the envelope of rosé. We worked on the blending; we used more red wine techniques. Then came 2002, and we had all the learning from 2000… We have the limits of contradiction in this wine. How can it be so Pinot Noir, yet so creamy? Pinot Noir is many things, but not creamy. Pure Pinot Noir, at this age, would have more phenolics, more bitterness, would perhaps be dried out. But here it keeps gliding. It’s almost blackcherry fruit; it’s a play of light and dark.’

This is how he would like us all to experience Dom Pérignon: in theatrical terms. There was the ‘Seven Sensualities’ tasting of 2006 in which seven combinations of food and Dom Pérignon 2000 took the diner on a journey from Pure through Tactile, Glowing, Carnal, Fusional (caviar and saffron ice cream) and Ethereal to Complex (cigar El Rey del Mundo); there was this autumn’s tasting of Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1996 entitled ‘IV VIII XVI’ in which eight courses were matched with the 1996 served at eight different temperatures, from 8ºC to 16ºC, in four glasses. This was a tour de force of precision and insight. The dinner began with oysters, followed by scampi, mushrooms, lamb tagine and tarte-tatin. Time and temperature revealed different facets of the same wine with every dish. ‘It’s so easy to just scratch the surface, of things and wine,’ he says, ‘but to get that intimate… It looks esoteric because it was unprecedented.’

Most Dom Pérignon drinkers do not get anywhere near this, and many, one supposes, buy it simply because it’s expensive. (Though rare it is not: industry estimates a few years ago put annual production at about 5 million bottles.) Geoffroy has no problem with its bling image. ‘There are so many facets to Dom Pérignon,’ he says. ‘There are many people who drink it without understanding, but I’m fine with that as long as a large group is getting it right. I’m often asked if I’m happy with people splashing it around in nightclubs, and I’m okay. But I’d be totally depressed if the whole production of Dom Pérignon was drunk like that.’ Hence all the travelling, all the meeting and talking and eloquence. ‘Life is about people,’ he says. ‘I’m addicted to people, to connecting; there’s nothing more enriching and rewarding. I draw so much from connecting with people. I need people. I’m such a good sleeper, but sometimes I have a nightmare in which I’m not able to be understood, as though things can’t connect. I find that scary.’

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