“2002 was the perfect year for champagne,” declares chef de cave at Moët & Chandon, Benoît Gouez, to a captivated audience at an exclusive wine bar in Joburg. Before you’re put off by too many French words, know that a chef de cave is the cellarmaster in charge of the winemaking team at a champagne house such as Moët & Chandon. Not a single person at the table, occupied by some of Joburg’s most loyal champagne enthusiasts, questions Gouez’s bold assertion. When you consider that this man, who was voted as the Winemaker of the Year in 2013, blends more than 26 million bottles of Moët & Chandon annually since taking up the job in 2005 at the impressively young age of 35, you simply count yourself lucky to be in his presence.

Gouez, who joined Moët & Chandon in 1998, says, “Champagne is about sharing; it’s a rich, passion-filled world. I love to celebrate!” And this passion is evident in how he describes to get the best out of his vintages, which hail from arguably the most well-known champagne house in the world, established in 1743 by Claude Moët. Back in Joburg, The Afropolitan is highly honoured to have been the only publication given access to this exclusive opportunity. It’s not often one gets to sit down over lunch and quiz the man behind some of the most famous vintages in the world. Such lunches may be rare for South Africans, but Gouez is renowned for defying the myth of the elusive winemaker; he often travels the world to promote the pairing, and indeed the pouring, of his creations. How the wine is poured is crucial to how it tastes, says Gouez.

“The best way to enjoy a champagne is in a large glass. Remember that champagne is wine, after all. Use a tall, elegant glass that allows the wine to breathe and reveal its richness to you gradually,” he advises sagely. It’s no secret that Gouez is not a fan of the champagne flute. It’s been said that most Michelin-starred restaurants in France almost exclusively serve champagne in wine glasses these days. For Moët & Chandon’s first multi-vintage champagne, the MCIII, Gouez suggests serving it in his “ideal” Zalto Denk’Art crystal glass (generally considered to be a Bordeaux glass).

“MCIII is a state-of-the-art champagne, a synthesis of all our knowledge and experience poured into this cuvée,” the Frenchman from Normandy told UK’s The Telegraph in 2015. A unique blend that took two decades to perfect, the MCIII blends six vintages across three separate ageing processes (stainless steel, oak and glass). “It’s not a shy champagne,” he says. He may not have grown up “in the world of vintners”, as he’s been known to say, but he still enjoys his creations with the food he grew up eating.

Gouez’s grandfather was a lobsterman in Brittany, so it’s no wonder then that for this special gathering in Joburg, lobster tail is served as a second course of the four-course meal. 2002, 2004 and 2006 Moët & Chandon Grand Vintages are the preferred bubblies, along with Nectar Imperial and Brut Imperial. Gouez says that “Brut Imperial is the most difficult wine I make”. Difficult it may be, but it’s also not the first time Gouez displayed his well-seasoned prowess in winemaking. In 2011, he launched a world first with Ice Imperial, the original champagne to be drunk over ice. According to him, Ice Imperial is “sweeter, more intense and less fizzy. It’s freer and less formal than the Brut Imperial.”

As part of the LVMH Group (the holding company for Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon and Hennessy), Gouez’s innovative flair, relentless pursuit for perfection and ability to move with the zeitgeist has allowed him to diversify the brand in an ever-changing world. Working for a company that has fragrances and a top fashion label, and with colleagues such as Louis Vuitton creative director, Nicolas Ghesquière, Gouez is not one to rest on his laurels, having witnessed the retail industry see its toughest times yet in recent years. Gouez knows that sometimes it’s often the harshest and coldest winters (as the Champagne region is known for experiencing) that produce the best blends. But he’s often had to rely on instinct and timing to know when to declare a vintage year, which is incredible considering his past success and the high expectations that his work carries. Like Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “In victory you deserve champagne, in defeat you need it.”

Such lunches may be rare for South Africans, but Gouez is renowned for defying the myth of the elusive winemaker; He often travles the world to promote the pairing, and indeed the pouring, of his creations.

Part of popular culture

  1. In 1987, the Louis Vuitton Group merged with Moët & Chandon to create LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy).
  2. For almost two decades, Moët & Chandon has been the official champagne of the Golden Globe Awards.
  3. Moët & Chandon has been the exclusive champagne of the Academy Awards/Oscars since 2009.
  4. A-list celebrities are invited to sign the biggest Moët & Chandon bottles at the Oscars, the Golden Globe Awards, major film premieres and various international film festivals. These one-of-a-kind oversize bottles are then auctioned off to support various charities from around the world.
  5. Jean-Rémy Moët, the grandson of the founder, made the story of Moët & Chandon virtually the story of champagne itself when he assumed control in 1792