On July 21, at 75 Main Restaurant in Southampton, I had the great pleasure to join Elise Losfelt, one of nine winemakers for the French Champagne producer Moët et Chandon, in a comparative tasting of four Moët wines: the Brut Imperial, the newly released Vintage 2006, the Vintage 1999 and the Vintage 1985. As those of you who follow this column know, I am a devoted fan of Champagne, especially when it’s real Champagne. Don’t offer me Prosecco and call it champers, cuz it’s not the same at all. Would you invite someone to hear the philharmonic but bring them to a Kenny G concert instead?
Elise was tucked into a quiet banquette at 75 Main, with her wines generously served in white wine glasses. No flutes for the Moët team — they use wine glasses to deliver aroma, with a serious message: Champagne is wine!
In Elise, the company has found the ideal spokesperson, a seasoned winemaker who conveys her message with vivacious confidence and poise. Articulate and fluent in French, English and Spanish (while still working on her German and Mandarin), Elise grew up on her family’s 150-acre vineyard in the south of France, where her mother followed her grandmother as winemaker. She told me, with a wry smile, “The guys are interested in the drinking; the women are interested in the making.”
After following a rigorous academic path in engineering, economics, viticulture and oenology, Elise went to work at one of Bordeaux’s top estates, Chateau Beychevelle. Soon, seeking a greater challenge, she moved north to Moët et Chandon, where she could combine her love of “having my hands in the dirt” as a vintner with her delight in communicating about wine. She says that, with Moët, combining winemaking with communication is “like finding the man in my life.”
In 2012, her first harvest in Champagne, Elise became the assistant “chef de cave” in charge of the vineyards used for Moët’s second wine (a wine of lesser stature and lower price), experimenting with organic protocols, taking risks in this fungus-prone region where missing a treatment can ruin a crop overnight. She acknowledges, “Consumers are confused about ‘organic.’ They think it means ‘good quality’ or ‘healthy,’ but it doesn’t mean it’s the best. Still, the tendency [toward organic protocols] is good.”
Since its founding in 1743, the house of Moët has marketed to aristocrats and nobles, from Louis XV to Mme. de Pompadour, from the Duke of Wellington to Queen Elizabeth II. Its biggest brand is the $40 Brut Imperial, named for Emperor Napoleon, who guzzled the stuff. Today’s wines are less sweet and Moët’s target is less royal. Roger Federer, not Prince Charles, is the company’s “brand ambassador.” Elise conveys this relaxed approach in her personal style and demeanor, but she is clear about Moët’s importance as “the train that pulls the others with us.”
With its vast land holdings and revenues, Moët has always led its region in innovation. Back in 1880, dominating the market with 2.8 million bottles sold, Moët began to improve its workers’ lives with medical care, housing and pensions. Today, its research and sustainability initiatives still benefit the entire region.
With Elise, I was fascinated to see how Moët et Chandon, co-owner of the world’s largest luxury goods company (Moët-Hennessy – Louis Vuitton), cultivates its image and creates cachet for its annual production, now over 26,000,000 bottles of bubbly. If you’ve seen the Saturday Night Live spoof of two boozy floozies (“We’re not porn stars … any more”) touting “Moey Chambim,” you can understand why Moët et Chandon goes to great lengths to cultivate a rather spiffier, more wholesome image. Still, it’s no longer enough for this gonzo Champagne house to market itself as a portal to an elite lifestyle. As Prosecco, cava and other forms of sparkling wine make inroads into Champagne’s market share, Moët’s message moves from expensive pairing suggestions like lobster to everyday foods like french fries. They want real people to buy their wines.
As we tasted the wines at 75 Main, Elise stayed on point using Moët et Chandon’s scripted vocabulary. She characterized Moët’s style as offering fresh fruitiness, a seductive palate (“because people forget to smell Champagne”) and elegant maturity. While the Brut Imperial is designed for “instantaneous pleasure” and consistency, the Vintage 2006 is a gusher of bright, chardonnay-dominated succulence. The 1999 is “mature,” (read, pleasantly oxidized) and the 1985? Well, if you want to find out what Champagne is all about, go get some.
Did somebody say “Celebrate!”?
Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.