Early one morning in the middle of June, a cavalcade of black Mercedes-Benz cars from Paris swept into the quiet village of Hautvillers, the birthplace of champagne, bringing with it over a hundred people from all over the world. Everyone, in single file, made their way down a winding path and gathered around a landing on a foothill. There, the mood was filled with anticipation, lightened by the gentle buzz of chatter and the occasional bursts of hushed laughter.
Everyone was there to witness history—the handing over of the mantle of Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave. “Richard Geoffroy is retiring” came the announcement a few months back. When a long, successful and fulfilling career comes to an end, there is undoubtedly cause for a standing ovation. In his time, Geoffroy was in charge of 28 harvests, and the release of 14 white vintages and 11 rosés for Dom Pérignon. He has coaxed more vintages out of the Dom Pérignon vineyard and grapes than anyone could have imagined.
But Geoffroy retirement begs the questions of succession. “Who will take over?” came the immediate response, not just from consumers who want to know the person that will act as gatekeeper and guardian for the next generation of Dom Pérignon champagne, but also from the rest of the champagne industry, for Dom Pérignon has long been used as a benchmark for the success of a vintage.
“So how do you know Richard?” a man in a blue suit whispered.
It was perhaps the most asked question that morning, especially considering the fact that he was the second man in a blue suit to ask me that, and within the span of just 15 minutes. Then again, everyone present that morning had either known or worked with Richard Geoffroy for a while. The first man in a blue suit hailed from Monaco, and had known Geoffroy for more than 15 years. The second blue-suited man was staring at me with a half-smile, waiting for my answer.
“I met Richard the year before in Beijing,” I replied. “We had champagne that morning with Alain Ducasse and I listened to them speak so fondly about wine and food, and how they come together to give meaning to life.”
The man laughed. “That sounds about right,” he said before turning to gaze at the seemingly endless slopes of the Dom Pérignon vineyard.
It was a breathtaking backdrop overlooking Cumières and the river Marne, a venue that Geoffroy has worked at for 28 years. Geoffroy took over as chef de cave (head winemaker) after his predecessor Dominique Foulon retired in 1990 after 15 years of service. He had inherited, as Geoffroy once described, “a wine that was very strict and had a lot of structure.” Since then, he has, as the blue suited man put it, “brought a certain playfulness to the wine,” and showcased to the world that while Dom Pérignon has been around for a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a traditional brand that played by the rules. This is evident in Geoffroy’s ‘Plénitude’ Champagne concept, which involves disgorging and releasing the wine during different stages of its development on the lees, as well as his decision to declare the 2003 and 2005 harvests as vintages when no one else in the champagne industry dared.
The crowd suddenly broke out in cheers and applause. I turn to find Geoffroy standing on a raised platform with his arms in the air. “It is an emotional day,” he said. “Vincent is already crying.” Geoffroy then proceeded to chaperone the group through a solo champagne tasting, the unveiling of the 2008 vintage, and the handover ceremony in a church at Hautvillers Abbey where Dom Pérignon — the Benedictine monk — created champagne, lived, worked and studied, and was ultimately buried.
Geoffroy was referring to Vincent Chaperon, the man who has been chosen to take over as Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave from 2019. A winemaker from Bordeaux (to which Geoffroy said, “Nobody’s perfect.”), Chaperon has been by Geoffroy’s side since working together on the 2005 vintage.
“I just gave it my all,” Chaperon said the following day. “Focusing on the day-to-day execution of the project. I never thought for a moment that I would be the chef de cave.”
The pair first met in 1999 after Chaperon had graduated from the Montpellier oenology school, and subsequently joined Moët & Chandon. And while Chaperon had no idea he had been earmarked for the job, it seems Geoffroy had known for a while.
To him, choosing his successor was not as straightforward as ticking off a checklist. “It’s instinct. It’s something that cannot be rationalised,” Geoffroy said. “It’s not about technical abilities — it’s about the intangible stuff. I look at the person. Someone’s who’s selfish cannot be in charge of Dom Pérignon. Someone with an ego cannot be in charge of Dom Pérignon.”
As with most retirement parties, the man of the hour found himself surrounded by high praise — adjectives and superlatives were thrown about faster than he could keep up with.
But it is something Geoffroy more than deserves. Under the banner “Drinking Stars”, Richard Geoffroy has expanded, enriched, refined and shared the universe of Dom Pérignon experiences as never before. His explorations have encompassed pairings with Japanese cuisine, deconstructed traditional menus, pure and sometimes brut dialogue with mono-products from around the world, collaborations with global culinary luminaries such as Alain Ducasse, Ferran Adrià or Jean-François Piège, as well as artists celebrated for their creativity, like David Lynch, Jeff Koons, Lang Lang and Lenny Kravitz.
However, flattery is something he hates. “It’s the worst,” Geoffroy said. “I was in charge of a living project. And I’ve made mistakes and had to adapt.” He cited his regret for not declaring 1989 a vintage, as well as for declaring 1992 a vintage when, in retrospect, feels that he should have perhaps asked for a second opinion.
“The most important asset of Dom Pérignon is its vision,” Geoffroy said. “Every single chef de cave brings something incredibly personal to the champagne. And I am sure Vincent will too.”
When asked about his vision for Dom Pérignon moving forward, Chaperon merely shrugged. “I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. To him, Dom Pérignon is a brand that allows him to dream. “It doesn’t have limits. The framework is strong, so there’s a lot of fluidity and I can do whatever I want.”
“As long as I make sure the champagne continues to have harmony that is born from reconciling the tension between polarising elements that I pick out,” Chaperon said as he shot Geoffroy a cursory glance.
“Voilà!” Geoffroy said, with a nod.
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