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Moet uncorks some excellent pours of persuasion

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Richard Geoffroy was one tired winemaker.

He had flown all the way from New Zealand to New York and caught a limo to Baltimore. It was a grueling trip, but he was on a mission -- to change an obscure local wine writer's perception of Moet & Chandon.

It seems this scribbler had written that Moet & Chandon was not one of the better producers in the famous French wine region of Champagne. The word he used was "underachiever."

Now this kind of criticism is taken seriously by Moet & Chandon. It is, after all, Champagne's largest producer. Its flagship wine, Dom Perignon, is known worldwide as a synonym for luxurious excellence.

Certainly no one on the Moet team is better able to undertake such a mission than Mr. Geoffroy. The serious-minded but affable Frenchman with the enormous pair of glasses is the winemaker for Dom Perignon.

Now if you are a wine writer, you do not turn down an invitation to dine and taste with the winemaker for D.P. -- no more than a religion writer would turn down an exclusive interview with the pope. So there we sat at the Brass Elephant tasting through a selection of Moet & Chandon's Champagnes and talking about wine.

Mr. Geoffroy said many very sensible, candid things. He trashed the standard Champagne wisdom that says nonvintage wines can be blended to create a consistent house style year after year. He openly admitted that vintages do matter and that the quality of the blend fluctuates from year to year. And he openly admitted that many Champagne winemakers had put too much emphasis on quantity at the expense of quality during the 1970s and early 1980s.

But Mr. Geoffroy was also in the awkward position of defending products for which he had no responsibility. The criticism had not been directed at Dom Perignon, but at Moet's other products. And these were a mixed bag at best.

Moet & Chandon's nonvintage Brut Imperial, which has had a sorry track record in recent years, showed improvement from fTC past experiences with the wine. It's a clean, fruity Champagne with glimmers of character, though it can't play in the same league as the fine nonvintage bruts of Louis Roederer, Bollinger, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Pol Roger and several other lesser-known houses. In fact, there are still a lot of $14 California sparkling wines that outclass this $25-a-bottle offering.

Moet's White Star is the best-selling true Champagne in the United States. That means some folks must like it, probably because it's a little sweeter than the usual brut Champagne. It certainly has never depended upon critical acclaim for sales, and it has never received any from this direction.

But the White Star we tasted that evening wasn't all that bad. It seemed as if the winery has eased up a bit on the dosage, the sweetening mixture used to round out the flavor of most champagnes. It's hardly a masterpiece, but it's palatable.

The big disappointment of the evening was the 1988 Brut Imperial. It is not unreasonable to expect a jump in quality between the nonvintage brut and the vintage wine, because the jump in price is invariably significant. This the 1988 Moet did not provide. If anything, the vintage wine was crude and heavy. Certainly it doesn't justify a price of $35-$40.

Without intending to, Mr. Geoffroy highlighted what could be a reason that Moet's non-luxury wines lag behind their peers. He noted that Moet uses an unusually high percentage of pinot meunier grapes in its blends, where some houses use little or none.

Mr. Geoffroy, making the best case he could for his colleagues, said pinot meunier is an underestimated asset in the making of Champagne. He said it helps bind together the flavors of the chardonnay and pinot noir, Champagne's more prestigious grape varietals, into a more harmonious whole.

But when asked, Mr. Geoffroy allowed that no pinot meunier is used in the making of Dom Perignon or Dom Perignon rose, the two wines for which he has direct responsibility. One could well ask why, if pinot meunier is such an asset, doesn't it play some role in the luxury cuvees?

Certainly those wines don't seem to miss it. The just-released 1988 Dom Perignon ($75-$100) is everything it's cracked up to be -- rich, complex, elegant, toasty, lingering. There are a handful of luxury Champagnes that are often slightly better, but that is mere quibbling.

As for the 1982 Dom Perignon Rose, it is one of those wines that is difficult to describe without seeming to have gone over the edge. The words perfection, bliss, adoration and ecstasy spring to mind, along with some that could make sensitive readers blush.

Suffice it to say that this is one $200 wine that earns every penny of its price. The color was a brilliantly deep pink. The fullness on the palate was amazing. The finish seemed to last into the next week. At 13 years of age, it was as fresh as a cherry just plucked from the tree.

By the time the typically masterful Brass Elephant meal was over, the writer had arrived at some firm conclusions about Moet & Chandon.

First, compared with the best houses in Champagne, Moet remains an underachiever, except with Dom Perignon, but the quality is on the upswing.

Second, Mr. Geoffroy is a brilliant winemaker, and the Dom Perignon legacy is safe in his hands.

And, finally, he can come back and ask me to reconsider my first conclusion any time.

Just bring some Dom.

*

MacArthur Liquors in Washington marked a milestone last month with its 10th annual California Futures Tasting. It has become one of the most well-run and fascinating wine events on the East Coast, and its organizers can be justifiably proud.

This year, the 1993 vintage was in the spotlight -- mostly cabernets, merlots and Bordeaux-style blends, though an odd zinfandel and pinot noir crept in.

Overall, the 1993 vintage seemed very impressive. It was not a hugely ripe year such as 1984 or 1990, nor did it have the majesty of a 1985, but there seemed to be a lot of well-structured wines of considerable elegance. Overall, the tannins are firm but not aggressive, and there's no lack of well-nuanced fruit.

There were many excellent 1993 wines in show, but two in particular stood out for me -- Etude Wines Cabernet Sauvignon and La Jota Vineyards 12th anniversary Cabernet Sauvignon. They seem to be in a class by themselves.

Other excellent prospects include Corison Cabernet Sauvignon; Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon; Girard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; Matanzas Creek Merlot; Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon; Peter Michael Les Pavots Cabernet Sauvignon.

Also, Joseph Phelps' Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon; Pine Ridge Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon; Ravenswood Pickberry Red; Shafer Vineyards Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon; and the von Strasser Diamond Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.

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