On Friday 30 October I received a note from Hervé Deschamps, the ever-smiling chef de cave at Perrier-Jouët, saying it was last day at this famous house. Only the seventh cellarmaster since 1811, he’s worked at Perrier-Jouët for 37 years, the last 27 as the chef de cave. He joined in a great year for Champagne, 1983 and he leaves immediately after another, this time the third of a trio of fine vintages.
He’s been the creative spirit behind the wines, the consistent presence at this historic house under four different ownerships, three of them giants of the wine and spirits business in their time, Seagram, Allied Domecq and currently Pernod Ricard. While they have guided the marketing strategy, with variable success, he has sensibly been left to get on with making the wine. Over the past three decades he’s also been the friendly, welcoming face of the house, particularly for visiting journalists.
If the press has a good feeling about Perrier-Jouët, and I think it’s fair to say they generally do, he has had had a lot to do with it. He’s seen chef de caves at sister house G.H. Mumm come and go. While he’s ruled the roost at 28 Avenue de Champagne, in Epernay, there have been five different occupants there at 34 Rue du Champ de Mars in Reims.
The role of cellar master has changed radically over the past three decades. When Hervé started the job in the early nineties, he was not just making the wine, he purchased the grapes and all the dry goods needed in champagne production and he was also responsible for organising the considerably larger workforce then employed in the cellars.
As he comments, in Susie Barrie’s podcast https://bit.ly/3l1RRc3 celebrating his time at Perrier-Jouët, his predecessor only made one official trip outside Champagne during his reign as cellar master. Hervé, on the other hand, reckons over the past two decade or so, he’s spent 50-60 days a year travelling, principally to the brand’s main markets of Japan, the USA and the UK.
I first met Hervé soon after he became chef de cave in the early nineties and I have continued to meet and taste with him regularly in Epernay and London, over the past two and a half decades. He’s never been anything other than charming company, always smiling and at his happiest sharing a bottle of his own wine.
Just a few years ago I asked Hervé for a brief summary of the Perrier-Jouët style. The thoughts he proffered were: “white flower, stylish and sea-salt”. I’d just been tasting the newly launched Belle Époque Brut Vintage 2008 with him and while that wasn’t exactly my tasting note, all those things are evident in the very fine, dazzling fresh 2008 release. It’s perfumed, with a noticeable grip and mid palate chalky intensity. And no-one would say it lacked style.
It plays between the elegance and freshness of Chardonnay from Cramant, Avize, Chouilly, Mesnil and Vertus, set against the power and structure of Mailly, Verzy and Verzenay Pinot Noir. “But don’t forget the 5% Dizy Pinot Meunier,” says Hérve. “It acts as a link between the two, like the hyphen between Perrier and Jouët.” A lovely descriptor, I’ve always thought.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience several vertical tastings of Belle Époque with Hervé over the years. Notably in September 2006, we worked our way back from 1999 white and rosé, through 1998, 1997. 1996, 1995, 1989, 1988, 1985 the first vintage he himself made and then on to ’82 and ’79.
But what I shall remember best is having a relaxed lunch with him on a summer’s day, on the terrace overlooking the glorious garden at Maison Belle Époque, sharing a glass of Perrier-Jouët Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs, his very own creation first made in 1993, specifically to celebrate the Millennium. His winning smile and infectious giggle will be sadly missed on future trips to Champagne.