“How Do We Champagne?”

4/27/2018

This story is part of our “Women in Wine” series — an ongoing effort to highlight the women shaping today’s evolving global wine industry. From winemakers to sustainability specialists to executives, these are the women among the vines to watch in 2018.

In a side-by-side comparison of job titles, Marie-Christine Osselin is hard to beat. As the Wine Quality and Communications Manager for Moët & Chandon, Osselin spends her days creating some of the world’s greatest Champagne, and then sharing it with consumers. After speaking with Osselin, it is clear that few people in the world are as perfectly suited to this work as she. Her enthusiasm for the category, and her dedication to honoring the Moët & Chandon legacy is contagious. She began our talk with a deceptively deep question: “How do we Champagne?” As part of her role at Moët & Chandon, Osselin is working to make Champagne more accessible and more readily available for everyday celebrations. We spoke with her about her role, how she came to be there and what people need to know about Champagne.

 

Your undergraduate degree was biology, with cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. How did that lead to wine?

I was born in south of France, where we have vineyards everywhere. I always was curious about wine and particularly about the wine from my region. I was really interested in biology and pharmaceuticals. I went to that kind of courses. How do you say ... Field? That field.

After my degree, I wanted to work in laboratory, because I am that kind of person, very precise, but I discovered that this work is really everyday the same. Every day you do the analysis. Every day you do the same thing. I was 18 at the time and I said, "Oh no, it's too classical for me. I don't want 40 years doing exactly the same job every day."

I decided to go further on my studies. I learned quality management, [and] I joined the company in 2016 to learn how to make Champagne.

I'm enjoying it. It's the best place, Moët & Chandon, the best place to know how to make the best Champagne, because we have a huge knowledge about blending, about quality. We have the biggest laboratory in [the] wine industry and we have many experts in the team. It's just incredible.

 

How do you think your experience in the industry has been different because you’re a woman?

Being a woman in the wine industry today, it's not as difficult as it seems. It’s not rare. In Champagne, it's common because women love Champagne. In the Champagne region, you have many winemakers that are women. The team [is] very rich with different palates, different people, different generations. We are all different. We come from everywhere in the world. It's a very rich team.  As in the DNA of Moët & Chandon, we really want to make Champagne for the world. We have to represent the world in the team.

 

How do you describe the Moët & Chandon house style?

The Moët & Chandon house style is based on three pillars.

The first is a bright fruitiness. To have that bright fruitiness, the natural taste from the grapes from the vineyard, it means that you need to protect that juice from oxidation. You need to work precisely. You need to have a high level of hygiene in your cellars. We work with stainless steel vats. All those steps are just here to protect the fruitiness from the juice. This is the first pillar of the style: fruitiness.

The second is the acidity palate. We have a strong knowledge about blending. That's how we create Champagne [that is] very seductive in your mouth, a thing that is very soft and enjoyable. We don't want those sparkling wines that are really acidic, that burn your throat when you drink it. It's definitely not my personal taste in Champagne. Base wine in champagne are very acidic. We use fermentation to lower the acidity and to have something smoother.

 We also use the Pinot Meunier, we call it just Meunier, which is a grape with a beautiful softness. The acidity palate is built with blending, with fermentation and that particular grape which is very important for us.

The third pillar of the style is an elegant maturity. The maturity is created with the selection of yeast. In Moët & Chandon, we are really lucky. We have our own yeast that came from our vineyard and our center. It was selected by the previous generations of wine makers. Today, we have still the same yeast. We have a special place in our cellar just to protect it. That yeast is very important.

For the elegant maturity, we also use time. Time is really important. It's a key for the quality of Moët & Chandon champagne. Just to give you an example, the non-vintage root, classical more traditional Champagne, is matured for 24 months in cellars. If you want to launch a non-vintage champagne, you can launch it after 15 months in cellars, [but] 15 months in cellars, for us, it's not enough [time], because you have big bubbles, and the blend is not really well melted, not homonomous. We [age our wine] 24 months, to have that elegance. It's very important. That's why you have very fine effervescence in Moët & Chandon Champagne which is very different than other sparklings.

 

You've tasted innumerable amounts of Champagne. Do you remember your very first sip of Champagne you had?

No. Maybe I was very, very young. I can't remember. In Moët & Chandon, my first glass of champagne was at the end of my job interview. It was Meunier. [The interviewer] brought me to the cellar, saying, "We'll have a tasting." I was so impressed. I can really remember this moment. It was my first glass of Champagne in Moët. I was really impressed. Big emotion.

 

What does it take to make a grand vintage?

A grand vintage must have a personality, must tell you a story about the year it comes from.

[2009] was exceptional because we had very beautiful weather in Champagne. It's quite rare to have beautiful weather in Champagne until the harvest. The grapes were very healthy, and the health of the grapes in the vineyard is really important. It's the first thing we look at: the health of the grapes.

The ripeness is measured for the level of acidity and the level of sugar, because when a grape ripens, the acidity decreases slightly and the sugar increases slightly. You have to find the perfect date when they cross, when the acidity and the sugar are very well balanced. In 2009, we had that perfect balance between the acidity and the ripeness, and we had healthy grapes. The base wines were very juicy and ample, very beautiful for each of the three grapes.

This is also very rare because sometimes you'll have beautiful Chardonnay, but the others are not so good. Sometimes it's the Pinot Noir. It's quite rare for the Meunier because as it's the most sensitive of the grapes. In 2009, the three of them were very beautiful and ample. The pinot noir was the most surprising base wine, very juicy, very ample, well ripened, very fruity, floral. This is grand vintage Champagne, grand vintage, very venous and generous and ample. It's a beautiful Champagne that comes from sunny weather, so it's very comfortable and generous. It's a very beautiful wine.

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