Meet Mumm Champagne's Cellar Master

Didier Mariotti on his passion for the wine you can drink at any time of day


Mumm Champagne’s cellarmaster, Didier Mariotti. Picture / Supplied.

He’s the cellarmaster for the number one Champagne House in France, the artist behind a beacon of elegance. But G.H. Mumm’s chef de cave, Didier Mariotti, was not always on the fast-track to success. A rebellious teen, he considered joining the army, recognising his “need to be under control”.

Why?

“I cannot tell you,” says the laid-back Frenchman as we sip glasses of his handiwork, during his whistle-stop Auckland visit. “For me, school was not important.”

The irony is that Mariotti is now in control of producing an iconic product. The company is the third largest global Champagne producer behind Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot, (and the number three-selling Champagne in New Zealand), producing eight million bottles of the good stuff each year.

The global financial crisis pinched production levels as consumers cut back on luxury goods, but recent growth in Asia, Australia and New Zealand has helped to lead an increase of 7 per cent in its volume over the first half-year.

Partnerships with French DJ David Guetta and Formula E racing continue to provide momentum, alongside Mumm’s Kiwi brand associations with Auckland Racing, Le Diner en Blanc and Juliette Hogan.

Mariotti has held the top creative position at Mumm since 2006, years after his mother eventually talked him out of joining the army, and he curbed his subsequent desire to become a surgeon. Though that might seem at odds with where he’s ended up, it was an interest in biology that led him, eventually, to study food and beverage engineering. A six-month internship at a Champagne house solidified his path.

“I realised Champagne is a very particular type of wine, very different,” he explains. “You can drink it at any time of the day, which was a revelation.”

So was the technical appeal of winemaking — from vinification, through to tasting, ageing, disgorgement, riddling, bottling and labelling.

He was also excited to preserve the legacy. Vineyard owners since 1761, the Mumm family founded the Champagne house in 1827 in Reims, France. When Mariotti started, he tasted every vintage from 1955.

“You have to mix history with the idea of the wine, and everything is made by hand. At the same time, you look to the future to use all the new technology to be more efficient.”

Riddling (turning) the bottles used to be done manually, but with such large volumes, machines are now responsible for turning 57,000 bottles a day. Similarly, the process of disgorgement — when all the dead yeast in the bottle is collected at the top — is now done by freezing the top of the bottle to allow for easier, less wasteful extraction.

Since Mariotti joined the company in 2003, working under his mentor, the previous chef de cave, Mumm has seen a reduction in the amount of sugar used, an extension of wine maturation, and a greater focus on quality over quantity.

Through his vintage blends, Mariotti stamps his mark and creates a distinctive Champagne each year. But his priority is creating the non-vintage Cordon Rouge. It’s an anonymous sort of artistry, and much more challenging.

“Because you have to create it every year. It doesn’t matter if the vintage is good or not good, you have to do it and you have to do it always with the same consistency. And nobody talks about the non-vintage because it’s always the same.”

This also goes for territories where sweeter wine is the preference — some African and Asian countries, for instance. Mariotti says the wine’s sweetness is derived from the pinot noir grapes. The Cordon Rouge is about fresh fruits, whereas the vintage tends to use more mature fruits, and the Cuvee expresses more of a chocolate, coffee flavour.

Fruit from Mumm’s 218 hectares of vineyards and growers contributes to more than 300 still wines; Mariotti and his team taste 2000 samples a year to blend the House’s signature style.

“One plus one is never two when you make a blend,” he says. “That’s what I love about this job. You need to feel all the wine interacting to be able to find a solution.”

Perhaps his most admirable attribute isn’t necessarily his dedication to craft, his talent for blending or his memory for flavour. With any alteration taking three to four years to reveal itself in the wine, it’s not a job for those seeking instant gratification.

“Making Champagne is all about emotion, a way to express your own feelings,” he says. “So you need to have patience.”

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