Boris Champy is a soft-spoken winemaker whose focused demeanor speaks of a passion motivated by a singular objective – to seize each opportunity and create world-class wines . He currently directs a team of like-minded individuals at one of Burgundy’s most prestigious domains – the house of Louis Latour. I spoke with him in late March about his career in the industry.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)
SlaveToTheGrape: Boris, we met when you were in charge of winemaking at the iconic Napa valley domain, Dominus Estate. When did you first encounter Christian Moueix, the renowned Bordeaux wine producer and owner of Dominus?
Boris Champy: I met him when I was studying in Bordeaux. I had a friend who had done an internship with him and who suggested that I apply. I was accepted and everything went extremely well. During this internship I worked the harvest with Christian’s wife Cherise and we spoke about the Dominus project. In 1997 I joined the Dominus team as an intern working with then winemaker David Ramey. He left a year later and the Moueix family entrusted me with the job of winemaker.
STTG: In your opinion what did Christian Moueix see in you that gave him the confidence to hand you the reins of his California jewel?
BC: His teams are significantly weighted to grape growers. He himself is a grape grower. He likes to work with those who have a grasp of the profession from vine to cellar where there tends to be a perspective that holds that wine is made in the vineyard versus what we refer to as the oenologist’s view that wine is crafted in the cellar.
STTG: You are from a Champagne producing family. What made you decide to undertake your studies in Bordeaux?
BC: My family produces wine in Champagne so I know the region very well. In the summers I often worked in different Champagne houses assisting in bottling, working the vineyards, etc. During my studies I wanted to see what was going on elsewhere. I did an internship here in Burgundy as well as in Beaujolais. I learned as much about Champagne in Bordeaux as I would have living in Champagne. It’s always good to see something new because it gives you a different perspective and forces you to ask questions about what is so familiar.
I did an internship at Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and remember being intrigued by the parcel work involving the various soils, e.g., clay, gravel soils and the chateaux classification system itself. Coming from Champagne where we don’t really have this approach to viticulture I found it fascinating! It is the kind of experience that really appealed to me. I am talking about fifteen or so years ago where the more detailed work on defining terroir was relatively novel. This type of terroir-focused viticulture has gained traction even here in Bourgogne where ever-smaller parcels are being redefined continuously relative to what was being done even ten or fifteen years ago.
STTG: Towards the end of your studies did you have any notions of what you wanted to do once you received your diploma?
BC: My idea was to make outstanding wines driven by quality. There is a whole process behind the production of a top wine. I of course recognize the importance of geology, terroir, climate, etc. At the same time behind every great wine there are the meticulous efforts related to selection of grape varieties, pruning, critical decisions regarding harvest dates, etc. No one makes a great wine alone; it is instead a team effort not only during a given year’s harvest but even before this with respect to one’s understanding of the choices that were made when the vineyard was planted as well as the evolution of each parcel over several vintages. In 2012 for example, the harvest was somewhat difficult and my hope is that this allows us to learn some lessons that we can apply to future vintages to make them more successful.
STTG: You left the renowned Napa valley domain, Dominus to join the team of the historic Burgundy domain, Louis Latour. Was this transition challenging given the very different demands of working on the one hand with Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot in California versus wines derived primarily from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay like those you now oversee in Burgundy?
BC: There is an obvious need to adapt but I prefer doing it in this direction. Pinot noir is sensitive to everything – to poor flower set, to heat, to cold. It is sensitive at harvest. Clearly Pinot Noir still holds some surprises for me but I think it is certainly possible to move from Cabernet Sauvignon to Pinot Noir and thus transition from less demanding to more complex.
As to the principal tenets of viticulture – knowing how to adapt, being attentive to one’s climate – the notion of the general harmony of the vine is universal. In addition, my family is from the southern Sézanne region of Champagne and while Chardonnay is king there I also had a good sense of the Pinot Noir variety and the particularities of cultivating vines in the northeast of France…to be continued
Slave to the grape – worse fates there have been!