Champagne is as much about image as quality. For every discerning consumer doggedly loyal to a favourite marque, dozens more buy either on price or because they feel drawn to a particular brand and the image it projects. With most Champagne houses in the hands of large companies, such images are expensive constructs, devised by experienced marketing gurus or sponsorship brokers.
For that small group of Champagne producers still under family ownership, there is no more valuable marketing asset than the family itself. Pol Roger squeezes every last drop of prestigious publicity from its genuine links with the Churchill family, while Rémi Krug, criss-crossing the world as a tireless ambassador for Krug Champagne, must have shaken the hand of every regular consumer of his family’s marvellous – and very expensive – wine.
Krug is an almost paradoxical case. With three, and potentially four, family members working for the house, one could be forgiven for supposing that the business is family owned. But for some years it has been part of the luxury goods empire, LVMH. The continued participation of the family in the affairs of Krug suggests that all parties are fully aware that this personal link is of inestimable worth.
heirs to the throneHenri Krug, the diffident winemaker, has officially retired, and the new generation is sliding into place. His son Olivier won his commercial spurs in the early 1990s by establishing a market for Krug in Japan, which previously had consumed a trifling 500 bottles per year. His brother Rémi’s daughter Caroline (like Olivier, in her late 30s) is at present working in Paris for another LVMH company, Louis Vuitton, but is no doubt ready to return to Reims as and when she is needed.
Henri may have officially retired, but when I visit the Krug offices shortly after the 2003 vintage, the vins clairs are lined up in the tasting room awaiting his approval. He remains a crucial member of the blending panel, linking two other generations: his elderly father Paul Krug, and his son Olivier, who has been a member of the team since 1989.
Olivier Krug is fully aware that there is a balance to be struck between a respect for tradition and the risk of stagnation. ‘If we don’t change,’ he tells me, ‘there is a risk that Krug will become a museum piece, which is the last thing we want. The force of Krug is not its image but the taste of the wine and its individual style. We need to remain très Krug. We regard tradition as a tool for ensuring and maintaining quality. Fermenting in barrels, for example, is not important in itself, but as a means to an end. La vérité est dans la verre.
‘From a marketing standpoint, we never stand still. Our rosé was an innovation, made in the face of our grandfather’s objection, as he equated rosé with girlie bars. And my father and uncle’s generation also introduced the single-vineyard Clos du Mesnil.’ As for any innovations that Olivier and Caroline might be considering, he is not willing to be drawn. ‘When it comes to our future plans, we tend to be rather secretive.’
a fresh startThe house of Krug has always been single minded in its focus on Champagne. Another great producer, Roederer, has moved in a different direction, by diversifying. Jean-Claude Rouzaud is one of the grandees of Champagne (and a former Decanter Man of the Year). His parents were absentee proprietors and assumed he would follow their lead. But instead of pursuing a medical career, as they intended, he went off to the college at Montpellier to study oenology and took the reins at the family business at the tender age of 25.
His first priority was to restore the vineyards, and then to revive the flagging reputation of the company. This he has done triumphantly: quality at Roederer has long been consistent and impeccable. But Rouzaud knew he would be unable to expand his vineyard holdings in Champagne, so he looked elsewhere. After much research he established an American outpost in Mendocino, which, most tasters would agree, now produces North America’s best sparkling line. He subsequently acquired the port house of Ramos Pinto, Delas in the Rhône, and various properties in Bordeaux, notably Château de Pez in St-Estèphe.
Jean-Claude Rouzaud, now in his 60s, will be a hard act to follow. His sons Frédéric and Nicolas were not automatically regarded as heirs apparent. Both spent their 20s in Paris working for a commercial property business, and only in their 30s did they return to Reims. ‘My brother and I,’ says Nicolas, ‘both felt that we needed a certain maturity and experience before returning to Roederer. If you’re the sons of the owner, you can’t afford to make mistakes. Frédéric runs our Paris office and I am now the export manager.’
Nicolas Rouzaud, like Olivier Krug, knows the Roederer Champagnes are atypical – not party wines to be abused by exuberant racing car drivers, but wines to be taken seriously. ‘That will remain unchanged in the future. Our style will not change. It is my father’s intention, and ours too, to continue to run Roederer as a family company. If it were ever to come under threat, from whatever quarter, we would rather sell it than see the marque decline or disintegrate.’
Pol Roger is the most Anglophile of the Champagne houses. Founded in 1849, it has been in the hands of the Pol Roger family and their relatives, the de Billy family, ever since. In the 19th century they developed the British market long before the French one. Their celebrated Cuvée Winston Churchill was launched in 1975 and has been a marketing triumph ever since, capitalising on the family’s close links with the British statesman and his descendants.
Dapper, beaming Christian de Billy has been a familiar face at British receptions, especially when the time comes to launch a new vintage. In 1998 he retired, ceding control to Patrice Noyelle, a general manager brought in externally, and to his son Hubert and daughter Evelyne, who is in charge of viticultural operations.
‘I believe you can have innovation without losing your identity,’ insists Hubert de Billy. ‘The basis of our identity is the quality and flavour of our grapes, but we have never been afraid of technical innovation. Previous generations took the decision to add cement tanks to the cask cellar; then my father got rid of the wood in the 1950s and vinified everything in steel. And we don’t live in the past. Our Churchill cuvée is not an attempt to recreate the Champagne he used to drink, but to create a wine that we think he would enjoy now, in the 21st century.’ Churchill drank Champagne with meals, and de Billy hopes the Churchill cuvée can be treated in the same way. He admits that the wine is associated with the past, but claims Pol Roger is also reaching out to younger drinkers by sponsoring the Oxbridge Varsity wine tasting competition, and similar ventures in France.
‘My father was an innovator. When he took over the company in the 1950s our range was very limited, and it was he who introduced the blanc de blancs and the rosé. His grandfather was opposed to the rosé, which he thought was similar to kir royal. But rosé is very popular in Central and South America and Christian realised that if we didn’t add one to our range, we would start losing out to the competition. But we didn’t want to create a “feminine” wine, so we made it a strong style, with formal packaging.
‘Part of my role is to make our wines appeal to a younger generation without altering our style. Some years ago I attended a wedding at which our Brut was served with dessert. The combination was awful, and made me realise we needed a demi-sec. My father wasn’t happy with the idea, but I knew it would be popular with many younger consumers because they have been brought up with sweet soft drinks and find a higher sugar level in their Champagne more than acceptable. So we created our Rich, which is aged for longer than the Brut. We launched it in 2002 and it has proved very popular.’
Firms such as Krug and Pol Roger are relatively small, so the influence of the owning family is strong. With a much larger house such as Laurent-Perrier that influence is inevitably more dilute. Bernard de Nonancourt has run the company since 1949, and though he still keeps a watchful eye over the affairs of the company, it is managed on a daily basis by Yves Dumont. De Nonancourt’s daughters Stéphanie and Alexandra like to be involved in Laurent-Perrier’s affairs, and both take their place on its board, but it seems improbable that they will ever take on the same role as their distinguished father. Alexandra is interested in graphic design and thus the packaging of the Laurent-Perrier products, while Stéphanie is actively involved in promotional ventures such as the annual cultural prize known as the Prix Grand Siècle.
FROM FATHER TO SON
Champagne Henriot has been owned by the family for almost two centuries. In some complex corporate manoeuvres, Joseph Henriot exchanged his eponymous brand and its vineyards for a substantial share in Veuve Clicquot and the chairmanship of that illustrious company. In 1994 he left Veuve Clicquot and bought back his former company, but not its vineyards. But in the late 1990s Joseph Henriot cast his shrewd eye on Burgundy, acquiring the négociant house of Bouchard Père et Fils and the Chablis estate of William Fèvre. Restoring the somewhat tarnished renown of these important properties took up most of his energies, so for some years the running of his Champagne house has been in the hands of his youthful son, Stanislas.
‘There has been no revolution,’ explains 32-year-old Stanislas. ‘My father is still involved in the major decisions, but does not participate in the daily affairs of the company.’ The new guard has negotiated long-term leases with growers, and has maintained the policy of buying grapes from only two sources: Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims and Chardonnay from the Côte de Blancs. ‘I am also continuing to give our wines long ageing before disgorgement and release.’
In Champagne it is not always easy to distinguish marketing hype and flannel from genuine commitment, as all Champagne producers are born with a special marketing gene in their genetic make-up. But I sense the commitment of these varied heirs apparent is genuine, and it is surely no coincidence that some of the best Champagnes are made by houses dominated by single families. Bollinger remains strongly associated with the Bizot family, and the Billecarts own Billecart-Salmon, a house that produces some of Champagne’s most delectable wines. Taittinger is not only family-run, but built a replica of the family château on the hillsides of Carneros, disguising an ultra-modern winery producing Californian sparkling wine. Such houses have a confidence confirmed by decades of history. Aware of the need to remain in touch with consumers, they also recognise that when quality begins to slip, the market is not slow to notice. As Olivier Krug observes, La verité est dans la verre.
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter, and a respected author of wine books.