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Interview: A new era at Champagne Taittinger

Champagne lovers may see new a Taittinger cuvée emerge from a generational shift at the house, according to incoming president Vitalie Taittinger, who also spoke about the climate change challenge.

Vitalie Taittinger spoke of possible ‘new creations’ in a strong hint that a fresh Champagne was part of her thinking as she prepares to succeed her father, Pierre-Emmanuel, as president of the house in January 2020.

While nothing is imminent, a new chapter is nevertheless beginning at Taittinger headquarters in Reims.

Vitalie’s brother, Clovis, will become general manager in a generational shift that has also reached the cellars. Alexandre Ponnavoy became chef de cave in 2018, after his predecessor, Loïc Dupont, retired after 34 years with the house.

It’s been quite a journey already since Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger dramatically returned the house to family stewardship in 2007.

A phone call sealed the deal and resulted in Pierre-Emmanuel ‘dancing in my underpants on the dining room table and opening a bottle of Comtes de Champagne [Taittinger’s prestige cuvée]’, as he once recalled.

Then came the hard work. ‘When we arrived in 2007 we had many things to rebuild,’ Vitalie Taittinger told Decanter.com in a recent interview.

She is grateful that her father took the risk of employing his children in the business early on.

‘We were all very young when we arrived. I was 28,’ she said, having started in marketing and eventually moved up to become marketing and communications director at the house. ‘My father trusted us from the beginning, and not just me but my brother also.’

Current managing director Damien le Sueur will stay on at the house to advise the new team, particularly on co-ordination between production, supply and finance, the house said in October.

While the next vintage release was expected to be the 2008 – a celebrated year in Champagne – will we also see the next generation mark its era with a new Champagne?

It’s clearly something being considered. ‘My father did a great job but he has also been quite conservative [on new launches],’ said Taittinger. ‘Maybe we will some new creations. We could see that in the next years.’

While she would not be drawn on specific styles, she said that any new Champagne would need a distinct identity from those already in the line-up. A link to the house’s heritage will also be important.

‘We know the meaning of each cuvée and its architecture,’ said Taittinger.

‘Global warming is changing the way we are working’

Making wine in a changing climate will be a major focus in the coming decades.

‘Of course we are all worried about climate change,’ said Taittinger, reinforcing a general feeling that growing numbers of winery and vineyard owners worldwide no longer see this as up for debate.

‘Global warming is changing the way we are working. We are not following the same calendar as before.’

She said that Champagne was ‘doing a great job’ in general but that a key challenge was to encourage more smaller-scale growers to adopt more sustainable methods.

Taittinger is one of the few houses to own substantial vineyard land.

Its 288 hectares supply around 50% of its Champagne and include top sites in the Côte des Blancs, the heartland of Chardonnay – which partly explains Taittinger’s historical stylistic bias towards the grape.

Its vineyard teams achieved HVE certification in 2017. Named Haute Valeur Environnementale, this is a French sustainability programme, with government support, designed to promote biodiversity. It sets limits on pesticide and water use, as well as waste management.   

Taittinger was less sure about pursuing organic or biodynamic certification.

‘We want to be free and we want to be 100% sustainable by ourselves,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to follow that just for certification’s sake.’

She echoed others in the region in suggesting that a forensic approach to vineyard management is needed. ‘It’s different in the Côte des Blancs to the Aube,’ she said.

What does Champagne represent?

Taittinger said that Champagne faces a battle to assert its identity, faced with rising global competition from other sparkling wine regions.

‘We all have to work together,’ she said.

Single vineyard Champagne has been touted by some as a growing niche, but Taittinger said ‘it’s important to remember that Champagne is the art of blending’.

English sparkling wine

Several Champagne houses have outposts beyond France.

Taittinger has Domaine Carneros in California and also ‘Domaine Evremond’ in southern England  – a project started by Pierre-Emmanuel and the house’s exclusive UK agent, Hatch Mansfield, and other partners in 2016.

A first proper harvest is expected next year and Taittinger’s English sparkling wine is expected to debut in 2024.

Vitalie Taittinger said the Kent climate ‘looks like Champagne 20 years ago, so we have to change our [winemaking] habits.’ Pierre-Emmanuel will remain closely involved in the project, she said.

Happiness the secret to good Champagne?

Taittinger cited her father’s people skills as a key tenet of the house’s values and an example to follow.

‘It’s important to consider always that we are working as a big team,’ she said, adding that people should be ‘happy when they arrive at work’.

Christmas menu

Before taking the reins officially, there will be time for a ‘simple’ Christmas with close family.

An early draft of the menu includes oysters with Taittinger Prélude Grands Crus – a 50/50 blend of Chardonnday and Pinot Noir – plus foie gras, Roquefort and ‘a nice bottle of Sauternes’.

Tasting Taittinger Comtes de Champagne from 1961 to 2007


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