Patrice Noyelle: last of the Mohicans

As he prepares to leave Pol Roger, Patrice Noyelle tells Patrick Schmitt that despite making changes to the Champagne, he has always deeply respected its traditions.

Patrice-Noyelle-Pol-RogerONE OF Champagne’s most likeable figures is retiring. After 15 years at the helm of Pol Roger, Patrice Noyelle is handing over management to a new head, though not a fresh face to the offices, or the region. Former employee at Champagne Bruno Paillard and export manager at Pol Roger since June 2008, Laurent d’Harcourt will become managing director in June, when Noyelle finally gives up control of the business – a moment, he says, which will be emotive. “I’m sure the day I leave I will be crying – it’s my baby,” he admits, signalling the strength of his attachment to the brand and its staff.

Noyelle, though too modest to say it himself, has achieved much in his time. Without interference from the former head and Pol Roger family member Christian de Billy, Noyelle has made decisions which, from the outset, precipitated the improvement of both the Champagne and the business. “Christian gave me the keys and he didn’t stop me in one thing,” recalls Noyelle.

His first major change, and still his most daring, was asking cellar master James Coffinet to leave and then appointing Krug’s Dominique Petit – a man who Noyelle had to prize from the famous Reims-based house where he had been working for 24 years.

That was in March 1999, less than a year after Noyelle had taken control of Pol Roger. He admits it was the greatest risk of his 15-year career at the Champagne house, but, thankfully, one without dire consequences. Quite the opposite in fact, and Noyelle happily describes Petit’s influence as “a major factor” in the success of Pol Roger.

“Dominic is demanding of himself and others, inspiring and confident, but also shy, and a perfectionist,” says Noyelle. He also installed a sense of “serenity” in the cellar says Noyelle, implying that the situation before his arrival was as not as calm and controlled as he would have liked. Also important, he says, is how Petit adapted himself to the different style of Pol Roger, which, unlike Krug, uses no oxidative handling of the must or wine. “And he never said Krug was better.”

Petit too has benefited from the move to Epernay’s Pol Roger. Completed in January last year were new and enlarged winemaking facilities after an investment of almost €10m (£8.75m) by the house. “I built a winery around him,” explains Noyelle, suggesting the state-of- the-art equipment was created entirely to meet Petit’s requirements.

A further significant change in quality came with Noyelle’s decision to only use the first pressings in any of Pol Roger’s range. “We don’t use the taille any more. Six years ago, as soon as I realised I could exchange the taille for cuvée, I did.” He adds, “This is a big step forward in quality.”

And before this, Noyelle had already approved another shift to alter the Pol Roger house style for the better – in 2002 the dosage in Pol Roger Brut Reserve was lowered from 12 g/l to 9 g/l in a desire for greater balance.

However, Noyelle has also respected tradition at the house, above all where it augments the image and excellence of the product. For instance, Pol Roger has never switched to mechanised riddling in its notoriously deep cellars.

All the company’s 1.8 million bottles are still turned by hand, a labour-intensive and archaic approach which Noyelle has retained on quality grounds. “It’s very important only to move the sediment when it has its back to the glass and, with variations in atmospheric pressure sometimes this isn’t the case. And if not, unlike gyropalates, the riddler won’t turn the bottle… People say I’m the last of the Mohicans, but I want to be the last of the Mohicans, because I’m convinced riddling by hand makes a difference.”

One Response to “Patrice Noyelle: last of the Mohicans”

  1. Lori Pedersen Harrison says:

    Dear sirs, I am writing from Mexico and am late, ever so late in congratulating Patrice Noyelle of his past year retirement FROM pol Roger.
    Do you have a recommendation of how I could contact him. I have been trying to locate him following the sad events last week in Paris. WITH SINCERE THANKS FOR YOUR HELP.. Lori Pedersen Harrison

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