Champagne viticulture key to competitiveness
The ownership and sustainable management of vineyards will become key competitive advantages for Champagne houses in the near future, believes the CEO of Bollinger.
Jérôme Philipon, who heads Bollinger, told db earlier this year that he believed that the focus of professionals’ attention from would soon shift from winemaking techniques to viticultural concerns.
“A few years ago the question we were most often asked was about the dosage, but now it is more about disgorgement processes – when, how, and what is the impact,” he began.
“But my view is that more and more the questions of the future will be about the origin of your grapes – do you control it?” he said.
Continuing he noted, “People ignore the importance of controlling your own viticulture, but I am convinced that it is a real topic and a key differentiating factor between the houses and the big brands.”
Philipon added that Bollinger owned 165 hectares in Champagne giving the house approximately 70% of its supply for an annual production of around 3 million bottles (almost 100% of the supply for the brand’s La Grande Année and R.D., and a miniumum of 60% for its Special Cuvée Brut NV).
Acknowlegding that Bollinger was not alone in being a grande marque house with a high proportion of grapes sourced from its own vineyards, he mentioned Roederer as another maison in a similar position.
Indeed, speaking to db in January, Roederer president Frédéric Rouzaud said that the growth of the brand’s sales was limited by the size of its vineyard holdings.
“Today we are doing around 4m bottles and we have no plan to grow, because our strategy is to produce from our own estate, so if we grow, it is because we have bought more vineyards,” he said.
He explained that two thirds of Roederer’s production is made using grapes from its own property, 50% of which are used for the brand’s Brut NV, while 100% of Roederer’s vintage Champagnes, including its prestige cuvée Cristal, are made with berries from the house’s vineyards.
Stressing the importance of sourcing grapes from Roederer vineyards he said, “With your own estate you know when and how to fine tune all the details… when you buy grapes you never have the same precision.”
Continuing he said, “And having our own estate allows us to do biodynamics, which we do on nearly all the Cristal estate.”
Summing up, he explained, “If you want to make the best wine and Champagne it is better to have your own estate, because you can fine tune, and have the best grands crus.”
However, he also emphasised the need to blend wines using grapes from across the region for Champagne’s complexity and consistency.
“At the same time we are practicing the art of blending – we are growers, but with vineyards in all the mosaic of Champagne’s terroirs.”
Similarly, Philipon said that owning vineyards gave more control over vineyard management, particularly the “critical” issue of deciding the ideal date to pick the grapes, as well as giving access to grands crus – for which there is great supply pressure when buying grapes on the open market.
“Picking at the right time makes a big difference, and if you don’t own the vineyard, you can’t control the date of picking,” he said.
Such viticultural control was particularly important in a “difficult year” such as 2014, according to Philipon.
Nevertheless, he stressed that the “few growers” who do supply grapes to Bollinger are “real partners”, and have often worked with the house for 4-5 generations.
“More famous in Champagne today is the chef de caves, and yes they are important, but at the beginning, it all comes from the vineyard.”
Continuing he said that Bollinger’s head winemaker, Giles Descôtes, had a background in viticulture, “which for me is a big asset.”
He then recorded, “In 2014, we had 100% control of the harvest, every single grape we picked was supervised by our team – and that’s what makes a big difference.”
He also said that Bollinger, along with Roederer, were among the first houses to sign up and follows the Comité Champagne’s new guidelines on sustainable viticulture released in May last year – a document that all Moët-Hennessy properties have now also followed.
Philipon said that practising sustainable viticulture according to the Comité Champagne’s 125-point checklist was not a “point of difference” for Bollinger, but “an initiative that is critical to Champagne”.
When asked why, he explained, “Today, in most meetings, whether they are reviews with our importers, or discussions with journalists, at some stage the question of sustainable viticulture comes up: this is not a fad, it is a fundamental element, and people want to know what Champagne is doing about it.”
For the Champagne region especially, he said that there was “criticism for the viticulture, and the traceability of its wines,” and consequently, he stated, “It is very important for Champagne to improve its viticultural processes.”
Indeed, last year, the drinks business ran an article looking closely at the improvement in viticultural practices across Champagne, which you can read here.