Chardonnay is ‘the white truffle’ of Champagne

Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, president of Château Mouton Rothschild, has made Chardonnay his focus at his Champagne project as he believes the grape to be the “white truffle” of the region.

Philippe de Rothschild

Philippe de Rothschild

Speaking to db at The Ritz before a dinner celebrating a collaboration between Champagne Barons de Rothschild and the hotel group, Sereys de Rothschild said:

“Chardonnay is the white truffle of Champagne – it’s the best and we wanted to do the best. In order to put the Rothschild name on it, it had to be the best. Also, there are only a couple of Chardonnay specialists in Champagne like Salon and Delamotte, which gives us a chance to stand out.

“I love Champagne – my grandfather was one of the main shareholders of Ruinart but sold his stake in the ‘50s. He also had his own-label, Reserve Baron Philippe, made by Henriot, which I grew up drinking as a teenager.”

Starting out in 2005, the Champagne Barons de Rothschild range is formed of five wines: an extra brut, a brut priced at £42, a blanc de blancs, a pale pink rosé made from 85% Chardonnay and a prestige cuvée priced at around £200.

The company also makes a bespoke vintage expression for The Ritz hotel group, with 500,000 bottles make across the range a year.

With few newcomers to the region, de Rothschild was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming the Champenois were to him and his family.

“People have been very welcoming  – they seem happy to have a family come to the region as so many of the houses are owned by big corporations now.

“We were walking on eggshells at the beginning. The biggest challenge was sourcing the grapes and building relationships with the growers.

“Trust is really important in Champagne. It took five years to find the right growers and five years to build up our stocks; it was a long process,” he said.

Managing director Frederic Mairesse told db that the Rothschilds went against the advice they were given when starting out in the region.

“When we came to Champagne everyone was advising us to make wine with Pinot Noir and Menuier as the majority of vineyards in the region are planted with those grapes, so naturally we decided to do a Chardonnay,” he joked.

“We knew we wanted to be a small producer at the premium end. We source from 75 hectares of vineyards in the Côtes de Blanc, 82% of which are grand and premier cru sites.

“In 2013 we bought a 0.5-hectare clos in Vertus that we hope to make a single vineyard wine like Krug’s Clos du Mesnil from one day but the vines are too young at the moment – they need at least another eight years. It’s called Clos Napoleon at the moment but we’d call the wine Clos Rothschild,” he added.

While de Rothschild admitted that he was “looking to buy land” in the region, he stressed that it wasn’t an urgent situation. “We’ve been busy building the brand over the last five years. Whenever we make a decision all three branches of the family have to agree on it or it won’t go ahead.

“We’d like to buy more land and get a lot of calls form people trying to sell tiny plots but it isn’t worth it for us unless it’s at least half a hectare,” he said.

“We decided not to have any Pinot Meunier in the blend as it doesn’t age well and our Champagnes are aged on the lees for longer than most. The brut is aged for at least four years, sometimes five, and the vintage 7-10 years,” he added.

While Rothschild looks to Salon as a model, he doesn’t want to age his Champagnes in oak as he’s seeking “grapefruit freshness” from the wines. He admitted that he’d never tried English sparkling wine but was curious to do so after reading about Taittinger acquiring land in Kent.

Champagne Barons de Rothschild’s key markets are France, the US, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Brazil. The Champagnes are served at all events and dinners hosted by the Rothschilds and it its various private banks around the world.

3 Responses to “Chardonnay is ‘the white truffle’ of Champagne”

  1. Wow. This article is, in my opinion, full of very debatable statements, for example:

    “there are only a couple of Chardonnay specialists in Champagne like Salon and Delamotte” – almost all the many hundreds of producers in La Côte des Blancs are Chardonnay specialists, not to mention producers in Le Sézannais and Montgueux. True they are not so well known as Salon and Delamotte, but that doesn’t necessarily mean their champagnes are in any way inferior to those to better known brands. (think of Diebolt Vallois, Pierre Gimonnet, Pierre Peters and many others)

    “everyone was advising us to make wine with Pinot Noir and Meunier as the majority of vineyards in the region are planted with those grapes, ” – It is hardly surprising that two out of the three three classic Champagne grape varieties represent the majority of the plantings. There is nothing very surprising in this.

    “so many of the houses are owned by big corporations now.” – This depends on one’s definition of a house or a ‘maison’ The vast majority of champagne producers are still small independent producers, although it’s true that in terms of sales, the big name brands account for the lion’s share. It’s also worth noting, unless I am mistaken, that Salon and Delamotte which are both mentioned in admiring terms, belong to the Laurent Perrier group – does that make them part of a ‘big corporation’ too?

    “We decided not to have any Pinot Meunier in the blend as it doesn’t age well” – it’s true that Meunier doesn’t have the same ageing capacity as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but it’s a far cry from that to a sweeping statement such as ‘Meunier does not age well’. Try telling that to the increasing number of Meunier specialists who produce excellent champagnes that are often aged many years, or better still, try tasting their champagnes and see for yourself.

    I suggest that the article needs a ‘read in moderation’ warning

    • There’s another article published this morning in Decanter about Rothschild. Much better made and they are not mentioning any other Champagne houses. Overall, I hope I will not be disappointed like I was after other big brand names decided to make and advertise Champagne at $200+ per bottle. BTW, Laurent Perrier is a great example, they also use Chardonnay/Pinot Noir on 50/50 for their Brut, but the price is at a fraction of Rothschild.

  2. “Premier ne puis, second ne daigne, Mouton suis”. What happen with this great philosophy? Look at your forefathers and learn from history. Why copy Krug or Salon? I am truly excited to see Rothschild making Champagne wine, but I would expect something innovative, not a copy. You can buy the best winemakers in the world, but if your definition of perfection is another Champagne house, the most you will achieve will be a copy of that house. Be the perfection, become the example – your name is ROTHSCHILD!

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