Taking the long view: Cognac Frapin

As Cognac Frapin celebrates its 750th anniversary, albeit more quietly than planned due to Covid-19, CEO Jean-Pierre Cointreau tells Arabella Mileham that the firm’s impressive history gives him a sense of perspective about current events

In an interview two years ago, John Elkann, the scion of the Agnelli family, which owns Fiat-Chrysler, noted that for every million businesses only 45 have lasted more than 100 years, while only one in a billion have lasted for 200 years. Ever fewer businesses can boast 750 years of family ownership – but Cognac Frapin is one such company.

The firm traces its roots back to 1270, when the Frapin family settled in the Charente as winegrowers. This was around the time that Mongol hordes were threatening the eastern Mediterranean with a relatively new invention of gunpowder; the rudder was invented by the Baltic trading community The Hanseatic League; Simon de Montfort founded what would later develop into the English Parliament; and Wencesslaus I or ‘Good King Wenceslas’, ruled over Bohemia. So it comes as no surprise that Jean-Pierre Cointreau, 21st generation of the Frapin family and the current CEO of parent company Renaud Cointreau, which owns Cognac Frapin, Pages Vedrenne Liqueurs and Champagne Gosset, tends to take a long-term view of things.

The sanguine Frenchman, a father of six, credits the company’s longevity to it being mainly “the long story of a family. The involvement of the family in vineyards has been ongoing for centuries, but I think it’s really a question of spirit, that’s probably the right word,” he says.

History is a private as well as a company passion, and Cointreau spends downtime reading, particularly history books. “During the lockdown weekends, I managed to build the family trees of the managers of our brands from the 13th to the 21st century,” he said. “For family and brands, I would say the deeper the roots the better the fruit – and each generation has tried to benefit from the involvement of the previous one, while adapting to new challenges.”

A challenging year

This is a theme he returns to time and again during our conversation. And 2020 has certainly been challenging, with the global pandemic shutting down bars, restaurants and venues around the world, grounding airlines and causing events and weddings that would normally be celebrated with Champagne – including the company’s 750th anniversary celebrations – to be pared back or postponed. Inevitably this will have a big effect on sales this year, but Cointreau takes all this in his stride – after all, Frapin has weathered 16 global pandemics during its long history, from the Black Death in the 14th century to Covid-19.

“I don’t think the consumers have disappeared. I have confidence in the future – I wouldn’t be celebrating 750 years of family presence in Cognac if I wasn’t sure there was a future for our products,” Cointreau explains. He says there have been no problems in terms of production in France.

“The vendanges are over in Champagne, and are starting in Cognac with good crops for both.” How long it might take for much of this trade to bounce back is still an unknown quantity, and he notes that the answer is potentially different for Cognac, which has a strong European and Asian market, and Champagne, which relies heavily on events, weddings and travel retail. While he acknowledges that global travel retail is likely to take a long time to recover, he thinks the events side is likely to suffer only short-term damage.

As a result, he supports the recent decision of the Champagne region to reduce yields for the 2020 harvest by around 100 million bottles on its usual output, describing it as “a very good compromise” that has been somewhat over-dramatised in the news.

“It’s not as dramatic as I read in a few interviews – it’s common sense to adapt the production to the forecast sales.” He argues that the Champagne region has always been the best region in France for managing its vineyards, and adaptation is wise, given that the health crisis has unquestionably lowered consumption. “These Champagne bodies have been focusing more to adapt the yield of the vineyard to the forecast consumption figures, so of course the figure are lowered. But everything is made through reserves, through potential new allocations of wines so that if the figures are better, we will be able to have more wines to have more Champagne bottles on the global market in a few years’ time.”

“But I recently found a quote by General de Galle that I think is quite relevant to the time we’re seeing now: ‘Between possible and impossible – there are just two letters and a state of mind’,” he says.
Reasons to be hopeful
And there are reasons to be hopeful, he says, pointing to the demand that Vedrenne Liqueurs has seen during lockdown. “We have been working more hours in the last few weeks than previously forecast, because of consumer demand – if this has happened for liqueurs, why not for Cognac and Champagne? Although we work with more export markets with Champagne and Cognac.
“People have used up some of their their inventories at home during the lockdown, so they are looking for new types of products,” he explains.
He adds: “We have a very good opportunity on the production side and I feel that as soon as we will be able to travel again, there is a lot of expectation of different markets. We are constantly speaking with our different importers.
“I don’t like to discuss the figures – and figures this year are very different from last year at the same time, and it’s changing week after week – but there is a real recovery, and this is why I have very good spirits and expectations,” he says.
Evolution and innovation are very much part of the ethos of both Cognac Frapin and Champagne Gosset – not for their own sake, but to add a special element to each brand. According to Cointreau, the biggest evolution started in 1880 when his great-grandfather was forced to adapt because of the ravages that phylloxera wrought
on the family vineyards.
“Pierre Frapin was one of the few to plant millions of new vines to try to solve the questions, but at the same time he had to run his business and find money for
inventory of eaux-de-vie and other spirits,” Cointreau explains.
“That is how he started to be a négociant – proving that each generation has to adapt. He created the ‘négos’, as we say, and the next generations befitted from all the inventories of the old vines and started to make the brand popular.
“And I would put an ‘s’ on the word inventory as we know that in two or three generations time, they will still use the Cognacs we’re laying in the cellars now. While this is mainly true for Cognac, it’s also true for Champagne.”
This is reflected by the release this year of Gosset Brut 12 Ans de Cave a Minima, a limited edition age statement non-vintage cuvée based on the 2006 harvest in Champagne, which followed a Brut 15 Ans de Cave a Minima that was released in 2016. As Cointreau says, these provide “proof that Champagne can age, even if Cognac ages for a longer time”, largely thanks to the house’s non-malolactic style, which allows for longer preservation of the natural fruit character and maintains the freshness, while extended ageing “sur lie” in the cellars gives the wines extra richness and complexity in the glass.
Halo effect
But the idea is not to create a halo effect around the brand, says Cointreau. “Gosset has a well-known know-how and has to prove it – by releasing limited editions of some cuvées, we show that in the cellars we have some secret treasures that can prove that Champagne can age. We deliver these to show that Champagne is not only a sparkling brut in a glass, it can be a quite a number of different wines, and this is why you can have a different Champagne with every dish of a big meal. It’s also to show that you have the blending, the cru, the cépage, and all of this in the hour of the assemblage of Champagne you can find very attractive wines that are quite different from a standard brut – they are more to show know-how of the cellar master than creating publicity about the brand,” Cointreau explains.
Next year will see a new release of Gosset’s masterpiece, prestige cuvée Celebris, but for the time being Cointreau won’t be drawn on the finer details of this exciting cuvée. Until then, the focus will be on the 750th anniversary – with lots of one-to-one interviews and meetings planned. The company has also published a booklet celebrating Frapin’s history, and this summer unveiled a new interactive museum and visitor centre at the family’s home, Château Fontpinot outside Segonzac, which forms the lynchpin of a new set of tours of the vineyard, house and cellars offered to visitors.
Meanwhile, Cointreau hopes to get back to business as normal – before the pandemic, he visited the company’s subsidiaries in Burgundy, Charente, Corrèze, the Auvergne and Champagne on an almost weekly basis, from the head office in Paris. And, as he points out, “to foresee the future, you need a long memory”. db

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