Champagne Palmer ‘not in cruise control mode’, says MD
In this exclusive interview with Champagne Palmer & Co’s managing director and oenologist Rémi Vervier, he attributes the house’s strong position to its focus on growth.
Mid-July in Champagne is a time of waiting. Waiting for the quality of the growing season to show itself and yet more waiting for the year’s maximum permitted yields to be set.
It’s a tense time for both winemakers and company executives… so what is it like for Champagne Palmer & Co’s Rémi Vervier who, unusually, fulfils the dual roles of managing director and oenologist?
“Actually, this year is looking good,” he says with a remarkably relaxed smile. “There’s low disease pressure and very good conditions. The volume is there also – the volume is quite high. We keep our fingers crossed…”
Production is always a hot topic in Champagne, but recent years have seen the temperature of the debate sizzle, thanks to 2020’s artificially low yield limit – a response to the devastating impact on sales of Covid-19 – and the climatically awful 2021.
There was widespread relief at 2022’s bountiful crop, but many houses have faced supply shortages in the face of stronger than expected global demand.
“When we look back to the past, for sure you have this level of the crop which follows the direction of the sales,” says Vervier.
“It’s gone maybe too much in one direction, and then the other way. It’s better to have something closer to the average for viticulture. But I think it’s a very clever system to manage production. To my knowledge, we’re the only region in the world to be doing this, and I think that’s smart.”
Smarter still this year, Vervier believes, given that growers will be allowed to increase the maximum level of their personal reserve from 8,000 kg per hectare (kg/ha) to 10,000 kg/ha – a reaction to the unpredictable character of recent, climate change-affected, harvests.
“That’s a good thing, because we think we will have a good harvest, so increasing the reserve at the moment where the quality is there is very good for every single producer,” says Vervier.
“I really think that’s how it should be, although it costs a lot more to have so much more volume – and you have to have the vats for that.”
That’s not an issue for Champagne Palmer, because of the growth strategy that the business – a quality-focused co-operative founded by seven Montagne de Reims grower families in 1947 – has been pursuing in the recent past.
“The Palmer brand has been developing over the past 10 years,” explains Vervier. “We have a trend of 10%-plus growth per year in volume terms – so we have planned this. We are a little bit safer than the others because we are not in cruise control mode, we are in the mode of growth.”
When Palmer did face shortages of some higher-end products about 18 months ago – Blanc de Blancs, vintages, Grands Terroirs – Vervier took firm action.
“The key is not really the quantities of the bottles, but the time of disgorgement,” he says. “If we go faster, we lose the promise we have made to the customer of waiting six months after disgorgement. That is not the promise we have for the consumer.” Better to sacrifice short-term volume for the sake of long-term reputation, in other words.
Through the peaks and troughs of demand and production, the Palmer strategy has remained consistent. The company sells 1m bottles a year currently, and Vervier would like to double that figure by about 2030, but without changing the quality parameters: four years on the lees for the core brut expression, longer for the higher-end cuvées.
“I have to imagine the sales at a minimum of five to seven years from now,” he says. “That’s why I have my crystal ball on my desk…”
That crystal ball is currently focused on four key growth markets: the UK, the US, Japan and France.
Palmer is also strong in the Nordic countries, but Vervier sees less growth potential there.
In the UK, the company is distributed by C&C Group (Bibendum, Matthew Clark, Walker & Wodehouse), with a strong emphasis on restaurants and wine shops, plus a high-profile listing with Waitrose.
Palmer had no presence in Japan five years ago but, thanks to good distribution and the market’s belated post-Covid bounceback, Vervier is bullish about the prospects there.
“Now we are moving forward into the next level,” he says. “It has taken more time to recover, but now it’s dynamic again.”
One quality shared by all of these markets is the high degree of competition in the Champagne market. How does a relatively low-profile brand like Palmer stand out from the crowd?
Vervier starts with his own role. “Not a lot of Champagne companies have their CEO totally involved in the winemaking process,” he says. “It shows that this company is focused on the elaboration of great wines.”
Then there is the Palmer vineyard footprint, largely concentrated around the grands and premiers crus of the Montagne de Reims (supplemented by fruit from the Côte de Sézanne, the Côte des Bar and the Marne Valley).
“The impact of the Montagne de Reims is so strong,” explains Vermeer. “The wines are really the expression of the Pinot Noir of the north face of the Montagne de Reims and the Chardonnay coming from the east face of the Montagne de Reims.”
For a region that focuses so strongly on the Côte des Blancs as a source of fine Chardonnay, this is a clear distinction, with quality crus such as Trépail and Villers-Marmery offering elegance and purity in Palmer’s Blanc de Blancs, alongside a smaller proportion (about 15%) of fruit-forward Sézanne wines.
“The style is really Montagne de Reims-oriented,” says Vervier. “I think that’s a great, great asset, it’s a point of difference. It makes the Blanc de Blancs of Palmer naturally stand out from the crowd. It’s a real plus for a small brand like us, having this for the wine. We can do a vertical of Blanc de Blancs 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years old.”
The ultimate expression of Palmer’s Montagne de Reims signature is Grands Terroirs, a top-end vintage wine launched in 2019 with 2003, which taught Vervier and his colleagues a valuable lesson.
“When we were ready to launch, the wine was totally closed,” he recalls. “It was a complete surprise … So we waited.” Three years later, the wine finally came around.
“We’re currently on the 2015 vintage, but I don’t know what will be the next,” Vervier admits.
“We bottled 2018 in vintage, 2019 in vintage and 2020 in vintage – but I don’t know yet which or how many of those will receive the Grands Terroirs label. We might be pretty sure it’s good, but how good? Is it exceptional or just very good? We have to wait a minimum of five to six years to make the decision.”
Another Palmer signature is sustainability.
More than 90% of the company’s vineyards are already certified HVE3 (high environmental value) and VDC (Viticulture Durable en Champagne), and the rest should follow by the 2024 harvest (“Each last point will be difficult to achieve because it’s very tiny plots,” observes Vervier).
That process has taken close to a decade to complete, but three to four years ago, the company broadened its sustainability policies, moving beyond the vineyard to a more holistic philosophy encompassing every aspect of production, the people and the way the business is run.
“I like the global approach of this,” says Vervier. “It’s about the environment, the people, how you handle everything in your company to stay sustainable … Thinking about sustainability, it means how you can still exist in 10 years from now and try to be in good health. But the end is never achieved – it’s an ongoing process.”
Earlier this year, Palmer achieved double ISO 14001 certification and a CSR Commitment label, assessed by certification body AFNOR, and in June it became one of the first Champagne producers to gain the status of a “mission-driven company” – effectively a legal and corporate commitment to pursuing social and environmental objectives.
“When you change your status in this way, it’s not for fun that we do that,” says Vervier.
“It’s an obligation, it’s in the heart of the company and it will go over to the people who will manage the company in the future. It’s not for fun or for business or for marketing, it’s what we think.”
Sustainability comes in many forms: environmental, social – and of course commercial.
As Champagne faces ever-increasing costs for everything from grapes to bottles to energy to packaging, nobody is immune to these pressures.
“The price of the grapes is finally the same for all the producers,” says Vervier. “I would even say a little bit worse for us because we have more than 50% in production in premiers and grands crus.
“We have to face that, and we definitely have to increase the final price for the consumer. In 2023, the grape price will continue to increase, and we just hope that the consumer will be OK to pay for his or her bottle of Champagne with this price increase….
“But we are lucky because we have the grapes, we have room to grow and we have to think how to do it in the proper way. It’s about quality of production, quality of business relationships, quality of distribution – that’s so important in terms of the future and the consistency of the brand.”