Family-owned and proud of it (Champagne, France – Day Four)

During my week I had several engaging discussions with many of my hosts, and we shared our philosophies on wine and champagne. As this was my second visit to Champagne and considering my history with Domaine Chandon Australia, I feel like I have come to a reasonably good understanding of Champagne and what the most important things are. Champagne as a product is probably the best example of wine marketing, and brand strength and recognition has been built around the category. Today there are many more competitors for champagne around the world, and with so many houses and so much wine coming out of this small region, the question becomes how to stay relevant and competitive in a saturated and (currently) stagnant market?

A lovely welcome at Pol Roger

For me the most important thing that is neglected when talking about champagne is people, as the history and legacy of Champagne is the resilience of the region. When considering the savage nature of wars, economic fluctuations and agricultural maladies, it is amazing that some houses have managed to survive for over 300 years. Champagne as a brand trades heavily on the stock exchange and it is a valuable commodity. When visiting certain houses, the first thing they highlight is the family ownership and operation of the winery, something very important to them in this age of mergers and acquisitions. It almost seems as though they are pointing out the David and Goliath situation they are in against much larger groups who have a lot more clout in the markets. Those that are not family owned tend to focus on their founders of whom the house is named after, and the heritage they left behind.

Extensive cellars of Pol Roger

Each house I visited on my third day is proudly family owned. The first was introduced to me in my capacity as the wine buyer of King & Godfree, particularly as it is distributed by a company owned by the same family as the store. Champagne Henriot dates back to 1808 and has had many ups and downs over the centuries. The history of the house is based around marriage, as the founder was a wine-broker who married into a winemaking family. The second marriage introduced vineyards in the Montagne de Reims, and the third introduced vineyards in the Cotes de Blancs. The ownership of these vineyards, particularly in the Cotes de Blancs, fuels the passion and quality of the house. The wines are not mass-marketed, flying under the radar, and are admired for their elegance and ability to pair with food. The family now have holdings in several other regions in France, including the esteemed Domaine Bouchard Pere et fils in the city of Beaune, the heart of Burgundy. Chardonnay is the key variety at Champagne Henriot, and it can be found in each wine. They interestingly like to start their tastings with the Rose NV due to its slightly fresh and fruitier character. Click here to read my notes.

Cellars of Champagne Henriot

Pol Roger, the son of a lawyer, was a wine merchant who founded his own Champagne house in 1849. Making the move to Epernay in 1851 to the Avenue de Champagne, he was one of the pioneers of dry (brut) styles of champagne that we accept as standard today, but wasn’t in the 19th Century. In the early 20th Century the house almost went out of business when one of the original cellars collapsed, burying several vintages of wine. Luckily their neighbours supported them with bottles and thus they survived. It was decided that these cellars, under one of the original buildings, would not be excavated and rebuilt, so if you are motivated enough you may find some bottles there, perfectly preserved.

One of the new vinification rooms at Pol Roger

Still majority owned and run by descendants of Pol Roger, the brand has recognition that far exceeds the volume, similar to Champagne Bollinger. More recently there has been much investment in the winemaking facilities, expanding and modernising them. They have also been expanding their distribution globally, partnering with many renowned importers in new markets in Asia and Europe. The cellars though, remind you of the history of the house, as they actually feel like being in a cave, and they still hand riddle every bottle (pretty rare in the region these days). Amazingly the riddling team consists of four people, and apparently they had a good giggle when a winemaker from a prominent Australian sparkling wine producer boasted of the skill of their hand riddling team. The portfolio at Pol Roger consists of three non-vintage wines, three vintage wines and one prestige cuvée. Interestingly each of the non-vintage wines is roughly one-third of each Champagne variety; chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. For those unaware, the prestige cuvée of the house was named after the famous British Prime Minister, whose favourite champagne brand was Pol Roger. Click here to read my notes on the wines I tasted at the end of my visit.

The riddlers hard at work at Pol Roger

A second house that I had previously visited and was glad to return to was Billecart-Salmon, nestled in the village of Mareuil-Sur-Ay. My timing on this visit was slightly better as it is a much quieter time, which meant that I was lucky enough to enjoy a tasting with the Chef de Cave himself, Francois Domi, along with my previous host who served as interpreter. Champagne Billecart-Salmon was established in 1818 with the marriage of Nicolas Francois Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon, and has been family owned ever since. Fairly small, it maintains the highest principles of family, tradition and quality. In honour of its founders it named the prestige cuvées after them. As I had taken the tour of the facilities and cellars on my previous visit, we immediately sat down to the tasting. Click here to read my notes looking at some 2011 base wines and then a range of finished wines.

Champagne Billecart-Salmon

Click here to see more photos from Day Four of Champagne, France.

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