Interview With Didier Depond President of Salon and Delamotte

BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Didier Depond, President of the Champagne Houses SALON and DELAMOTTE.

Didier Depond Salon Delamotte Champagne

Didier Depond was appointed President of SALON and DELAMOTTE in 1997

SALON is one of the rarest and most esteemed champagnes in the world. Its small production consists of only one cuvée:  a Vintage Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) from one village only, a grand cru: Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. 

The House ensures a superior quality by purposefully limiting production exclusively to exceptional years.

Since its creation of this House in 1911, there have only been 40 SALON vintages.

Every year that SALON does not declare a vintage, those grapes of remarkable quality are used to produce DELAMOTTE champagnes, with a style that is also very much based on Chardonnay. 

This two renowned sister Champagne Houses fall under the umbrella of the Laurent-Perrier Group whose other flagship Houses include the world-famous LAURENT PERRIER

BEST CHAMPAGNE : Monsieur Depond, why this union of SALON and DELAMOTTE?

DIDIER DEPOND : Because ever since LAURENT-PERRIER was the owner of SALON and DELAMOTTE, the two Houses worked together.

It is one company that regroups the two adjoining Houses in the village of Mesnil-sur-Oger. So, we really call them sister Houses.

SALON and DELAMOTTE had different stories but they were always related.

Ever since SALON existed, since the beginning of the 20th century, there were familial relations between the owners of the two Houses.

Also, there is a common history on the focus on Blanc de Blancs; SALON was, of course, the star, but the star also had a sister who was not jealous of her, but rather the opposite.

BC : How would you explain SALON and DELAMOTTE to someone unfamiliar with them? 

DD : DELAMOTTE deliberately includes only four cuvées: the Brut, the Blanc de Blancs, the Blanc de Blancs Vintage, and the Rosé. We focus on what we know and what we want to do well.

Corney and Barrow (English wine distributor) has a definition for DELAMOTTE Brut: “it is a real pleasure to drink this champagne.” You drink a glass…you hold your glass to have a second… and for me, this is one of the keys.

With DELAMOTTE, one does not drink champagne to be intellectual, to dissect, it is just to drink champagne and it is really an easily drinkable champagne.

DELAMOTTE is the easiest champagne to drink for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all night, all day long.

Champagne is the only drink besides water or tea that one can drink in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, in the evening, at dinner, after dinner, into the night. You can always drink champagne. Which other drink, other than water, can you drink non-stop? There is no other but champagne.

You do not drink whiskey right in the morning, you do not drink cognac, and you do not drink red wines in the morning and you do not drink white wine late at night.

Champagne is for all the time; you can drink champagne everywhere and at every instant.

It is an absolute force and DELAMOTTE Brut is really this little identity card for this House, a reflection of what we want and one day, in my craziest dreams, we will only sell Blanc de Blancs.

At DELAMOTTE we have 250 years of experience, in the Côte des Blancs, and with the Blanc de Blancs, we only use three grands crus: Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, and Avize. 

For the Vintage Blanc de Blanc we use the same three villages plus a fourth grands crus: Cramant, for 5-10% of the blend.

We produce a small quality of Rosé because we make the base from Pinot Noir of course and Chardonnay. It is then a rosé d’assemblage,  with 80% Pinot and 20% Chardonnay.

We also let our champagnes aging for a long time:  24 months for the Brut and the Blanc de Blancs and 7 years for the Blanc de Blanc Vintage.

We let the Rosé age for a maximum of 20 months as we love it very fresh, pale, with a small red fruity side and notes of strawberry-raspberry.

So, the four DELAMOTTE champagnes are real wines of leisure, for immediate consummation and not to be kept for 6 months, 1 year, or 2 years, as they are ready to drink.

Of course, if you want to keep them, they will obviously remain good. 

With SALON, we are in the world of large wines -almost collector’s wines, special editions.

SALON has a very particular taste that can even be shocking at times. We talk more of great white wines with bubbles.

SALON champagne is the same variety, same cru, same year and it is at the top of the pyramid so it undergoes a very long aging with a minimum of 10 years.

We have certain Vintages that age 12 or 14 years and then we still consider they need more aging time.The right moment when we drink it, it’s after 15-20 years.

The Vintage 1999 would be without a doubt our apogee in 2019 but it is a wine you keep 20 years or 30 years in the cave without a problem. Today we have wines from 40 years ago or 50 years that are still in the same state of youth.

They are a little weathered, they are going to have certain ripples but the wines are always good, always fresh, always acidic, and always with effervescence.

We can explain this with our know-how, with soil, and then there is a word I use often, it’s the rigor with which we work on all stages: in the vine, at the cave, before selling, and it is without compromise: if we have a doubt, it is a NO.

In terms of tasting, you can really love champagne and pass completely on SALON. I often I tell sommeliers: “careful, when you sell one bottle of SALON, explain that it is SALON.”

You do not drink it at the same temperature as normal champagne, of 8° or 9°. SALON can be drunk at 12°, 13°, 14°, and in the wine glass. 

BC : Champagne is a wine that by definition, is a mix of grape variety, crus, and different years. SALON is different in terms of all these criteria. Why?

DD : The Champenois art is effectively an art of blending grape variety, crus, and years. 90% of champagnes are blended wines and Monsieur Salon took a completely opposite approach from that.

It was really a desire to say: “here, what we have, what we do is different. I decided to go with something completely different.” And, in doing this easily he did not originally sell his champagne; it was just for personal consumption and for his friends.

So, there was a desire to do something; he did this and it became a myth. So, at SALON, contrary to what is usually done in Champagne, we use one grape variety, only Chardonnay, one-year, always vintage, and one-cru, Meslin-sur-Oger (grand crus).

To that, we add a layer by having a minimum of 10 years of aging of the wines in the cellar before release.

This represents an enormous constraint, but what must be respected since it was what was wished.

SALON is a really powerful, strong wine, so it needs to be calmed, time for it to lighten up. A SALON that is aged 15 years is still considered a teenager, and it starts to be a good wine to drink after 20 years

BC : SALON uses exclusively Chardonnay for its champagnes. Is it the grape variety that ages better and if so, why?

DD : Clearly Chardonnay is the grape variety that ages better in Champagne, even if you can find examples of very good Pinot Noirs and very good Meuniers that have aged very well.

These are exceptions and they are absolutely superb wines and there are 2 or 3 winegrowers that are capable of doing this.

There was a period when Meunier was treated differently than it is today, meaning that if you drink champagnes 100% Meunier from the ‘40s or ‘50s, they are absolutely marvelous.

The majority of Chardonnay ages very well. It is the same thing in Bourgogne.

Chardonnay has a capacity to age incredibly when it has been treated well and when it is comprised of grapes from a good origin.

BC : Is there really a difference in aging champagne on lees and after disgorgement?

DD : Yes, clearly. As long as the bottle include the dead yeasts resulting from the second fermentation taking place inside the bottle, the aging happens extremely slowly, as these dead yeasts block a little the aging. 

Once the disgorgement occurs, the aging will continue but will be accelerated.

If you taste a champagne that is 20 years old, you will immediately identify the youth of the wine that has just been disgorged compared to a wine that was disgorged 5 or 10 years earlier.

We had numerous experiences like this and this is an absolute piece of evidence.

BC : How do you ensure the very long aging of your wines with the cash-flow side of the business?

DD : When houses are lead by people who are not from here, who do not know the soil, who do not know Champagne, they have the tendency to sell stocks of champagne as soon as possible.

I had the chance to have Bernard de Nonacourt and Alain Terrier tell me: “if you need 5 months or a year or more for your wine to be perfect, you have them. We are always here to support you financially” and that was an absolutely incredible comfort to have this liberty to say, we want the best no matter what the price.

Our Houses are small and we can afford to wait, as very long and aging time is the absolute key to great champagne. It takes time to grow the vine; it takes time for the first harvest grapes to be of high quality.

It will take time for the wine after aging, and especially the Chardonnays that have a high acidity. They need time to calm down.

So I thank Bernard de Nonacourt who gave me that possibility to make the best and not pressure me to do more.

The temptation would have been, instead of making 37 vintages in the last century, of making say 45; nobody will notice anything, no one will make a remark and it will bring us much more.

If we make 45 vintages of 50,000 bottles every vintage, or 70,000 or 100,000, nobody will notice it and then it will bring us much more, but we say no!

We always respected our philosophy, this means we do not do one bottle more, and it is an absolute grace to continue to work that way.

On average we produce 50,000 bottles per year, every 3 years, therefore is microscopic compared to the 300 million bottles produced each year in Champagne.

BC: The scarcity of SALON carries a significant selling price. How is the price linked to its image of prestige?

DD: It is not a secret that the prices of our champagnes have risen since I at the head of SALON.

The image grew strongly but does the image raise the price or does the price raise the image? In any case, the other aspect is the taste. Image, price, and quality are all necessary and all meet simultaneously.

Today around the world and in all the champagne markets that matter, SALON, has an amazing image, especially in Asia, Japan, Singapore, UK, France, Italy.

In Italy, for example, which is a great market for great wines, SALON is positioned with Romanee-Conti or Petrus.

BC: In vintages when you do not produce SALON, how do you use your grapes?

DD: When we don’t produce SALON, the wines go to DELAMOTTE.

DELAMOTTE has its own vineyard, but the SALON wines go in DELAMOTTE Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Blancs Vintage and even in the Brut Non-Vintage.

This is why the level of the DELAMOTTE image is so prestigious; because only super high-quality grapes are used.

BC: Do you only use your own vineyards for SALON and DELAMOTTE?

DD: No, we do not use only our own vineyards. SALON is produced from a one-hectare parcel owned by the House, the “Salon’s garden”, and from 19 other smaller parcels in Mesnil-sur-Oger, chosen by Aimé Salon at the beginning of the century.

For more than 100 years, it has always been the same plots from the same growers.

Whatever the year, regardless of the quality, we buy everything and after we decide how to use it. 

For DELAMOTTE, we have our vineyard and we buy around 30 hectares from growers in grand crus only in Mesnil, Oger, Avize. It is our desire to do something super quality, and at the same time accessible. I think DELAMOTTE wine is accessible, and a perfect approach to Blanc de Blancs.

The Blanc de Blancs non-vintage is our showman. Honestly, I do not fear anyone.

In December 2012 Eric Asimov, wine expert of the New York Times, did a blind tasting for the New York Times. He had 30 wines of Blanc de Blancs.DELAMOTTE Blanc de Blancs came out with first, and this created an incredible snowball effect.

In Japan, our Blanc de Blancs is the champagne sold the most, it is really a “benchmark” for champagne and for Blanc de Blancs.

BC: Why DELAMOTTE, one of the oldest Champagne Houses, does not benefit from the same notoriety of other much younger champagnes brands?

DD: DELAMOTTE is more than 250 years old and we have owned this house for 25 years.

It was attached to other larger houses and in fact, it was choking so that others might live. When I took over, it produced less than 220,000 bottles a year.

Today, Delamotte produces 700,000 bottles per year, which is not bad in terms of growth in 15 years. The volume for me is just one aspect. What is interesting is that the quality has increased as well.

What always makes me happy is being constantly told “the quality of DELAMOTTE increases every year.”

This is a sign that the volumes are not made at the expense of quality or at the expense of a price which is relatively cheap.

When we raise the price and volumes, and the quality increases, we can be happy.

BC: What is your approach to distribution?

DD: It is key to find the right partner for distribution. When we work with someone who is in the same creed, who understands and has the same aspirations, we can make him understand very quickly that the price maintenance and price increases are necessary.

For me, a good distributor is not someone who speaks price when they start the discussion. An aggressive price can work the first time but it will not work long term.

The distributor must know how to sell something expensive. Of course, the band plays its role. In fact, it’s  a mix.

This is why the French market is still super-important for all brands called “luxury”. I do not like using the word ‘luxury’ but all the famous brands and know-how must be recognized in France or Italy to be accepted in other less matured champagne markets.

France remains the primary market for our industry with 180 millions of champagne bottles. Almost two-thirds of all champagne is drunk in France.

Nevertheless, it is a market that can still grow. Let’s not forget that there are 70 million visitors each year in France and in all the studies that are done on the image of France, when we speak of France first it is Paris, then the Eiffel Tower, and champagne is the third word that comes up. It is absolute power.

The brand makes champagne great; it is extraordinarily powerful. That is why we must protect the champagne name and pay close attention to its use because it is our stock in trade.

BC: What are the challenges in managing a super House like SALON, which produces one of the most expensive champagne?

DD: We must preserve and respect our history, respect the precepts that Monsieur Salon established in the early 20th century, and not change but rather follow the same direction and develop.

We must always respect this; this is what I have done for 15 years certainly with some success since the SALON we knew 15 years ago was much smaller than it is today.

BC: You are not originally from Champagne but you became Champenois. What is champagne in your life?

DD: I am originally from Tour and I arrived in Champagne at 22. I have been in Champagne 30 years, in the group Laurent-Perrier since SALON and DELAMOTTE were a part of this group. 

When I came at Laurent-Perrier, I met two extraordinary men: Bernard de Nonancourt who was the President of the Laurent-Perrier group and who was like a second father to me, and Alain Terrier who was the winemaker of the House.

So I was, you could say, adopted by these two men and they taught me a lot over the years.

I was 33 years old when President Bernard de Nonancourt appointed me as the youngest President of SALON and DELAMOTTE.

Last year, I traveled during 132 days in 40 countries. For now, champagne is my life.

BC : What would life be without champagne?

DD : Life without champagne is something inconceivable for me but it will come one day when I would not be at SALON and DELAMOTTE any longer.

There will be someone else to replace me because this is what must happen. But in any case, to have served SALON and DELAMOTTE and the group Laurent-Perrier is an immense pleasure.

BC : Do you drink champagne every day?

DD : 2 times a day!

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