BestChampagne had the pleasure to interview Frédéric Mairesse, President of Champagne Barons De Rothschild. Famous for its banking activities, the Rothschild family is also known for its achievements in winemaking with Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Lafite in Bordeaux. The three branches of the Rothschild family have come together to produce exceptional wines. The House obsession for quality and focus on Chardonnay ensured in just a few years its recognition among champagne connoisseurs.
Before being appointed President of Champagne Barons De Rothschild Frederic Mairesse has been Director of Operations at Champagne Pommery
BestChampagne: What is the story behind the Rothschild’s family involvement in the world of champagne, a dynasty usually very present in banking?
Frédéric Mairesse: The Rothschild’s family has been passionate about champagne for a long time. After the war when the Ruinart House was experiencing difficulties, Bertrand Mure the owner of the house met with Philippe de Rothschild to ask him to help support their development. Philippe de Rothschild liked the project very much and invested in the house. Ruinart even made a Baron Philippe de Rothschild cuvée.
Then the Ruinart House started to do business with the Moët & Chandon House and Philippe de Rothschild got close to the Henriot House who made the Baron Philippe de Rothschild champagne for 15 years.
When M. Rothschild passed away, the project was cancelled.In 2000 and the following years, Eric de Rothschild wanted to buy Krug. The 3rd cousin Benjamin could have also bought another Champagne House. Eventually they decided to create their own champagne, as they have a strong name, a rather developed distribution network and the means to do things properly.
Since they were not experts in producing champagne, they contacted people living in the Champagne area and found out that it was easier to produce champagnes with more Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as these varieties were the easiest to get.
On further consideration, they took the consultants’ opposite view and decided to produce cuvées that were made with a lot of Chardonnay, more complicated and more expensive. When you are Rothschild, you can’t do like everyone else does. But this way you can’t produce millions of bottles. This was fine with them as they prefer producing less but with a focus on a very high quality.
The Barons De Rothschild Champagne House was created in 2005. The first grapes supplies were not easy to get as there was a strong demand on purchase. But we received help from the family’s friends such as Paul Roger, Billecart Salmon and Bollinger.
This way we were able to get in contact with winegrowers and the fact that the Rothschild family is a “terroir” family, a family of Bordeaux winegrowers and that for over a 100 years they have always respected their contract on all the financial elements reassured them.
The first vinifications started in 2005, and the first bottles of Barons de Rothschild brut champagne were sold late 2009: a Blanc De Blancs, a Rosé and a Brut. The Brut is made of 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir. The Blanc De Blancs comes from Great Vintages such as Mesnil, Avise, Cramant and Oger. The blending of the Rosé is based on 85% Chardonnay and 15% Pinot Noir.
The House strategy is based on white grapes (Chardonnay); on small volumes; and on a perfect qualitye, because it is very important for the Rothschild family to make quality wine especially for themselves as they consume quite a fair bit of champagne. The family consumes 150 bottles a day.
Barons, friends, bank customers consume 25,000 to 30,000 bottles a year in 60 countries worldwide. Since 2009 they only drink the family’s champagne whereas before they were more inclined towards Krug, Pol Roger and Roederer.
BC: The Barons De Rothschild House doesn’t use Pinot Meunier at all?
FM: No we don’t.
BC: What does a customer find in a bottle of Barons De Rothschild champagne?
FM: He will find the assurance and the guarantee to have a great quality champagne. The Rothschild family has a passion for quality and a clear view: to have a successful House in the Champagne area with small volumes.
Shareholders tell me: “Let’s do what we can to make really good champagnes, and don’t compromise on quality. It doesn’t matter if it’s more expensive to make.”
Champagne Barons de Rothschild is a small team, everything is handmade.
Our Cellar Master is Jean Philippe Moulin who previously worked in the same position at Ruinart. He is a highly skilled expert, and had done almost 40 vinifications before he joined Champagne Barons de Rothschild.
A young oenologist is working with Jean Philippe Moulin so we make sure there will be continuity when he retires.
BC: When can we expect the first Barons De Rothschild vintage cuvée?
FM: The first vintage will be the 2006 and should be available for sale in 2014 or 2015. We strive to do a great vintage in the style of Krug Clos du Mesnil or Salon.
BC: What is your positioning in terms of price?
FM: In Europe the Barons De Rothschild Brut Cuvée retails on average for 42-43€ GST included. The Blanc de Blancs and the Rosé are at 60€ which places us with Ruinart or Bollinger.
BC: What are your volumes, your markets, your ambitions?
FM: The first year (2009) we sold our wines in only 3 countries: Australia, Germany and Japan. This is a very premium distribution, on the Rothschild network.
In a few months, we sold 15,000 bottles in Japan, 4,000 bottles in Australia and 8,000 bottles in Germany.
In 2010 we made our beginnings in 10 countries; in 2011 in 25 countries, in 2012 in 50 countries and in 2013, in 55 countries.
Today Japan is our biggest market with 20% of our sales made over there and a 4 to 5% growth annually.
We started on the US market two years ago and sold 20,000 bottles.
The high potential markets are as usual the Asian continent with Japan, China and especially Hong Kong.
In Europe there are important markets such as England, Germany, Scandinavia; we also have emerging markets such as Brazil in South America.
We produced 500,000 bottles since 2006. We progress slowly but surely to ensure we have the positioning we want in terms of product but also pricing, but we also want to have a quality distribution.
We aim to sell 500,000 bottles in 150 countries in 4 years.
BC: According to several players of the champagne world, brand legitimacy must first be created in France, the main champagne market. What does the French market represent for Champagne Barons De Rothschild?
FM: We started in France a bit later in 2011, to free ourselves from the fact that we had a good exposure abroad with good feedback from customers.
After we sold 100,000 bottles abroad to the best restaurants in Asia and to the best wine shops and restaurants in Europe outside France, quite a lot of French people said they were interested in our champagnes. They saw our wines in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Malaysia, Seoul, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark.
Today France represents 15% of our volumes and in the future we want to achieve 100,000 bottles and 20% of the sales.
BC: Mr Mairesse you come from the wine world. Is it different compared to champagne?
FM: Yes, codes are different. Wine has a more important technicality when dealing with consumers. I spent 9 years working in wines in the Vallée du Rhône where I was often asked if Grenaches had 15 or 12 metre long roots, if it was a clay soil or a sandy clay soil, if we were to harvest at 5,000 or 4,900 feet/hectare. With champagne, consumers don’t have that many questions on the technicality of the wines.
BC: Do you think that today, consumers are more aware and want to know more about what is in the bottle?
FM: Yes indeed, I think consumers are more interested in learning technical notions about champagne that before. Wine consumers are still more advanced though, but champagne customers are looking for other things, the festive spirit, the show, the shining and sparkling aspect of champagne. These codes are closer to the world of spirits rather than wines. But it doesn’t affect the inherent quality of the product.
BC: How do you think the Global Financial Crisis will affect the world of champagne?
FM: Even if there is a crisis, champagne production (349 millions bottles in 2013) is very small compared to the world’s demand. Today China consumes 2 million bottles of champagne versus 1.5 million a year ago and 1 million 2 years ago. We can imagine that in 10 years China will consume 15 million bottles which corresponds to the current consumption in the USA. I think that growth will spread worldwide and will allow champagne to maintain a reasonable price to share the margin between winegrowers, producers and traders.
BC: Mr Mairesse what would be life without champagne?
FM: Life without champagne would be sad because there is always an emotion in all the family events, parties etc. that are celebrated with champagne and if we didn’t have it, a lot of people would be unhappy.