BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Marie Barillère President the Union des Maison de Champagne (UMC), the Association of the leading Champagne Houses. Founded in 1882 UMC membership today comprises 80 champagne big brands.
Jean-Marie Barillère was appointed UMC President in 2013
BestChampagne: The UMC (Union des Maisons de Champagne) was founded in 1882 to defend the word “champagne” against the encroachment of other wine-producing regions, and then to organize the fight against phylloxera. What themes are today at the heart of your activities?
Jean-Marie Barillère: The UMC boasts 80 of the 300 existing Champagne houses. All memberships are voluntary. It is a professional trade association without any entry requirements, save having a wine dealer’s card in Champagne.
The main topics currently being discussed are organized around three themes: the quality of the product, the supply in grapes, with the third being more social.
The UMC does not take any action with regards to the brand market, which remains autonomous. The so-called “institutional” communication, for its part, is governed by the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne), as well as by the protection of the name. The UMC is one of the CIVC’s two members.
BC: The search for the highest quality forms the basis of Champagne wines from their origin. How has the quality of the champagne changed over time?
JMB: Quality, the best quality is a goal that requires a constant questioning, and today the customer dictates the quality. What was expected in terms of quality a century ago is not at all what is expected these days. In fact, a very good champagne was a sweet wine a century ago.
Today, a very good champagne is rather dry, or a very dry wine, which brings us rather far from last century’s standards. The houses have been able to follow the tastes of consumers and to evolve their products to be eaten for dessert a century ago into aperitif products today.
With regards to these aperitif products, the houses had to implement the best viticultural and oenological techniques to achieve the best possible quality.
I see an extraordinary evolution in the quality of champagne, if only during my 25 years spent in Champagne, which is linked to a greater mastery of the alcoholic and malolactic fermentation processes, a better pressing quality, and a better understanding of the oxy-reduction phenomenon in the bottles.
Some houses will thus be able to capture fruits and flower aromas, while other houses will aim for oxidation, roundness, and we did not have as much knowledge as this 20 years ago. Each brand has its strategy, its qualitative positioning, and this makes the quality of our wine advance wonderfully.
BC: Might this constant quest for quality distance some producers, who will remain behind for a lack of resources of anticipation?
JMB: Yes and no, you have houses at the forefront of innovation and investment, and others that follow. This was true 20 years ago and it is still true today. But there is still a good homogeneity between all champagne producers.
BC: Brand and distribution appear to be the other two pillars necessary for the success of a champagne house, beyond just quality. What do you think about this?
JMB: I totally agree, because quality is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You will not start having success until you achieve quality. Afterwards, though, you shouldn’t believe that the rest comes naturally. This is a French mentality that says: good wine sells itself. Many French professionals do not still get this subtlety. I was amazed to see, on a major TV station, a winemaker say: “Can you believe it, my wine is good but I have to go sell it.” This is very representative of the French wine world, which thinks that wine sells itself.
Some houses from Champagne and Cognac have understood that once the wine is good, everything else still has to be done. Other organizations seem to understand it, but unfortunately some members of the political or administrative worlds do not want to, or do not seem to understand it.
BC: Sales of champagne are falling slightly, especially in France. What is your analysis of the current crisis?
JMB: The current crisis is different from previous ones. The shock of 2008/2009 resulted in a significant drop in turnover, but in 2012 we almost returned to 2007’s turnover, which was the most important year in the history of Champagne.
Today, we are down in volume on the French and European markets, which is not surprising given the economic situation in these countries. But these markets represented between 60% and 65% of the world market for Champagne, and even if the other markets are doing well, they will not make up for this loss.
This is why this crisis is different from previous ones. In 20 years, it is the first time that I have seen such a decline of traditional markets relative to distant markets. It is about -2%, or even -3%, with about 305 million bottles shipped with a market share decline in Europe. This is most of all a change of business model.
Going to distant markets requires a distribution channel. Few houses have distribution networks that allow sales to increase far from France. I am thinking of Japan, Africa, Australia, China, and the United States.
BC : What do you think of the competition from sparkling wines in these markets?
JMB: In these countries, you need to have distribution channels, and few houses can do this, because it costs a lot of money. You have to be large enough to invest and be able to work on your brand to efficiently face this competition from sparkling products. There is not only the competition from sparkling wines, but also from other alcoholic drinks, and, in the end, also from all other luxury French products
BC : According to you, in these distant markets, what are the factors that might drive a consumer to go towards a particular house? It is fame, the bottle, or the label?
JMB: I think that fame is very important and that people want to join a major connoisseurs’ club. On the Chinese market today, 4 or 5 brands do this image work and it opens up doors in the future for other houses. Nonetheless, these few brands that work on their image and the taste for sophistication will remain the leaders, because they have been historically present in the country.
BC : So, are these new consumers looking for French luxury above all?
JMB: Absolutely. According to me, the houses that have the best success are selling a French luxury product, but champagne also participates in the reputation of France for luxury. The word champagne is certainly the most said French word abroad.
But you can also have another approach which is just as luxurious, linked to the image of local products, for example, such as Krug or Bollinger. It is rather a philosophy of wine and taste, rather than a luxury product. Two different approaches with the same quality requirements.
BC : How do you see the future of Champagne then?
JMB: We try to anticipate the future of Champagne over the next 20 years. I am convinced that Champagne’s traditional markets will fall, and that distant markets will develop. Which means that investments will be concentrated on these foreign countries, but it also means that only a few brands will be able to position themselves.
This profession is becoming more and more sophisticated and requires setting up major financial and human resources. We have an obligation to continue our efforts for sustainable viticulture, because the land is the source of the quality of our wines. The profession of winemaker will thus evolve to become a more noble, more sophisticate profession, because the processes will have to professionalize even more.
You will have to be good in viticulture, in oenology, in marketing, in commerce, in finance, so many trades and skills that it will be difficult for a single individual to have them all. To have the means to invest in distant markets, the margin for a bottle must be large enough to create ways to conquer those markets. And, what’s more, when I sell an additional bottle, I have to have three more in stock.
We are a heavy industry, in which the financial weight of stocks represents at least two years of turnover. Today, interest rates are low, but in ten years, where will we be?
BC : So the price of champagne will increase in the coming years?
JMB: Yes I think so. I don’t see how it can be otherwise. We invest in our stocks, unlike the other luxury products. This augmentation will be correlated with qualitative research. Champagne will always be an area of limited production. We will produce between 300 and 400 million bottles, which requires us to look for quality. And we will have to invest to access new markets.
BC: Mr. Barrillère, you do not come from Champagne but you have become a Champenois in your heart. What would be your definition of champagne?
JMB: I am originally from Charentes and have been stationed in Champagne for twenty four years. I started my career at Mumm and Perrier-Jouët. I am the son of a farmer, and so very much aware of techniques in working the land, and of the wine world. Champagne is a sparkling wine of an extraordinary quality which, in addition, is the most user-friendly product that I know and that we all want to share.
BC : What is life without champagne?
JMB: A sad life. A week without champagne would be hard.
BC : If you had to convince someone to try champagne, how would you do it?
JMB: For me, drinking champagne is sharing a sensory pleasure that leads to amazing comradeship. Try opening, during the aperitif, a bottle of wine, alcohol, or champagne, and see which one is most appreciated!