BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Laurent d’Harcourt President of the Champagne House Pol Roger. Founded in 1849 by Mr Pol Roger, the House became Winston Churchill’s favourite who used to refer to it as “the most drinkable address in the world”.
BestChampagne: Prior to becoming President of Champagne Pol Roger you were export manager at Champagne Bruno Paillard before joining Pol Roger as a Sales Manager. What have you learned about the champagne world?
Laurent d’Harcourt: I learned a lot of things. I am originally from Bourgogne and I arrived in Champagne in 1996 after working abroad extensively. 1996 was a wonderful year to come to Champagne as it was a superb vintage.
I learned that the word champagne is magical, that this wine is magical. People living in the Champagne region are very lucky to have a brand like this and they fight for it with passion.
BC: What is the history of Pol Roger and how is it intertwined with England and Winston Churchill who gives his name to your signature vintage?
LdH: Pol Roger himself started his adventure in the world of champagne in Epernay in 1849. He made his beginnings as a trader, by finding wines for other colleagues. This way, he came across exceptional wines and it gave him the desire to put his name on the bottle.
That’s how he started to sell wine, initially abroad in England. When he passed away in 1899, his two sons Maurice and Georges Roger had already been involved in his business. Maurice and Georges thought that their father had created a brand called Pol Roger, therefore in 1899 they asked the French government to add Pol to their family name (Pol is a first name). They then became Maurice and Georges Pol-Roger.
In 1900, the House was growing rapidly but experienced a catastrophe: parts of the cellars collapsed and destroyed almost a million bottles. Thanks to the solidarity of the Champagne people and Houses such as Moët, Perrier-Jouët, Mercier, the House managed to get back to business and continued its development, especially in England. It was so successful that at the beginning of the last century, the Pol Roger brand enjoyed an unmatched fame.
There is also a man who hugely contributed to the development of the brand in England: Winston Churchill, a great Pol Roger champagne connoisseur.
Churchill loved the Pol Roger vintages, especially vintages made with a majority of Pinot Noir. He became even more engrossed in the brand when he met Odette Pol-Roger, Jacques Pol-Roger’s wife. Odette was the brand ambassador of the Pol Roger House after the war and was heavily involved in the brand promotion in England. Winston Churchill used to write to her: Odette Pol Roger, 44 avenue de Champagne « the most drinkable address in the world », Épernay France. Churchill even named one of his horses after Pol Roger.
In 1965 when Churchill died, we decided to put a black lining on the white labels of the Pol Roger vintages that were sent to England.
Christian Pol-Roger who has been the Export Manager for the House for over 40 years is John Winston’s godfather (John Winston is Churchill’s youngest grandson through his son Randolph). There is a relationship between the two families. Each new vintage of the Sir Winston Churchill Cuvée is submitted to the family for their approval.
As Pol Roger is one of the eight houses to have the « Royal Warrant », we were able to respond to a tender issued by the English Court for the wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton. Pol Roger had the privilege of receiving an order for 600 bottles. We had to refuse as we could not deliver bottles but only magnums, the ideal flask for a wedding. We sent 300 magnums.
BC: The English market is an essential part of the history of the Pol Roger House. In what way did the English taste have an effect on your wines style?
LdH: There was definitely an impact. When we talk about the English taste, we talk about a taste for a certain maturity, a certain footprint on the finishing of the champagne. I tend to think that English people love wines that have a bit more maturity after degorging. But nowadays I think that there is little or no influence. There is a Pol Roger style that has existed for years. And this is this style of wine that we send worldwide. However, it is true that we let our wines age more than average. We also have cellars of an excellent quality where wines age in the most optimal conditions.
BC: How would you describe the Pol Roger style today?
LdH: In a bottle of Pol Roger wine, you will find complexity but also finesse. The complexity stems from its blending. Our non-vintage brut wine is composed of a third of each of the Champagne grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, 70-75% from the current harvest and 25% from the last three year reserve wines.
Today (2014), we sell the 2008 harvest, bottled early 2009 which represents a long stay in the cellar for a non-vintage wine.
The fact that we use a lot of grapes issued from the best terroirs (Grand and Premiers Crus) also gives a lot of complexity to our non-vintage wines. Add to this our quality cellars that have a rather low temperature resulting in a slower second fermentation and you will get smaller bubbles.
BC: Is there an advantage to the wine quality to perform a manual riddling?
LdH: I don’t know if there is an advantage, but it is certainly not a disadvantage. Our cellars are built to accommodate racks. If you have gyropalettes in the cellars when you welcome sales persons, sommeliers, customers or journalists, this is less glamorous than seeing “remueurs” perform the riddling.
BC: What role does the family emphasis of your House play in the quality of your wines?
LdH: I am the Chairman of the Board at Pol Roger. Hubert de Billy, member of the board, is part of the fifth generation of descendants. His father, Christian de Billy is the Chairman of the supervisory Board and his sister, Evelyne de Billy is in charge of the vineyard. These people live in the company, they pass their values to their children, to their brothers and sisters, to their cousins. This way, at Pol Roger we keep striving for excellence, to the extent of our means and by following a profitable model.
BC: What are your ambitions in terms of growth?
LdH: Today with the quality of wine we have in our cellars we could launch major volumes on the market, with the same quality. But would we be able to do it again?
Today Pol Roger has 90 hectares of vineyard that cover 50-55% of our supply needs, which is huge for a Champagne House. But if we wanted to expand later, we would need access to quality grapes.
Today everyone in Champagne is looking for Chardonnays and Pinots Noirs from Grand and Premiers Crus. This is the reason why it is difficult to find grapes that would make quality wines. Expansion should not be done at the expense of quality.
We have to be careful not to go above our means and our capabilities. If we do, we will need to change our distribution network, our communication and probably change customers too. Eventually, I think we can grow at the same pace as our industry.
BC: Is England still the biggest market for Pol Roger?
Ldh: We produce 1.6 million bottles a year and have 9 million bottles in stock our cellars. Many believe that we are heavily dependent on the English market because Pol Roger is very popular there. It is indeed our biggest market but we export there about 300,000 bottles a year there, which only represents 17-18% of our annual production.
In almost all the other countries in the world, we have a network of exclusive distributors whereas in England we work through an agency who sells to a wholesaler and other distributors.
BC: Why is the difference between distributor and agent so important?
LdH: The quality of distribution is essential. If the people you choose to distribute your brand understand the house, know the philosophy and the spirit, then they will become the best ambassadors for the brand. These people will then be able to train teams of distributors, restaurant owners, and wine retailers.
Our agency in England doesn’t sell directly to the end customer. This is a big advantage. When you have a strong brand, it must be available. There are already a certain number of traditional wholesalers on this market such as Berry Brothers & Rudd, Bibendum, Liberty Wine Merchants etc. These companies have already a solid customer base, usually restaurant owners who prefer to deal with a small number of suppliers.
BC: Outside England, what are the other markets of interest for Pol Roger?
LdH: Pol Roger has an important presence in Northern Europe, in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark.
Australia is also interesting. When I joined Pol Roger in 2006, I discovered that the Australian market was a wonderful market for Pol Roger. In the last five years, the Australian market for champagne has doubled. However when a market is developing, the low prices take the upper hand and therefore destroy the value. Five years ago we were among the first exporters of champagne to Australia. Today it is not the case anymore, even though we sell the same number of bottles. Pol Roger exited the price war while the market was doubling its size.
There are also new markets where we continue our development. Japan is a very good market but last year it suffered the Yen devaluation, and it affected the importers. In other parts of Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are interesting mature markets. China remains a very complicated market that we will have to wait for. It is not ready yet for a brand like Pol Roger.
Russia is a very interesting market. People like to open the bottles, show it off and share it. It is an historical champagne market that I firmly believe in.
You also have South America with Brazil of course. We are also trying to establish business in the Baltic countries.
BC: What ambitions do you have on the African continent which is economically booming?
LdH: I think it is a bit early for Pol Roger, even though in the past few years there were a lot of sales of champagne in Nigeria for example. It is a rich market that expanded a lot but I am not sure if it is yet mature for a brand like Pol Roger. In South Africa we sell between 5,000 and 6,000 bottles a year.
BC: France remains the main market for champagne in the world. What is your positioning here?
LdH : France is a challenge for Pol Roger because we are not famous enough in this market. It is very complicated in France as competition is very important. We continue to develop the brand in the traditional market (CHR – Cafés, Hotels, Restaurants) in coherence with our image.
BC: Mr d’Harcourt, how would you define champagne?
LdH : Champagne is magical. Champagne represents party, celebration, friendliness.
BC: What would be life without champagne for you?
LdH : It would be very complicated. I would have to dream a lot to find the effervescence.