Interview with Charles Philipponnat President of Philipponnat

The history of the Philipponnat House is a mainstay tradition, dating back to 1522. The House owns one of the Champagne region’s most remarkable vineyards, the Clos des Goisses, which was acquired in 1935. 

Although Philipponnat is owned by Lanson-BCC group Charles has headed the House since 2000

Philipponnat joined the Lanson-BCC Group in 1997 but are still very much a family run House with Charles Philipponnat at head and the pride of five centuries of tradition.

Through Charles’s technical skills and perfectionist attention to detail, Philipponnat’s wines exude an extraordinary contrast between full-bodied intensity and distinct freshness. They produce some of the finest quality champagnes on the market today.

BestChampagne: Monsieur Philipponnat, how would you explain your House and your champagnes? 

Charles Philipponnat: We are very much a connoisseurs’ House. At Philipponnat, we make wine. Our champagnes are intense yet, fresh at the same time. In terms of intensity, I mean tasty and fruity and when I say fresh, I mean the correct level of acidity.

Both elements need to lean against each other in order to create the right balance and length.

The intensity of our champagne comes from our resources; we pick our grapes a little later than usual which means we have a richer sugar content and more aromas. This also means you find a bit less acidity.

The freshness comes from the winemaking and terroir, which is rich in minerals and chalk. Our winemaking methods are precocious to maintain the purity of the terroir and the fresh perception of acidity.

We pay a lot of attention to avoid premature oxidation, which could make the wine heavy rather than intense.

We avoid doing malolactic fermentation with the wines to manage the level of acidity.

We do not avoid malolactic fermentation as a principle that we apply to all our wines, it is something we use in order to create the right balance and it may vary according to the vintage.

For example, the 2012 vintage is extremely ripe and therefore we will do less malolactic fermentation in order to retain more malic acid and enhance the acidity in a natural way without having to remove or add acid the wine.

Intensity and freshness is not something we have invented; it comes from the earth, from our terroir. The intensity comes from the fact that all our vineyards are south facing and 90% are planted with pinot noir so they are naturally big and fruity.

We are located in the very heart of Champagne, with rich mineral concentrations because the sub-soil is pure chalk.

Our desire to maintain freshness and intensity is because we want to take the natural qualities of the grapes to the consumer, nothing more than that.

BC:  Do you think making an intense champagne makes it more difficult to understand and appreciate?

CP: Yes and no. I find that the non-expert consumers tend to like the style because the intensity is understandable, and the fact that it’s fruity comes as a good surprise, which makes the wine immediately likable.

It can be a bit more difficult with champagne experts but many have gotten to know us over time and have come to love us. These people have been used to drinking elegant, light champagnes like blanc de blancs champagnes [made from chardonnay only].

Champagne made of pinot noir is something that is a little newer and we still have a lot to learn in order to understand fully. Some of the best growers and Houses work with pinot noir and I think we have made exceptional progress in the way it is worked.

Previously, there was limited attention paid to oxidation, where the result can either be too reductive or too oxidative, making a good balance difficult to achieve.

We have learned to facilitate this balance with temperature control and by using oak to stabilize the struggle that might occur with pinot noir.

BC: Indeed Philipponnat is one of the few Houses in Champagne to use oak. Why did you decide to start using oak? 

CP: We use oak in a controlled and in articulated way. A little more than half of our champagnes are fermented in oak and the rest in stainless steel. All of our reserve wines for our non-vintage champagnes, our royal reserve, are kept in oak.

Wines kept in oak give complexity and maintain the freshness. Yet, fully oaked wines can lose freshness because they oxidize more gain aromas from the oak itself, which can be overwhelming. In these cases, we prefer to blend.

If you can notice oak in a wine it is because there is too much of it. It should be a little something that you can’t pinpoint but does make the wine more complex.

Fully oaked wines are interesting but that is not our aim because we feel it takes away the freshness and transparency of the wine.

BC: Your champagnes are also characterized by low dosage. Why? What is your view on this topic? 

CP: Dry wines are more transparent and the aromas and balance of the wine really come through, whereas large amounts of the sugar can hide that.

There is a tendency amongst connoisseurs to drink drier wines -which is somewhat funny as modern food habit is now tending to be sweeter.

A century ago, most champagnes were very sweet. When I started working in Champagne 30 years ago, a large proportion of champagnes were demi-sec and brut was a specialty.

Over time, the dosage has been lowered to point that very little demi-sec is sold now and mostly brut is sold. The spot that was occupied at the time by brut is now occupied by extra-brut or non-dosage champagne.

I think that we are coming to the end of the historical preference for sweeter champagnes. If you have a well-produced wine with good aromas and no defects, you have nothing to hide but rather something to show.

This puts pressure on producers to make better wines and I think champagne quality is much better than 30 years ago. We have better technology and more control from the vineyard to winery.

We also now have stainless steel tanks, forms of temperature control and fewer problems with pests and fungi in the vineyards, which all aids to produce better wines.

BC: Philipponnat Clos des Goisses is one of the most renowned special cuvée champagnes made with grapes from Clos. Why does the Clos origin make the champagne so special?

CP: They fact that it is made from Clos is irrelevant; it is the vineyard itself that makes it special. Clos des Goisses is a very special place; I tend to think it is the most original vineyard in Champagne.

It is a combination of very chalky soil, extreme slope and full south exposure. The result is a terroir and a wine that is both extremely intense and fresh because we get immense maturity and acute minerality in the grapes.

BC: What are your core export markets, where is Philliponnat most appreciated and which new markets are you considering? 

CP: Historically, our largest market is Italy. Italians love beautiful things, living well and style. Our philosophy meets the needs of this market. Switzerland, Germany and Sweden are also excellent markets for us.

New markets include Eastern Europe, Russia and Ukraine, which are doing very well. Asia is developing slowly.

BC: How important is distribution for you?

CP: All winemakers need to find the right partners. Houses like ours need partners/distributers who really understand and pass on the passion; it’s not just business.

We are not very well known to the public that is why we need our ambassadors/distributors to be passionate about our product in order to pass that passion onto others.

In turn, we need our retailers to act in the same way and pass on the passion to the consumers. Consumers look for the advices of retailers who express honest passion for a product.

BC: And how important is the brand?

CP: I think our brand is associated with quality. The brand is our signature; the brand means we made it with attention to detail. The brand is as strong as the quality in the bottle.

I say to people, we put our marketing in the bottling. Our real investment is inside the bottle; that is where we put our money.

BC: Do you have any advice for people to properly appreciate champagne?

CP: Forget the bubbles, it’s about wine, it’s about taste…intensity…freshness. It’s very easy to put bubbles into champagne.

Champagne is not so different from other sparkling wines, in terms of the bubbles. We are set apart because of terroir, climate, the way it’s made and the way it’s aged.

People tend to forget that champagne is aged with contact to the lees [dead yeasts] for many years. So forget about the bubbles and concentrate on the taste.

Have champagne as an aperitif if you like, but try to combine it with food! You’ll discover that champagne is more than just a sparkling wine.

BC: Do you drink champagne every day?

CP: Yes, except when I am on vacation -as I like to try local wines. At home, of course, I drink champagne. I am very fond of pinot noir in general and white dry Riesling because they are a reflection of the terroir.

BC: Monsieur Philipponnat, what does champagne represent to you?

CP: It is my life! I was born here and many generations before me have made champagne -and I hope the next generation will continue.

It is just a way of life, it is not just about champagne; many people tend to put up a wall between their personal and professional life. If I go out tonight to a restaurant with friends, whether I am working or just having fun, to me I am doing all of these things at once.

I think wine lovers will understand that if you like to make wine and like to drink wine, there is no border between private and work life.

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