Interview With Gilles de la Bassetière President of de Venoge

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Gilles de la Bassettière, President of de Venoge, a discreet House that produces high-quality champagnes and is one of the most decorated of its generation.

Gilles de la Bassetire de Venoge

Gilles de la Bassetière joined de Venoge in 1998 and became its President in 2005

The Maison was founded in 1837 by Henri Marc de Venoge, a Swiss nobleman who moved to Champagne to create exceptional wines for the great society of the 19th century.

The House quickly became one of the largest, with an important aristocratic clientele throughout Europe.

After experiencing a number of vicissitudes common to many other Champagne Houses, in 1998 de Venoge joined Lason-BCC, the second largest group in Champagne, which has since then worked to put it back among the best Houses.

Today de Venoge is an intriguing concept, that of an old aristocratic soul – its history – with a new spirit – its President -.

An elegant Frenchman full of energy, good vibes, and ideas, Gilles perfectly embodies the two faces of this Maison: sober elegance and dynamism.

With the support of the group, and thanks to its drive and direct involvement in the winemaking, Gilles has taken de Venoge to new heights.

The recent high ratings received are proof of how a clear vision, passion, hard work, and the use of key principles of quality champagne making have done their magic.

BEST CHAMPAGNE: The beautiful de Venoge estate, located on the mythical Avenue de Champagne, was acquired in 2015, testifying to the strong dynamism and desire to renew your House. What is the story of this acquisition?

GILLES DES LA BASSETIÈRE: Founded in 1837 by Henri-Marc De Venoge, at the end of the 19th century, the House was already one of the three largest in Champagne with more than a million bottles produced per year and exports worldwide alongside a very important aristocratic clientele.

In the 1990s the House changed owners and eventually joined the Lanson-BCC group in 1998, which bought the brand and a part of the stocks and then began a major development plan.

When I arrived at the head of the House in 2005, it didn’t own a building anymore, but to give it back its shine we needed a building really worthy of our glorious past.

Finally, this fabulous edifice, built in 1900, and owned by the town hall of Epernay, became available and the group financed its purchase in 2015.

We have done very important renovation works to put it back in its original state by using the plans of the time. We have also decided to open it to the public with unique guest rooms.

BC: Why the choice of opening the estate to the public with “Les Suites du 33”?

GDLB: Everywhere in the world, wine estates are opening their doors to the public, and we don’t see any reason why we should not do the same in Champagne.

We opened the rooms to the public in August 2016 and the success has been far greater than our expectations. The clientele is mostly foreign, which contributes to our growing visibility abroad.

We now offer something unique in Champagne with exceptional rooms in the heart of the Avenue de Champagne, in a Champagne House.

BC: In 2017 De Venoge receive very high notes by Wine Advocate (Robert Parker guide). Can you give us the details?

GDLB: Our Blanc de Blancs (Princes range) received 91 points.

Our Blanc de Noir and Extra Brut (Princes range) received 93 points: this is the highest rating ever given by this guide to a non-vintage champagne.

Our prestige cuvées Louis XV 2006 and Louis XV 1996 received 96 points.

Our prestige cuvées Louis XV 1995 and Louis XV Rosé 2006 received 97 points, the Rosé was even voted the best champagne of the 2006 vintage.

In addition, our Cordon Bleu Brut (Brut Non-Vintage) received 91 points and was given the same high rating by Wine Spectator too.

We are therefore one of the best rated Champagne Houses in the world. We are delighted that the exceptional quality of our wines is recognized by these experts.

BC: Tell us about Cordon Bleu, your Brut Non-Vintage, the business card of every Champagne House. What does it transmit with its style?

GDLB: The idea is to compose a Brut Non-Vintage champagne that is vinous but always fresh and elegant. What we are looking for in all our wines is to keep some freshness.

The currently available Cordon Bleu is composed with a base of 2013, with 50% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay and 25% Meunier, with about twenty wines from all the Champagne with grands crus, premier crus, and other crus.

We only use the first press (the cuvée), which also allows for a very low dosage of 7 grams per liter.

We include a minimum of 20% reserve wines, normally from the 2 previous years (10% + 10%), except for particularly difficult harvests.

We guarantee an aging on lees of at least 3 years and 3 months of rest after disgorgement.

A peculiarity of our House is that we store the bottles standing after disgorging so that the wine is never in contact with the cork to avoid any risk of cork taste.

After 20 years of the same assemblage, Cordon Bleu evolves naturally from the assemblage of 2015 in which we include a little more Chardonnay to accentuate this freshness at the heart of our style.

Our goal is to compose a blend of one-third of each variety. In addition, from September 2018 the dosage will be reduced to between 6.1 and 6.9 grams per liter.

BC: The Princes range received a lot of attention, not only for the high notes received but also for its very unique decanter-shaped bottles. What is the origin of this bottle, which is also used on your Louis XV cuvées?

GDLB: This decanter was used by the Royal Family of Holland in the 19th century to serve the champagne that was decanted to remove the deposit in the wine.

In 1961 the family Trouillard, owner of Venoge at the time, had the idea to use this carafe and make a bottle of champagne with it.

The range Princes is in fact very old with its first appearance in 1850 but it included only the Blanc de Blancs.

When I arrived at the helm of de Venoge, I understood the potential of this range and decided to develop it, later including Extra Brut, Blanc de Noirs, and Rosé.

The first bottling was done in 2008 and the official launch took place in 2015 because to make quality in Champagne you have to be patient enough for the required time to elapse. We are now taking advantage of the work done beforehand.

BC: You are not only President of the House but are also the ultimate decision maker of all your assemblages. Tell us about these Princes cuvées. What is your blending philosophy?

GDLB: Prince Blanc de Noirs is composed of 100% Pinot Noir (2012 base), of which 80% from Verzenay (grand cru) for freshness and elegance, and 20% from Riceys in the Aube for power and roundness, with 20% reserve wines and a low dosage of 6 g/l.

Prince Blanc de Blancs is composed of 100% Chardonnay (2012 base), 80% from Mesnil (Grand Cru) and 20% from Trépail, a premier cru with a lot of character and here again a low dosage of 6 g/l.

For Prince Extra Brut (2012 base), we include one-third of each grape variety mainly from premiers and grands crus, with Pinot Noirs from Hautvillers, Meuniers from Rillly la Montage and Chigny-les-Roses, and Chardonnay from Mesnil on Oger (grand cru).

With the power of the grands crus and reserve wines of 2010, we use a very low dosage of 3.5 grams.

So I build assemblages on a grand cru with its dominant characteristics, accompanied by other complementing crus. This is the basic concept of the Princes range: few crus, but carefully selected.

We therefore seek to select not only good crus but also good vine growers, whom we know personally and whose way of working we appreciate. But we systematically refuse grapes that do not conform to our quality requirements.

BC: What makes a grand cru in your opinion?

GDLB: A grand cru is not just a question of vineyard exposure and ripeness of the grapes as one might think.

Some terroirs have been declared grands crus because they consistently produce the best grapes, simultaneously possessing the best acidities and sugar levels.

But there can also be crus that give great maturity and a lot of acidity without bringing complexity. So it’s really a question of terroir in its whole and the empirical historical classification of Champagne remains valid to date.

BC: What do you think about the increasingly popular mono-grand-crus champagnes?

GDLB: I think that grands crus can produce great champagne without assemblages, with their unique terroir and particular taste.

On the other hand, if premiers of ordinary crus used alone are lacking in character and peculiarity, they can be magnified with the assemblage when their intrinsic qualities are associated with a grand cru.

BC: Tell us about your Louis XV prestige range. Why this name?

GDLB: This range, which has been in existence since 2005, is a wink to the date of birth of champagne as we know it today: Louis XV’s edict of 1728.

On May 25, 1728 Louis XV authorized bottling of Champagne wines and only Champagne wines to transport them to Normandy.

It would appear that this law was established for the Marquise de Pompadour, Louis XV’s favorite who lived in Normandy, and wished to have sparkling champagne delivered for her dinners.

Whether true or not, the edict allowed the champagne with bubbles to begin its development, with the first Houses appearing in 1729.

Louis XV 1995 is composed of 50% Pinot Noir and 50% Chardonnay, from only grands crus: Mailly, Ambonnay, Verzenay, and Bouzy for the Pinots, and Avize, Cramant, Oger, Mesnil on Oger and Chouilly for the Chardonnays.

After aging for 10 years (disgorgement in 2006) and a dosage of 6 g/l, Louis XV 1995 has benefited from a second aging in bottle (after disgorgement) of over 10 years that adds incredible complexity to the wine.

With the aging of this champagne, the Chardonnays stand out and dominate the Pinots, which is surprising: the minerality of the grands crus of Chardonnay is evident.

In this wine there is elegance, finesse, freshness, length, and complexity: in my opinion, this champagne has it all.

For Louis XV 2008, for the first time, we did not carry out malolactic fermentation to keep more freshness, at the heart of our current style.

BC: What are your ambitions for the future?

GDLB: My goal is to grow in volume very slowly while keeping the level of quality that we have attained, and improve it even further.

This quest for quality will result in a small increase in our prices, which will probably translate into a reduction in sales in France and an increase in exports.

BC: Do you think that this tendency of the best Champagne Houses to invest more and more on quality, in the competitive business of sparkling wines, is sustainable, with the continuous increase in the average price of champagne?

GDLB: For sure, there will increasingly be a “two-speed Champagne” with Houses and winemakers who will succeed in making champagne a luxury product of very high quality on one side, and on the other hand, producers who will not reach this level.

It should not be forgotten that in 1890, a vintage de Venoge champagne was more expensive than a Château Latour or a Château Margaux. Today these wines are 10 times more expensive than champagne.

Meanwhile, Champagne has expanded from 30 million bottles produced per year to more than 300 million today. The production of these Chateaux, meanwhile, has not progressed in the same way. Champagne is actually not so expensive.

BC: What is champagne to you?

GDLB: Champagne is celebration. I remember one of the first tours of California that I made, I was with a sales person and he told me champagne is a celebration of good and bad moments – an anniversary, a divorce…In this particular case, he was celebrating his divorce!

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