Interview With Jean-Marie Barillère President of the Union Des Maisons De Champagne (UMC) and Co-President of the Champagne Committee

BEST CHAMPAGNE had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Marie Barillère, President of UMC, the Union of the Champagne Houses, and Co-President of CIVC-Comité Champagne, the trade association that represents the interests of both Champagne Houses and wine Growers.

Jean Marie Barillere UMC CIVC Champagne

Jean-Marie Barillère was appointed President of UMC and Co-President of CIVC in 2013

UMC was founded in 1882 by the main Maisons at that time, with the purpose to defend the word champagne against the usurpation of other wine regions, and later to coordinate the fight against phylloxera, the bug that ravaged the European vineyards between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

These Houses are at the origin of the development of the quality of champagne, its success in the world, and the creation of a myth.

Today, UMC includes 76 Houses out of more than 300 Négociant-Manipulant (NM), i.e. producers who mostly buys grapes from 3rd parties to make and sell their own champagnes. They include the oldest and largest Houses and the most famous brands.

The only membership requirement to be part of UMC is being registered as NM in Champagne. However, all the members have 3 significant characteristics in common, which greatly participate to the overall quality of champagne and to the perpetuation of its success around the world: 1) implementing a global development strategy, 2) contributing to the defense and valorization of the Champagne region and name, 3) actively participating in R&D in viticulture and oenology.

CIVC is a joint trade association established in 1941 to manage the common interests of all the stakeholders in the champagne industry: Houses, as well as wine Growers (and Cooperatives alike), some of which also produce and commercialize their own champagnes.

That is why the two complementary members and Co-President of CIVC are UMC and the Growers’ Union (SGV), intimate partners for the success of champagne. In fact if Growers own 90% of the vineyard and are responsible for the production of the raw material; the grapes, the production and commercialization of champagne is mostly in the hand of the Houses, which account for ¾ of the industry’s turnover (4.9 billion Euro in 2017) and 90% of the exports.

In this exclusive interview, Jean-Marie Barillère provides a rational and engaging overview of the past, present, and exciting future of champagne, with understated optimism and great lucidity typical of champenois.

Surprisingly, Barillère was not born in Champagne, but in Charente, in southwestern France. However, his heart and spirit are definitely in Champagne, where he’s President of UMC and Co-President of CIVC since 2013.

After studying agronomy he started his career at the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA) where he developed a logical, experiment-based approach to this field.

He then decided to move to Champagne, a region and a world he would never leave. There he started as Director of Viticulture at Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, two iconic Houses, of which he became President in 1999.

In 2006 he joined Moët Hennessy, part of LVMH, the luxury group that owns, among others, Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, and Ruinart, as Director for all the Champagne activities.

In the same year he was elected Vice-President of UMC where he teamed up with its President Ghislain de Montgolfier, to eventually take the relay in 2013.

Since then, he has pursued the vision and hard work of three centuries, with a great smile and a strong sense of responsibility, for the continued prosperity of the best wine in the world.

BEST CHAMPAGNE: UMC 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. How has the role of UMC evolved since the creation of CIVC?

JEAN-MARIE BARILLERE: Since its creation in 1941, the mission to defend the champagne name and region were passed to CIVC, the trade body that represents all the stakeholders in the champagne industry.

The members of UMC who traditionally produced most of the champagne have always carried out R&D activities. In the 19th century, they made hazardous investments to gain a better understanding of the alcoholic fermentations and the development of bubbles in the wine, thereby democratizing the “champagne method”.

This is why UMC and its members still carry this vision of excellence and champion viticulture and enology for the greatest possible quality of champagne, maintaining its leadership as the king of wines in a world that constantly evolves, with the challenge of global competition.

The role of UMC today is to be a guarantor of this excellence, and to further improve the quality of the wines of champagne to satisfy the ever-evolving expectations of our consumers.

BC: The current trend is to pursue a higher quality of champagne wines in the vineyard more than in the cellar. Why?

JMB: The quality of champagne has been constantly evolving in the last 20 years, thanks to a greater mastery of alcoholic and malolactic fermentations, better pressing, and a wider knowledge of the oxidation-reduction phenomena.

But a great wine is not obtained just with technique but especially with great raw material, the grapes.

And for the last twenty years, global warming has led to climatic hazards that have a significant impact on the vineyard, and especially earlier harvesting.

We are also all aware in Champagne of the environmental expectations of consumers and the environmental impact of wine growing practices.

All this makes the people of Champagne more attentive to viticulture, because the soil is the source of the quality of our wines.

In 2000 we put in place a sustainable viticulture plan to limit the use of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides which makes our region a pioneer in sustainable development with important results achieved; but the margin of progress still available in viticulture remains enormous.

We are still obliged to protect our crops from diseases but today this work is done with a greater sensitivity to its environmental impact and therefore, we are seeing a reduction in the quantities used.

This requires an evolution, a sophistication of the profession of wine growers towards a greater expertise.

I think that in the next 10 years in Champagne there will be no need for herbicides or insecticides. Fungicides will still be needed to control mildew and botrytis as it will take another 50 years to obtain grape varieties that are resistant to these fungi. But the path to follow is already mapped out.

BC: Beyond quality, what roles do the “champagne” brand and individual brands play in your overall success?

JMB: Quality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success of champagne, which could not continue without a very high quality of the product at the heart of it.

The consumer joins a brand that implies quality, image, and the price/quality ratio of the product in relation to this image.

A brand must be built primarily on the quality of its product, and then create the dream around this product.

This is why champagne must continue to evolve in relation to the expectations of its consumers so as not to lose value by advancing the standards and specifications of our wine region.

But it is the champagne producers – Houses and Growers – who decide this collective effort. In this context, individual brands of champagne that go well beyond the standards and specifications, in accordance with their vision and philosophy, strengthen and benefit the entire champagne world and brand.

BC: The champagne sales of the recent years confirm a gradual contraction of the traditional markets, France and the United Kingdom first, and an expansion of the markets outside the European Union (EU). How do you explain these results?

JMB: Not being a basic necessity, but a luxury product, champagne requires growing economies and/or optimism in the consumers to keep expanding.

France is the first champagne market. Since 2011, we have seen an erosion of consumption linked to a purchasing power that has been reduced and results in a champagne market that continues to shrink in volume and value.

In the United Kingdom, our second market, the contraction of champagne consumption has worsened with Brexit: champagne suffers from this context of uncertainty.

In Europe, economic growth being lower than global growth, shipments of champagne continue their decline in volume, but increase in value thanks to Italy, Belgium, and Spain.

On the other hand, the distant markets show a strong growth and continue to develop in volume and in value, with the US, Japan, and Australia being the first three markets of this zone.

These distant markets offset the loss of some traditional markets, and this is accompanied by higher value creation through the increase in sales prices.

We clearly see that the producers who are successful in the US and in Asia, whether they are Houses or Growers, beat their sales and earnings records every year.

On the other hand, producers who are strongly present in France and the UK lose market share year after year, whether they are Houses or Growers. It is then not a matter of producer category but of an evolution of the markets.

In 2018, for the first time, champagne exports exceeded the French consumption, which today represents less than 50% of sales in volume, and this is a trend that we expect to continue. Even if, as I hope, the French market will stabilize, continued growth will come from third countries.

But these distant markets are unstable and much more expensive to develop compared to proximity markets.

Some producers who have anticipated these pockets of economic growth and have been present on these markets since their origin and had the means to invest are doing very well.

We must always try to anticipate and adapt to the markets. This should be the first rule to follow: to live with our time.

BC: Which are the most promising distant markets?

JMB: Today Japan and Australia are clearly the most dynamic new markets of champagne, but this remains very much linked to the economic cycles. Five years ago we talked a lot about Brazil and China while today we talk about Nigeria and other fast-growing economies in Africa.

The consumption of champagne is intrinsically linked to economic development and to people who want to stand out by buying the dream, the image of French savoir-vivre, of which champagne is clearly part.

In the long term I foresee a return to the situation of a century ago, when champagne will be exported more than consumed in France, and in 10 or 15 years maybe only 1/3 of the champagne will be consumed in France,1/3 in EU, and 1/3 in the rest of the world.

BC: You underlined the growth in value to compensate for the loss of volume. Why this strategic choice?

JMB: In Champagne today, we talk about growth in value and not in volume anymore because the latter is no longer possible. In the last 40 years we have multiplied the sales volumes by 5 to 6 times but we can only further increase them by not more than 10% during the next 30 years (as the Champagne vineyard is reaching its full production capacity).

As there are more and more consumers in the world and we cannot increase significantly in the volume of champagne produced, we are forced to strive for growth in value, marking a new record in revenues every year, while volumes remain more or less stable.

On the other hand, the production capacity of sparkling wines outside Champagne is almost unlimited. As we have the obligation of excellence, with the corresponding price, we will only be able to compete with these variables.

BC: How do you look at the competition of these other sparkling wines that are constantly growing in volume and quality?

JMB: This highly competitive framework is positive because it forces us to further increase in quality. As we are at the top of the pyramid of sparkling wines we must always seek greater excellence and be consistent with our value.

But our competition is no longer only represented by sparkling wines from other regions but also by other alcoholic beverages such as red wine or spirits, depending on the markets.

That’s why the proximity of markets and understanding their evolution is crucial in continuing to position champagne as the king of wines and meeting the expectations of its consumers.

BC: How do you see the future of champagne?

JMB: I’m very optimistic about the future of champagne for a simple reason: this international product is synonymous with celebration, success, lifestyle and I think there will always be a demand for it.

We have an extraordinary future ahead of us as long as we satisfy this demand for pleasure in the world.

And to do this we must be good winemakers, oenologists, marketers, managers, and have the means of investing to develop distant markets with margins large enough to make it sustainable.

BC: How do you feel being at the helm of the association of the producers of the best wine in the world?

JMB: It gives me a great sense of pride to be at the helm of UMC and CIVC, and to participate in the success of champagne. It is such a joy to be in this industry where we are producers of happiness in the world.

At the same time, I feel the pressure to guide this organization with the strong responsibility to be as precise as possible in our forecasts because this information allows Houses and Growers to work better for the present and future of an industry that attracts revenues of 5 billion euros per year.

BC: What is champagne to you?

JMB: Champagne is a product that breathes French art de vivre, the joy of sharing happiness that is wonderful. For me, champagne is an essential component of happiness.

Champagne is an effervescent wine of extraordinary quality, which is also the most convivial product I know and that we all want to share.

For me to drink champagne is to share a sensory pleasure that leads to a fantastic conviviality. Compare the experience of opening a bottle of wine, alcohol or champagne at the aperitif and you will see which is the most appreciated!

BC: Do you drink champagne every day?

JBM: I drink often, very often…

BC: What would life be without champagne?

JMB: A sad life. A week without champagne would be tough.

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