BestChampagne conducted an exclusive interview with Ghislain de Montgolfier, Co-President of The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) from 2007 to 2013.
CIVC is the semi-public body responsible to co-ordinate the common interests of wine growers and producers in Champagne to talk about the past, present and future of champagne.
Mr de Montgolfier was also President of the Union des Maisons de Champagne, the Association of the main champagne producers including the most renown champagne brands. In this interview he shares his view on the champagne world and explains why champagne is so unique an superior to any other sparkling wine.
BestChampagne: In your experience, what is it about champagne that positions it above other wines and what justifies its high price?
Ghislain de Montgolfier: Being from a family of the Champagne region and having developed activities in various fields both in France and abroad, I have come to understand the world of champagne inside and out.
I think that, above all, champagne is very good wine from a technical standpoint.
Furthermore, the marketing of champagne is particularly powerful around the world. But this didn’t happen overnight!
The price of champagne is based largely on the intensive viticulture process. The average size of a champagne vineyard is two acres.
The work of the vine in our region is more difficult than it is in other wine regions further south.
The intensity of our work is extensive, which gives the grapes specific qualities that allow for a price that is greater than 5 Euro per kg.
Secondly, the wine expertise of Champagne producers is very sophisticated. For example, the grapes must be squeezed very early.
This prevents them from being crushed in order to ferment the white grapes with black grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier).
Step by step we have an extraction and a fermentation process that is very subtle and that takes place over a period of several years in a wine cellar until the wine reaches its maturity consumer’s table.
BC: What is the profile of a champagne lover? What is he looking for in a bottle of champagne?
GDM: In fact, there is no single profile of a champagne lover; we have identified between 5 and 7 types of consumers. There are both “knowledgeable fans” who buy champagne like a fine wine, who will analyse it and taste it.
On the other side, esoteric clubs are looking to drink champagne for the purpose of enjoying a lively evening; they look at champagne as a symbol that is bolstered by its quality.
Quality and symbol are always linked. A nice bottle of champagne in a luxurious package is a wonderful gift.
BC: How would you summarize the differences between the leading brands of champagne and those of small growers?
GDM: The historical role of the Houses that produce the leading brands has been to create champagne and to promote it to foreign markets.
The growers were responsible for developing the wines and trusting the larger Champagne Houses to perform the second fermentation process of the wine in the bottle. This is the basic process of producing champagne.
In the same industrial vein, the major champagne brands have been the ones to actively approach and penetrate foreign markets. These “adventurers” have established their brands as well as the image of champagne.
The quality of the champagne from the leading brands is unique because it is based on the assemblage and aging process.
The quality of champagne from the smaller winegrowers, on the other hand, is based on a particular vine. By definition, based on the differences that will occur from one village to another and from one year to another, the champagne from these winemakers will have a greater variability.
The major champagne brands represent a guarantee of unified style over a period of years or even centuries. Consumers around the world are, therefore, strengthened by this idea of a luxurious collection.
BC: So then what is the consumer actually purchasing when choosing a major brand of champagne? Wouldn’t it be better to buy champagne from the lesser known winemakers, who are cheaper than the leading brands?
GDM: The major brands have originality and a clear taste. The brand has value, and a difference must also be made between a brand and a name. There are many names in the champagne business, but in theory there are far fewer brands. What is a brand? It is something that is known. The name is an identifying factor.
A lesser-known name of champagne may one day become a trade mark. The only requirement for this is to wait for consumers to recognize the name in order to become a great brand.
There may very well be names of which very little is known and which, for commercial reasons, have been designed by producers for a specific market or even for specific labels.
When you buy a famous brand, you are also buying a superior warranty. Champagnes with less familiar names are generally less expensive for this reason.
BC: Following the 2008-2009 international economic crisis, the stocks of champagne producers rose due to the slight reduction in sales. As a result of this, will we also be supporting a fall in the prices of champagne?
GDM: What separates champagne from other wines is that we are trying to provide stability to our price, our quality and our brand both through the CIVC as a whole and through the express actions of our organization.
It is not good for a luxury product to be very expensive one day and the next day to be very cheap.
In 2008, our need for growth was between 0 and – 2% in total volume due to a limited supply of champagne in area and in yield per acre. With a steady growth rate of 2% until 2020, the Champagne region will achieve its maximum production potential; we cannot support more than 2% growth per year.
Therefore, after a 5% increase in 2007 we created a mechanical adjustment. Most of the wineries keep their wines in stock for at least 3 years so, if during one year you want the volume of sales to grow by 1%, production must be increased by 3%.
The 2009 vintage was excellent. Only a portion will be “pulled” and, therefore, we will retain a stock, called the individual qualitative reserve, which will not be traded this year and will be released as soon as the market has begun to continue to producing champagne.
Of the 5,000 growers who sell their wine directly and of the few thousand brands of producers and the few brands of buyers, each is responsible for the welfare of his particular business, and the effect of the stock will vary from one to another.
Some may choose to slightly reduce their stock and will, of course, offer limited discounts. While others will continue stocking their brand in order to meet the demands that are expected to occur during the economic recovery in 2012. Therefore, in 2012 there will also be enough champagne.
BC: What is your opinion on the sparkling wines that are similar to champagne in many aspects, but are cheaper in price?
GDM: There are some good sparkling wines around the world, but when you go to celebrate an event or a major transaction, you will not make the mistake of not doing so with champagne.
Imagine James Bond with a glass of ordinary sparkling wine! That is why the name Champagne is so strict and why no sparkling wine in the world can or should use this name, as they would risk having their wine seized on the basis of counterfeit.
It is not about the existence of similar products, this more about the idea of there being a group of vines and vineyards that originate from the same region, and that are being grown and processed in the same way and under the same conditions, all of which are included in the so-called “terroir” thus giving the champagne its special personality, which is a concept that we have not yet explained.
In fact, it is not only the physical factors, although they are very important: land, soil, grape varieties, and the method of processing the grapes, as well as microclimate and many other climatic factors. However, as a living product, the know-how of the men and women working the grapes also comes into play.
All of this being said, we do not believe that our competition comes from other sparkling wines around the world, nevertheless, the fact remains that consumers with a lower spending ability fall back on other drinks.
BC: What are the responsibilities and initiatives of CIVC in this regard?
GDM: They are to ensure compliance with the appellation around the world and to organize events and tastings for our champagne ambassadors, so that each producer is given the right to present these champagnes to educators and distributors alike.
BC: In 2020, the Champagne region is expected to reach its maximum production potential. What will happen next? Will Champagne become an increasingly rare wine if its demand continues to grow?
GDM: The Champagne region will have additional resources as we are currently in the process of revising the designation area. Some areas of land will be removing name champagne from their labels and others will get it.
As of the latest revision of the Champagne Appellation, the quality of the required criteria has rising in comparison to what it was in 1927.
Today, we know things from a technical standpoint that we did not know then. There were varieties of grapes that were used during this time that have since disappeared from the Champagne region after being stopped for pragmatic reasons and as the varieties became less capable and less reliable in their production.
So, even if a soil was good in the past, as a result of problems in quality, it was in the best interest of Champagne to withdraw them from production. And vice versa!
BC: Could this revision of the Champagne Appellation hurt the luxurious image of the champagne itself?
GDM: No, because we have relied on outside experts for the revision of the Appellation, which means that we, ourselves, do not know the results of their expertise.
BC: What is your personal advice to readers of BestChampagne.co on how to choose Champagne? What feelings should be conveyed?
GDM: The key word is actually feeling. On the one hand, we seek to be reassured by a brand, by a site like BestChampagne, by an expert, by a friend, or by a sommelier who thinks that a particular wine is good and why.
In any case, I wouldn’t put aside my own senses in order to find a champagne. I would never economize on my sense of intellect. This would be particularly bizarre because wine is a living product.
The brand with which I associate myself, will give me pleasure, a unique emotion that another brand does not convey to me.
There is, therefore, a continuous coming and going between intellect, the details of the label and the brand itself. We must dare to trust our emotions.
It is not because it is a luxury product that that we have neither the duty nor the obligation to own it. The feelings will be mixed with the emotions that the brand conveys to you. We also need to experiment, to discover more champagne.
There are thousands of names of champagne, between 5,000 and 10,000 and for the international brands, a figure lower than 50.
BC: Have you tasted all of them?
GDM: No. This is not my job, it’s yours, and rightfully so because I do not have the same objectivity that you would have since I come from the Bollinger family, which for me is THE taste of champagne.
That being said, each of us, myself included, must continue to improve in the art of tasting champagne and not avoid each being informed by sites, like BestChampagne for example, to first love the wine and to choose the champagne based on the surrounding circumstances; that is to say that if you want to celebrate at a cocktail party, you choose a lighter champagne, conversely you can accompany the meal with champagne far more complex and vinous.
The wine before the dish, not the dish before the wine. This is my choice.
BC: Finally, how would you feel about a world without champagne?
GDM: It would be a standard world, metallic, without the bubble burst. I think that a world without champagne is a world without the love of life, without love in the best sense of the word.
Simply opening a bottle of champagne can elevate the happiness levels of the people around you.
In the small sigh that accompanies the opening (and not the loud noise) all of these people seem to feel better. Champagne complements a type of communal life and helps to create opportunities for meeting. With a bottle of champagne you are welcomed by the whole world.