The Bottle Opener: Champagne’s leading man

The last eponymous head of a champagne house talks about his passion for fizz

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, the last eponymous head of a great champagne house, personifies the wine he has spent his life making and selling; full of elegance, charm and effervescence.

“I am a singular man. I am an iconoclast. My favourite food is brain and tripe. My favourite painters are little-known, like Alfred Courmes. I have many passions and they tend to be unusual.”

These days, so many of the great champagne houses have lapsed into the ownership of big corporations, so it is unusual to meet a real hereditary peer of this great realm (he took charge of the house seven years ago). On first meeting, if you didn’t know him, you might suspect he was a theatrical impresario or art dealer. But look past the charm and florid manner of speech and you can glimpse a shrewd businessman who has a zealous adoration of his family business.

It was almost very different. In 2005 Pierre-Emmanuel was a senior manager at Taittinger when the wider family dropped a bombshell. They voted by a majority to sell the entire company to Starwood, the US real estate giant.

“It was a tragedy. The family business was very profitable, very stable. A lot of the family wanted to sell because they had tax problems; it wasn’t necessary. But in a family group you have to respect the views of the majority.”

A decision like that would have torn other families apart, but Pierre-Emmanuel says he bears his relatives no ill feeling. “I am a man who forgets that kind of thing. It’s important not to have bad blood in a family.”

Starwood had bought the company for its chain of hotels, including the world famous Crillon in Paris, but they had little idea of what to do with a champagne house. “They came here twice. Once when they bought it and once when they sold.”

The sale came just a year after the company was acquired, with Starwood putting it up for auction. Suddenly Pierre-Emmanuel was thrust centre stage, putting together a bid to win his family business back. He had to compete with a global list of rival bidders, not to mention some very deep pockets (Albert Frère, the long-time associate of Bernard Arnault, was a bidder, as was Vijay Mallya, the Indian spirits tycoon). With the help of Credit Agricole and a consortium of private investors, Taittinger won back Taittinger with a bid of €660m.

“It very stressful. Five minutes before we signed I didn’t know if we’d won. It was 11:30pm when the phone rang to tell me we had signed. I started to dance around the dining table with my daughter Vitalie – and yes, we had a little champagne.”

Taittinger is a medium sized champagne house, which produces around five to 5.5m bottles a year. It does, however, have one vital asset: it owns 288 hectares of its own vineyards, including some in the world famous Côte des Blancs, the small region of Champagne that is reputed to produce the best, palest chardonnay grapes for the Blanc des Blancs wines. This in turn means that Taittinger produces around 50 per cent of its own grapes, one of the highest proportions in the region, allowing it to control the quality of its wines more effectively than most of its rivals.

Taittinger’s chief ambassador is, of course, Pierre-Emmanuel himself, and he can wax lyrical about them all day. He’s right: they are wonderful, especially the Comtes de Champagne, the house’s top wine, made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes from the Côte des Blancs and quaffed by James Bond in Casino Royale.

The most surprising thing about Comtes de Champagne, though, is its price. You can buy a bottle of the 2004 or 2005 for less than £65 a bottle, while many other houses sell their premium champagnes for more than £100.

“I take care to ensure we are not the most expensive,” says Pierre-Emmanuel. “I know some other houses try to be the most expensive but that isn’t my philosophy. We’re not selling bling. We’re champagne for the real connoisseur and I want to know they can afford a bottle or two of our best wine every year .”

He says the rival houses he admires most are the large corporate ones like Möet and Veuve Cliquot, both owned by the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. “It is fashionable to talk about small growers, but these big names have done so much for the region. When I started work there were ten oenologists in the region. Now there are 600. I have great respect for them and the way they have opened up new markets for us all over the world.”

“Even Möet is a garage business in the global wine industry and, in a world with 7bn people, we are all very small. Champagne produces just 10 per cent of all the sparkling wine in the world; just 300m bottles.”

Pierre-Emmanuel’s responsibilities also go beyond his own business. He has become an ambassador for the whole of the champagne industry; after our interview he is travelling to the French parliament to campaign against a proposal from President François Hollande that will limit tax relief on the interest costs of holding wines in stock. Since some champagnes take ten years to mature, this would be a heavy blow to the industry, which is one of the few bright points in France’s otherwise gloomy business landscape.

He is also a leading advocate of increasing production in Champagne to cope with rising international demand, and believes there are up to a further 20,000 hectares that can be turned into vineyards. Again, this is a national issue in France.

Any other ambitions? “I want to pass this business on to the young management team I have built up,” he says. “I am 60 now and when I am 65 I want to retire, take care of my wife and walk in the mountains.”

And then he is off, ready to do battle with the political elite for his family firm and the Champagne region that is his life. As he goes he reminds me: “You know, this is champagne – only half of what we are selling is wine. The other half is a lifestyle, a fantasy, a dream. And that is just as important.”

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