MAGIC IN A GLASS
IN CONVERSATION WITH VITALIE TAITTINGER
BY JESS LAMB
CHAMPAGNE TAITTINGER, Reims
In 1915, a young French army officer named Pierre- Charles Taittinger was sent from his native Paris to a posting in Champagne, where he fell so deeply in love with this special corner of France that he simply never left. Over the course of the 1930s, Pierre-Charles acquired two châteaux in the region with the help of his brother-in-law Paul Evêque… and so established the foundations of Champagne Taittinger, today one of the most celebrated Grand Marque properties on earth.
Nearly a century on, Vitalie Taittinger is the latest generation of her family to take the reins at her eponymous family estate. Vitalie has officially been President of Champagne Taittinger since New Year’s Day 2020, when she and her brother Clovis succeeded their father Pierre-Emmanuel in the roles of President and General Manager respectively.
Despite her unmistakeable surname, entering the family business was never Vitalie’s original plan. She studied art at the Emile Cohl school in Lyon, worked as an illustrator, a marketer and published a book about surrealist painter Alfred Courmes in her earlier years. However, a highly publicised period of turbulence for Champagne Taittinger in 2005 saw property investment trust Starwood Capital acquire the domaine and other Taittinger family assets for over €2 billion. Throughout this process, Vitalie’s father Pierre- Emmanuel was determined to regain ownership of his leg- acy and together with other family members subsequent- ly raised enough capital to buy back Champagne Taittinger and its Californian outpost, Domaine Carneros, in 2006. This was the catalyst that both Vitalie and Clovis needed to return to the family business, and neither has looked back.
Now firmly back on track, Pierre-Emmanuel has handed the torch to Vitalie and Clovis (mostly… he is still involved despite his supposed retirement!) and Champagne Taittinger is looking to the future. This renewed energy has given rise to exciting projects such as the much-anticipated Domaine Evremond, a joint venture with London- based wine merchant Hatch Mansfield which will see Taittinger re- lease its very first bottles of premium English sparkling wine in 2024.
Chelsea Vintners’ Head of Marketing Jess Lamb sat down with Vitalie to talk all things Taittinger and find out how the last three years have influenced the woman at the helm of one of the world’s most legendary Grand Marque producers.
The last three years have covered some tumultuous times, from economic upheaval to the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you look back on your time as President so far?
Those three years have been very exciting and interesting – very much my best years for learning. It was very tricky to have the Covid-19 pandemic begin right in the middle of the new job, but there were certainly positives to be found because I became very conscious of the responsibility we carry to care for the Champagne Taittinger brand and all the people we look after in the company. I think this gave us something very positive to take away.
The lockdowns also presented us with time; to think, analyse, to really discover who we are and to build our plans for the future. We took this time and made the most of the opportunity to ask what the company really is and what we want in our future. I am not like my father, and neither is my brother Clovis, so it was very important to work together with the team to build something different and create our clear vision for the next stage of Taittinger. I was able to spend a huge amount of very valuable time with my brother – as General Manager he is now travelling all the time and without Covid-19 we would never have been able to spend so much time together creating our vision for the company.
After this period of reflection, what are your ambitions for the future of Taittinger?
There is not just one answer to this but many. I first started working in the company in 2007, but becoming President was the first mo- ment that I had the freedom to take the company in the direction that I felt was the natural progression for Champagne Taittinger. It was good to understand my vision and feel confident to discuss this with our team and our partners to create our plan for the fu- ture… and now we are doing a lot! There is so much happening and lots of things are being created that did not exist before. We are doing everything from refurbishing our visitor’s centre in Reims to bringing Champagne Taittinger to new foreign locations. Our Domaine Evremond project in Kent, England, is coming out of the soil with the first bottles due to be released in 2024, and so it’s a very exciting time.
You originally studied art and did not intend to join the family business. How have your experiences outside the wine industry influenced what you do now?
By definition I am a totally different person with a very differ- ent perspective to many of those I work with. I can’t do the same things as someone who has studied wine, but my education and experience give me the ability to create something totally unique which doesn’t look like any other producer or wine project. I think differently, but my brother is the same and this is one of our main strengths, that our perspective is unusual in comparison to most others in the wine industry.
We are focused on giving importance not only to the wines them- selves but also what surrounds them in terms of culture and context. We know that brand is very important, and we are obsessed both with our wines and all the other aspects of the world which influ- ence them. We love to think about Taittinger as not just wine but people, culture, and extraordinary moments, and our challenge is how we bring them all together as one.
There is a long legacy of strong female figures in Champagne – how aware are you of your role as a female leader in the industry?
In the beginning I was not particularly conscious of this. I was never thought that the fact that I am a woman should change anything and I was fortunate that for me it didn’t – at Taittinger the men of the family have always treated the women very equally. However, with more experience I understood how important this was for so many other women and how fortunate I was to have a place in business that many women can only dream of.
I am mindful that I am super-lucky in my life, and as a leader I think now that we should share our experiences and work to reduce the differences between us and other women. You can succeed and achieve great things if you believe in your dreams, and I think be- ing a woman should not hold you back in this – in the wine world or anywhere else. It is very easy to forget how blessed we are and how the positions we have are so important. So many women must fight for just a little bit of this success in a way that men very often don’t, and it is very important to acknowledge this and support other women wherever we can.
I also think what is interesting is the difference between what men and women can bring to a business like Taittinger. I realise more and more that we don’t think about things or build in the same way. We have very different and very valuable perspectives and I think that this is extremely important. Women have a unique and important view, and we should always support and celebrate this.
Your prestige cuvée, Comtes de Champagne, is a firm Chelsea Vintners favourite. What do you think makes this wine so special?
Comtes de Champagne is a gift. It is not our wine, but a wine which comes from the past, and so requires much patience from the people who create it. To see a Comtes that is truly yours, that was laid down during your time at Taittinger, you must wait for a while. My father’s first wines only really started to come through in 2006 when he was almost ready to retire!
This means that we always treat Comtes not as a project belonging to just one person, but as something that is for all of us at Taittinger. It is a treasure for the whole family that it is very important to take care of. There is always an impulse to produce a vintage every year because it is so loved but we know it is not possible – this wine must be treated with respect, and we must take care to be wise and ensure that it is not about sales figures or temptation. We must respect nature, time, and what our cellar masters have built over many years. For me, Comtes de Champagne is a noble wine that is a combination of history, beautiful ingredients, respect, and secrets, and I love the fact that we honour this in our work.
How has the recent release of Comtes 2012 been received?
When looking at the finished wine, we have been very lucky with modern Comtes vintages… except for the time between 2008 and 2011! Sometimes the quantities are not enormous, but this is life. We have a very strong range of wines across Taittinger, which means we are able to make the best Comtes that we can and protect it by having other wines to choose from when quantities are lower.
2012 has I think been received well, but to be honest I don’t worry about it! When we release a Comtes vintage I am always so con- fident and sure that it is right that I am totally convinced in the wine. Many people want to compare these wines (for example, some critics compared the 2011 to the 2008) but again, for me it is not a real question as I feel that every Comtes is its own unique and beautiful thing.
I think that the 2012 has marvellous minerality, richness and toasti- ness, very different to the 2011 which was more structured with higher tension and acidity. One thing that I think unites all the great Comtes wines however is this idea of matière, that unique substance of the wine, which for me means a special kind of chalky minerality that is perfectly expressed in Comtes.
What are your predictions for the future of Champagne? Do you have any advice to Champagne lovers on how to build their collections in the coming years?
I have huge conviction that our small appellation is capable of great things for many years to come. It is a real treasure and has so many distinctive qualities. Not only do we have the incredible soil but a certain climate, history, and a style of wine that is a symbol of wonderful things for so many people. For me, Champagne is just totally unique, and I think the future is excellent.
For champagne lovers and collectors, I have two pieces of advice. First, look for the wines which use the best quality grapes. Pay at- tention to the way Champagne houses are treating their fruit, right through from the growing sites and work in the vineyard to blending and dosage. The best houses are the ones who know exactly how to care for their fruit, and this is what makes the great champagnes that age so beautifully.
Secondly – share! I always love to share my wines. If I was a collec- tor, I would make sure to buy the best prestige cuvées, pay atten- tion to very good vintage and NV blends… but most importantly I would share it all with wine lovers and truly appreciate the job that is done in creating these wines and the time it has taken for this cuvée to age and finally reach the glass. Never forget to drink your champagne. It is good to age, of course, but always better to drink.
To me, drinking champagne is like putting magic in a glass. You may have a very normal day or even an awful one, but when you come back home and just sit at the table and open the champagne, at once something amazing happens. This wine means so many positive things. Champagne tells others that you love them without saying the words. With your friends it means joy and celebration. For me it is like turning a light on which makes everything become more lively and more beautiful. It creates a magical filter for the world. This is champagne.
Tell us more about your English sparkling wine project, Domaine Evremond. How is it going down in Kent?
The first wine from the estate will finally be released in 2024 as a multi- vintage blend, hopefully in the autumn, and we are very excited of course! It has taken a lot of work to reach this goal, but everything is going very well. In the vineyards we can do exactly what we want to do, which is very satisfying, and every day we discover something new and wonderful. In Champagne, all the vineyards were planted long before we came, and so it was great to design a winery and vineyards exactly as we dreamed they should be. It is just gorgeous, and the quality of the grapes is very nice. In 2022 we had a good harvest with some good yields and proved the ability of the soil to bring minerality to the grapes, and so we are happy.
It is also great to collaborate with our partners in the Hatch Mansfield team – mainly through Patrick McGrath, who is the English face of the domaine, working alongside the Taittinger team. He is totally crazy about this project, very involved and attentive to the details, and just brings pure joy to all of it. We also have great people in our winery and technical areas in the UK who work together with the Taittinger cellar master Alexandre Ponnavoy and vineyard director Christelle Rinville. All of them spend a lot of time together, and it is wonderful to see that the love and the Taittinger family spirit is there.
How have you approached winemaking in the UK in comparison to what you do Champagne?
Of course, it was important at the beginning to understand the differences and make sure we were not doing exactly the same as we do in Champagne. In Champagne we work with very different timings – England has a much later harvest, at least one month after France. We learned to understand the terroir but also how to deal with the English weather!
Now that we can comprehend the differences, it is very impor- tant to not do the same thing. Domaine Evremond is a rebirth for Taittinger. We cannot predict where we may be in 10 years’ time, but we know how important it is to take the time to observe and understand the unique emotions of the soil. We also don’t want to compare the two domaines. Of course, Taittinger cellar master Alexandre Ponnavoy is involved but for him they are very separate approaches and each domaine deserves to be treated in this way. However, the philosophy that we do bring from Taittinger is our focus on healthy, super-clean fruit, and purity. This is in the soul of all our wines, but other than this we want to let Evremond create its own unique expression.
It is crazy to consider that first vintage bottle from Evremond may not be released for 10 years or more… but the best quality spar- kling wines follow their own unique calendar and we know it takes a decade and more to build a bottle. This is our contribution to history, and I am very proud of it. If you are patient, our sparkling wines reward you with pure joy, and we always need that!
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