Brigitte Hennessy is Channel Controller, Specialist Division for Champagne Lanson in the UK, the most important champagne export market in the world and a place where Lanson actually sells more bottles of the wine than in France.
Brigitte admits that when she first took up her job with Champagne Lanson three years ago she was nervous.
“Was this house going to stack up to my expectations? I was hugely privileged to do my first tasting with our winemaker Jean Paul Gandon who’s been our cellar master for 38 years. After he’d been through the range with me and I could actually see what he was creating, I started thinking, yes, this is a really good product, I feel really proud to go out and sell this.”
Brigitte was formerly Lanson UK’s On Trade Channel Controller which may need some explanation. There are two types of alcohol sales licensing in the UK – an on licence and an off. An off licence, which most people are familiar with, means that you can sell alcohol, for example, in supermarkets, independent retailers, wine merchants and cash and carries. On sales cover locations such as restaurants, hotels, bars and clubs – also directly to the public but with the distinction being that here it is for consumption on the premises. The London-based UK office, which also looks after Ireland, has a small team of people to do this work, but that is something which Brigitte prefers.
“Being small we’re also very flexible so although we are a big company you don’t get the feeling that you’re stuck in a big corporate wheel. We can react and have the freedom to do so when the need arises.” Brigitte’s new title of Channel Controller, Specialist Division, means she now handles all the specialist accounts including travel retail for duty free and airlines, caterers and certain independent retailers, so her post now straddles both the on and off trade.
Brigitte studied law and languages at university. She never saw herself practicing the former but she admits she fell into the wine trade by accident during the course of a lively dinner party in Austria. “My mother’s Austrian and friends of ours had a vineyard there. We got chatting one evening and they said ‘you’re looking for something to do. Why don’t you import our wines?’ So I did and I remember a palette of wine pitching up in my garage and I thought: ‘Now how do I sell this?’ ”
Brigitte then realised that she knew very little about the product she was trying to sell “so I did the Wine and Spirit Education Trust qualifications which were hugely useful and eventually did my diploma where I got their scholarship in champagne which gave me the opportunity to go and look at a number of houses.”
Brigitte set up a successful independent wine merchant business in Manchester and her learning curve didn’t stop there as she became only the second person to be awarded the prestigious Institute of Masters of Wine Trinity Scholarship in 2006 which meant she could spend another period visiting Grandes Marques champagne houses in France and took in Bollinger, Pol Roger and Louis Roederer.
Brigitte’s husband’s work took him south to London and Brigitte sold her wine merchant business before relocating. She had no plans to open as a wine merchant in the capital, which is why the Lanson opportunity was timely, if initially a little fraught.
Says Brigitte: “The reason that tasting with Jean Paul Gandon was so important to me was that when I had my shop and I was buying all my wines for that, I had to believe in what I was selling and I still do. I can’t tell someone this is really great unless I feel that and would buy it myself. Perhaps that makes me a bad sales person in a way but that would partly explain my initial hesitation when I joined the house.”
Gandon uses the three key champagne grapes in his wines – pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot
meunier – with a higher percentage of black fruit, particularly pinot noir, which gives backbone and structure. Pinot meunier, used in smaller proportions, adds fruit and ripeness.
Within the cornerstone range – Black Label non-vintage (NV), Rose NV and the Ivory Label demi-sec – pinot noir is the dominant grape, accounting for at least 50 per cent of the blend. Chardonnay makes up around 35 per cent with the balance being pinot meunier.
The Gold Label Vintage 1999 is a blend of approximately 50 per cent pinot noir and 50 per cent chardonnay. Lanson’s newest cuvee – Lanson Extra Age – is also predominantly pinot noir with 60 per cent of the blend, the remainder being chardonnay.
In keeping with almost all major champagne producers, Champagne Lanson owns very few of its own vineyards, around only ten hectares, but Brigitte doesn’t see this as a disadvantage. “I’m fairly certain in saying that there is not a single Grande Marque house that produces enough grapes to supply all their own needs and the other thing is that, because champagne is a product that is blended across grapes, areas and years, it’s so important to be able to draw upon all the raw materials. We’ve enjoyed some very longstanding grape-growing contracts with people and effectively we still control how the grapes are grown, how they’re nurtured and at what point in time they’re harvested. Clearly they’re assigned to us in our press houses and from that moment on we’re very much in control. We have many of these vineyards on a long-term, exclusive basis, continuity being so important in our line of work.”
And continuity of weather conditions to grow the grapes is also vital. Champagne Lanson holds three years of stocks and at any one time has 22 million bottles of champagne in its system at various stages of development. “After all,” adds Brigitte, “it’s such a marginal business – it can only take one heavy hail storm, a complete harvest wipe-out or frost in May and you’re left with nothing.”
But those years are fortunately rare and happily for Brigitte and Lanson, despite the recession, the UK is still the biggest export market for champagne in the world. In 2008, champagne producers shipped 35.9 million bottles of the wine from France to the UK with a total market value of almost £660 million.
The UK is in fact France’s biggest export market for champagne in both value and volume terms and it’s also Lanson’s most important export market. In fact, just under half the firm’s total annual production of five million bottles comes to the UK.
As Brigitte points out, “the UK is bigger than the French domestic market for Lanson champagne and in that respect we do differ from some of the other houses.”
Champagne exports to the UK have declined in recent years, down almost 8 per cent in 2008 and 15 per cent in 2009, as people spent less on luxury items. Despite this, Champagne Lanson has held its position as the third largest house in terms of sales value after market leaders Moet and Veuve Cliquot and the second largest in terms of volume, but Brigitte doesn’t disguise the fact that some of her regular customers have replaced champagne with cheaper alternatives.
“Some hotels and catering companies are looking to use cava and prosecco instead of champagne to save money. It’s been a tough year or two but it’s not been an utter disaster. There are still people out there who will treat themselves to champagne and in June and July we were actually up on last year due to all the associated activity around Wimbledon as well as the championships themselves.”
In fact, Champagne Lanson is the official supplier to the Wimbledon championships and will be for the next four years. The house has also signed a three-year sponsorship deal with the 0² arena and, despite the harsh economic climate, the company is still aiming for single digit growth in 2010.
One way it plans to do this is to capitalise on what the house sees as its distinctive taste, brought about by employing its traditional method of champagne production. In Champagne Lanson’s case this means, and has always meant, avoiding what is known as malolactic fermentation. This procedure is completely separate from alcoholic fermentation and is more correctly described as a bacterial process which involves suppressing the lactic bacteria found naturally in any winery and preventing it from converting malic acid to lactic acid.
The malic acid found in grapes at harvest gives an acidity like that in a crisp, fresh apple. Lactic acid is a softer level of acidity present, for example, in milk. One advantage to malolactic fermentation is that producers can bring their wines to market much sooner as the acidity appears softer. However, according to Brigitte, it also changes the taste of a champagne
“The fruit will not be as dominant and you’ll notice other things like nutty flavours. The best thing is to taste both types. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong. But what we as a house are about is fresh fruit, elegance and a crisp taste. This is what Jean Paul Gandon means when he talks about the silhouette of Lanson which he says is about fruit, freshness and power. Other houses whose wines have gone through the malolactic process will tend to be less fruity because it not only softens acidity but also introduces other secondary flavours and aromas.
“By avoiding malolactic fermentation and ensuring a crisp, refreshing style, it will actually take longer for the wine to age, so if you were to put it to market too early it would appear quite green and austere. Whereas non-vintage champagne has to be aged 15 months by law, we do it for three years to create a balanced and well-integrated product.
“Our advantage, as we see it, is that our wines will age gracefully and slowly over many years and therefore, for example, we always have one of the oldest, current vintages on the market. We release our vintages at a much slower rate than other houses. So we’re still on our 1999 vintage while most houses are already selling their 2003. We age our vintage wines for five years as opposed to a stipulated three but they continue to age quite well and we carry stocks in the UK of old vintages going back to 1976 which we can draw off by magnum. In France they can still draw off vintages from the ’50s and ’60s and, because of our production process, they’re all stunning wines and are full of fruit.”
In terms of other champagne houses, Krug and Gosset also choose to avoid malo altogether. Roederer prefers the non-malo route but will blend non-malo with malolactic wines if they believe acidity levels are too high.
Malolactic fermentation is also a relatively recent development when set against the long tradition of champagne production. Bacteria were obviously unknown when champagne was first made centuries ago and it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century and a greater understanding of chemistry and wine science that winemakers became aware they had a choice in how to make the wine.
Obviously, it costs more in the long-term to keep stock in cellars so is it actually worth it? Brigitte is adamant it is.
“It depends what your company philosophy is. Do you want to chase volume or are you creating a good quality product? Ultimately we want to give customers a good value experience. We’ll never change our view at Lanson. Why break with a tradition that has served us so well for so many years?”
Champagne Lanson is also currently in the third year of a four-year campaign to raise its UK profile and accentuate what it sees as its distinctive taste across the range. Paul Beavis, Lanson UK’s managing director feels that “we’ve not had a consistent public relations strategy and have not been communicating as well as the other houses. Now there’s a great opportunity to talk to the trade again.”
Champagne Lanson has also won no fewer than 13 medals for its champagnes in the last three years and proudly publicised the fact by taking out page ads in the trade press, including a quote from wine expert Tom Stevenson saying “for the past two years [Lanson’s Black Label Brut] has been the best and most consistent non-vintage from any of the grandes marques.”
The consumer campaign featured ads in popular magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue and the house even took out external ads on some London cabs and the tube. Brigitte feels it’s necessary “despite the economic climate. It’s tough out there but if you withdraw into the background you won’t further your cause.”
Champagne Lanson undertook some research studies in 2009 to try and discover how much consumers knew about champagne in general and what prompted them to buy a particular make. Given that one leading champagne specialist believes that many drinkers in the UK don’t even realise champagne is a wine, what did Lanson discover?
“We found people were very interested to learn how champagne is produced and the difference between malo and non-malo. People over the years have started to learn about wine and different grape varieties and regional styles, but champagne itself is still such a mystery to people and we as an industry need to work on that.”
One key finding was that people often bought a champagne based solely on the label and familiarity of name and one of the key things Lanson is aiming to get across to consumers is the importance of taste.
As Brigitte states: “That’s ultimately what matters – it’s not what’s on the label but what’s in the bottle.”
Postscript: To mark the house’s 250th anniversary, Lanson have produced a book – The Little Black Book of Champagne – which contains a wealth of information about the history of the wine, where and how it is produced and even a section on champagne etiquette. For a free copy go to this link:
Official company site: