Rothschild one of two newcomers in the elite world of champagne
Of all the regions in France to be a fledgling winemaker, getting started in Champagne must be the toughest challenge of all.
Grape contracts are fiercely protected. The big champagne houses control 65 per cent of the output and 90 per cent of the export market for the region and have huge marketing budgets. And the same traditional houses(Moët Hennessy, Laurent-Perrier and the rest) snap up any sliver of land that might come up for sale - usually way before it even gets to market.
If that's not enough, wines are tied up for years sitting on their lees and getting the bubble-creating secondary fermentation in bottle before being released to market, making production and storage costs toe-curlingly expensive.
Because of all this, when new champagnes make it to the shelf they usually come from existing houses, like the Roederer Brut Nature that saw its inaugural 2006 vintage last September. Hats off, then, to two new ventures.
First up a pair of French entrepreneurs Alexandre Cornot and Arnaud Dupuis-Testenoire, who, in 2008, founded a new champagne house, called Champagne Brimoncourt. Its first bottles of Brut Régence NV made it to market in 2013. They had no background in the industry (Cornot was born in the region but had left to become a successful art dealer, while his business partner came from the steel industry and has since moved on again), but used their business skills and love of champagne to attract a dozen small shareholders to help fund the venture, which is based in the Marne town of Aÿ (home to Ayala and Bollinger).
This month sees another new launch. It's the first vintage (2006, again) from Champagne Barons de Rothschild - itself a company created from scratch just 10 years ago by banking industry doyens and Bordeaux royalty the Rothschilds, with the first NV bottle released on the market in 2009.
It's somehow levelling to think of the Rothschilds as the new kids on the block. I was with them in Paris for the launch of the 2006 vintage (excellent - mineral, elegant but weighty enough to hold the room) this week. Baron Philippe Sereys de Rothschild, chairman of the new venture, told me, "Even with the Rothschild name, we're not part of the old set of champagne, so it's much harder to set up contracts with growers or search for the right vines to buy. We don't know what is for sale, we don't have the shortcuts and inside knowledge that we have in Bordeaux. It takes time and patience, but we wanted to approach this in the spirit that we do everything - with the desire to be the best."
To date they buy grapes from 20 growers working 61 hectares across the prestigious Côte de Blancs, with less than a hectare of their own vines ("At least we now have our foot in the door, says Baron Philippe).
The newly-acquired vines also come with a residence in the village of Vertus in the Côtes de Blancs, one of the highest rated of the premier cru villages where Duval-Leroy has had its base since 1859. This means they now have underground cellars for riddling and ageing the wines (three years, so twice as long as a typical champagne even for the non-vintage brut, rosé and blanc de blancs). The winery is elsewhere, in Reims, where they also have a large and beautiful hôtel particulier, or private mansion for entertaining clients.
This is not the first Rothschild champagne - the first Baron Philippe de Rothschild put his name to a special cuvée of Ruinart in the 1970s, where he was also a board member. "My grandfather was well known for his love of champagne," his namesake said with a smile that spoke volumes. It turns out that Baron Eric of Lafite Rothschild also thought about getting involved in the region, when he considered buying Krug in 2000, as did his cousin Baron Benjamin of Chateau Clarke.
"We decided there was no point in having three separate Rothschild champagnes in addition to the separate wines - so this became a family project."
All of which explains why there's an extra challenge to this new venture; Champagne Barons de Rothschild is a partnership of the three different branches of the family - with the three cousins behind Lafite, Mouton and Clarke all playing a part.
This is the first time, apparently, in 230 years of history that all three parts of the family have worked together on a specific project. And seeing them over lunch was a bit like a rowdy family reunion. There were interruptions, shared reminiscences of childhood misdemeanours, jokes at each other's expense. Just like any other family lunch, although this one happened to be in a sumptuous 18th century residence on Rue de l'Élysée, pretty much the most exclusive address in Paris.
But Rothschild or Cornot, there is still the business of building a new brand of champagne. To date, both of these new ventures are small: 300,000 bottles per year for Champagne Barons de Rothschild and about 150,000 per year for Champagne Brimoncourt. "It's hard work," says Baron Philippe, "but we always bear in mind the spirit of champagne. And that means never forgetting its sense of fun."
Jane Anson is a Bordeaux-based wine writer