|Interview with Didier Depond|
BestChampagne had the pleasure of interviewing Didier DEPOND, President of Champagne Houses SALON and DELAMOTTE. Salon is one of the rarest and most esteemed Champagne’s in the world. There have only been 37 vintages in the last century and on average, only three years out of ten are vintage. Salon ensures a consistent quality by purposefully limiting production exclusively to exceptional years. Every year the sister House Salon does not declare a vintage, those grapes of remarkable quality are used to produce Delamotte champagnes. The two renowned sister Champagne Houses fall under the umbrella of the Laurent-Perrier Group whose other flagship brands include the world-famous LAURENT-PERRIER. With already 15 years as head, Monsieur Depond's rigor has aimed to ensure the quality of these fabulous champagnes.
DIDER DEPOND : Because ever since LAURENT-PERRIER was the owner of SALON & DELAMOTTE, the two houses worked together. It is the one society that is regrouped into two brands; the AS society is the owner of SALON & DELAMOTTE. The two houses are adjoining; they are neighbors in the village of Mesnil-sur- Oger. So, we really call them House sisters.
BC : What are the stories of each House and how did they grow?
DD : The two houses had different stories but they were always related. Ever since the SALON existed, since the beginning of the 20th century, there were familial relations between the two old owners so it was pretty logical. Also, since it is champagne Blanc de Blancs, there is a common history (between Blanc de Blancs); SALON was of course the star, but the star also had a sister who was not jealous of her, but rather the opposite. I sort of felt for DELAMOTTE in comparison to SALON, who was evidently the star.
The two houses had different stories but they were always related.
BC : How would you explain someone who has never tasted neither SALON nor DELAMOTTE?
DD : At DELAMOTTE there are deliberately only 4 cuvées: the Brut, the Blanc de blanc, the Blanc de Blanc vintage, and the Rosé. We focus on what we know and what we want to do well. Corney and Barrow (distributers of English wine) have a definition forDELAMOTTE Brut, it is a real pleasure to drink this champagne. You drink a glass...you hold your glass to have a second... and for me, this is one of the keys.
With DELAMOTTE, one does not drink champagne to be intellectual, to dissect, it is just to drink champagne and it is really an easily drinkable champagne. It is even the only drink besides water or tea that one can drink in the morning or in the evening. One drinks champagne in the morning, at noon, afternoon, and the evening. One drinks it after dinner, into the night. You always drink champagne. What is the other drink, other than water that you could drink non-stop? There is no other one. You do not drink whiskey right in the morning, you do not drink Cognac, and you do not drink big reds in the morning. You do not drink white wine even at night. Champagne is for all the time; you drink champagne everywhere and at every instant. It is an absolute force and DELAMOTTE Brut is really this little identity card for DELAMOTTE, a reflection of what we want with DELAMOTTE and one day, in my craziest dreams, we will only sell Blanc de Blancs at DELAMOTTE.
DELAMOTTE is the easiest champagne to drink for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all night, all day. At DELAMOTTE we have 250 years of experience, in the Côte des Blancs, and with DELAMOTTE Blanc de Blancs, we only use 3 (large) crus at 100%: the Mesnil-sur-Oger, Oger, and Avize, with a very long aging (process). For the Brut, the aging is 24 months. For the Blanc de Blancs it is 24 months. For the Blanc de Blanc vintage it is even 3 villages’ crus at 100% plus a fourth which is Cramant so that makes 4 crus at 100%. I really enjoy using 5% to 10% of Cramant, which is a village that I adore in terms of soil. So, for the Blanc de Blanc Vintage, it is 7 years of aging, this is a really long time for a House like us. Actually, we still commercialize the Vintage 2002; it is still exceptional. And then the Rosé which is a very special rosé, there is a small quality of rosé produced because we make the base from Pinot Noir of course and Chardonnay. We macerate the two grapes and we press them together. It is then a bleeding rosé.
But with 80% Pinot and 20% Chardonnay, so it is a method quite particular, a little more difficult than others. For this time, we love it very fresh, we do not let it age, with a maximum of 20 months of aging. We love it with freshness, on the small red fruity side, strawberry-raspberry. I really like the fresh side of rosé, a pale rosé, really a summery rosé, of freshness. So, four cases of wines are really the wines of leisure, the immediate consummation. We do not ask people to come buy our wine and then keep it 6 months, 1 year, or 2 years. They are ready to drink, if you want to keep them, of course they are wines that will remain good but obviously these are wines you can drink immediately.
At SALON, we are in another register of large wine -almost a collector’s wine, special edition. SALON has a very particular taste that can even be shocking at times. SALON is the same variety, same cru, same year and it is at the top of the pyramid so it undergoes a very long aging with a minimum of 10 years. We have certain Vintages who age 12 or 14 years and then we still consider them to need more time. We are another gustative register obviously; we are more than great white wines that have bubbles.
SALON is a world of exception. The big moment when we drink it, it’s after 15-20 years. The Vintage 1999 would be without a doubt our apogee in 2019 but it is a wine you keep 20 years or 30 years in the cave without a problem. Today we have wines from 40 years ago or 50 years that are still at the same state of youth. They are a little weathered, they are going to have certain ripples but the wines are always good, always fresh, always acidic, and always with effervescence. We can explain this with our know-how, with soil, and then there is a word I use often, it’s the rigor with which we work on all stages: in the vine, at the cave, before selling, and it is without compromise: if we have a doubt, it is a NO.
In terms of tasting, you can really love champagne and pass completely on the side of SALON. I often I tell sommeliers: “attention, when you sell one bottle of SALON, explain that it is SALON.”You do not drink it at the same temperature as normal champagne, which you would keep at 8° or 9°. SALON can be drunk at 12°, 13°, 14°, and in adapted glasses. My challenge for 15 years has been to serve it in wineglasses.
BC : Champagne is a wine that by definition, is a mix of grape variety, crus, and different years. SALON is different in terms of all these criteria. Why?
DD : The Champenois art is effectively an art of blending grape variety, crus, and years. 90% of champagnes are blended wines and Monsieur SALON took a completely opposite approach from that. It was really a desire to say: “here, what we have, what we do is different. I decided to go with something completely different.” And, in doing this easily he did not originally sell his champagne; it was just for personal consumption and for his friends. So, there was a desire to do something; he did this and it became a myth. So, at SALON, contrary to what they do in Champagne, it is a same grape variety, only Chardonnay, one-year, always vintage, and one-place since it is always the grape variety that comes from one village, Meslin-sur-Oger (grand crus). So, it is something that is completely atypical and unique in Champagne, moreover, as it is not very complicated you can add a layer by having a minimum of 10 years of aging for the wines in the cave before pouring. What is still there, an enormous constraint, but what must be respected since it was what was wished. Finally, you can equally see well the degustation because it is still there the judge of absolute piece, a wine who has had at least 10 years is almost undrinkable or indigestible, really a powerful, strong wine. So, it needs to be calmed, time for it to lighten up. A wine that is aged 15 years at SALON is considered a wine that is really a teenager...an adolescent, and it starts to be a good wine to drink after 20 years. So, it is a completely unique situation
BC : SALON uses exclusively Chardonnay for its champagnes. Is it the grape variety that ages better and if so, why?
DD : Clearly, it is the grape variety that ages better in Champagne, there is no possible discussion even if you can find examples of a very good Pinot Noir- and a very good Pinot Meunier that has aged very well. These are exceptions and they are absolutely superb wines and there are 2 or 3 winegrowers that are capable of doing this. There was a period when Pinot Meunier was treated differently than how it is today. Meaning, if you drink a champagne 100% Pinot Meunier from the ‘40s or ‘50s, they are absolutely marvelous.
The majority of Chardonnay ages very well. It is the same phenomenon in Bourgogne. The Chardonnay was also the bourguignon grape variety and the greatest, smoothest white wines of the world are the wines of Bourgogne. Chardonnay has a capacity to age incredibly when it has been treated well and when it is comprised of grapes from a good origin.
BC : You were talking about aging. Is there really a difference in the aging champagne stacked on its side and after disgorgement?
DD : Very clearly, we have a lot of experience in wine stacked on the side (sur lattes) after disgorgement-the two terms can be used. This is as long as the fermentation takes place inside the bottle, that the aging happens extremely slowly. Once the disgorgement occurs, the aging will continue but will be accelerated. This means we have the power to pass maybe 20 years with these bottles on the side that have not yet been disgorged and that will find a wine with a level of aging X but in 2-3 years, once the disgorgement happens, the acceleration will be spectacular. We will have wines that begin to age more rapidly. As long as it has a fermented interior, this blocks a little aging and once the disgorgement happens, acceleration occurs.
If you taste it simultaneously for example, with a champagne that is 20 years old, you are going to immediately identify the youth of the a wine that has just been disgorged in relation to a wine that was disgorged 5 or 10 years afterwards. It is immediate! It is also spectacular that to taste a magnum and one bottle, even disgorgement, same hour, even dosage, even all of this but a magnum will always be younger than a bottle and if it is not the case, there is a problem. So, we had numerous experiences like this and this is an absolute piece of evidence.
BC : How do you manage the long aging with its need for cash-flow in your enterprise?
DD : Intervening is just the effective knowledge of the background of Champagne. When houses are lead by people who arrive from New York or elsewhere, who do not know the soil, who do not know Champagne, they have the tendency to take a genre of a decision for the stocks of champagne and turn it as soon as possible.
I had the chance to have Bernard de NONANCOURT and Alain TERRIER tell me: “if you need 5 months or a year or more for your wine to be perfect, you have them. We are always here to support you financially” and that was an absolutely incredible comfort to have this liberty to say, we want the best no matter what the price. So, it is a unique situation. Actually, to give an example at SALON,For us, it is 14 years.
It is obviously on another register because the house is what it is, it is small and you can afford all this but DELAMOTTE is the same. It was very long and aging time is the absolute key to a quality product. It takes time to grow the vine; it takes time for the first harvest grapes to be of high quality. It will take time for the wine after aging and boroughs as you want, and especially the Chardonnays that have a high acidity and violence. They need time to calm down. So I thank Bernard NONANCOURT who gave me that possibility to make the best.
In this context, I do not have the pressure to do more because harvest have only 37 vintages every 100 years. The temptation would have been, instead of making 37, if you could do 45, nobody will see anything, no one will make a remark of this and it will bring us much more. If we make 45 instead of making 50,000 bottles every time we made a vintage, 70,000 or 100,000, nobody will notice and then it will bring us much more. No! We always respected our philosophy, this means we do not do one bottle more, and it is an absolute grace to continue to work that way. On average we produce 50, 000 bottles per year therefore, every 3 years is microscopic compared to the 300 million bottles produced each year in Champagne.
BC: The scarcity of SALON with its small production carries a significant selling price. How is the price linked to the image of prestige brand SALON today?
DD: It is not a secret, I am 15 years at the head of SALON; the prices of our champagnes have risen. The image grew strongly but precisely; it is the combination of the two. We do not know how to help. Does the image raise the price or does the price raise the image? In any case, the other aspect is the tasting. This is the point where the image, price, and quality all meet and the three are simultaneously necessary to have these three aspects simultaneously. Today in the world and in all markets that matter, SALON, has an amazing image, especially in Asia, Japan, Singapore, UK, France, Italy -in all quality markets. In Italy, for example, which is a great market for great wines of Champagne, SALON has a position that ROMANEE-CONTI or PETRUS are in. We often cite all three sets.
BC: This past year proved to be a difficult growing season; have you decided whether to produce SALON in 2012 or not?
DD: In spite of the challenging growing season that left us with a much smaller harvest than average, 2012 turned out to be precise, sharp and pure enough for Salon to declare a vintage, the first since 2008.The wine will not be available until at least 2023 given the aging period that we believe it needs.
BC: In the cases where you do not produce SALON, what do you end up doing with your still wine production?
When we don't produce SALON, we do not throw it away. In fact, the wines go to DELAMOTTE. DELAMOTTE has its own vineyard, but of course, the SALON wines that go to DELAMOTTE are either Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Vintage or even in the Brut Sans-Année. This is why the level of the DELAMOTTE image is so prestigious because only super high quality grapes are used.
BC: Super high quality but ultimately not high enough quality to be SALON ...
DD: Yes, but SALON has such a level requirement, it uses only grapes and wines that have no less than 18 out of 20. If it is 17 or 16, it is not considered a bad grade but the level requirements are respected. It is similar to passing a test: if the bar to enter the ENA is 18 average, if you have 17, it does not come to the ENA. It is the same for SALON. But 16 out of 20 is still a great score anyway.
BC: Do you only use your own vineyards for SALON? And DELAMOTTE?
DD: No, not only our own vineyards. Since the origin of SALON, Monsieur SALON had selected 20 plots in the village of Mesnil-sur-Oger (Grand Cru), which he bought when he bought the grapes. For more than 100 years, it has always been the same 20 or so. The same families use plots on grapes always. Whatever the year, regardless of the quality, we buy everything and after it is we who make it our business. So there is a little more than half of which is also purchased by SALON. For DELAMOTTE, we have our vineyard and we buy around 30 hectares equally, that are the crus at 100%.
BC: So DELAMOTTE produces champagne exclusively from grapes of grands crus?
DD: Absolutely: Mesnil, Oger, Avize. It is our desire to do something super quality, and at the time accessible. I think DELAMOTTE wine is accessible, and a perfect approach to Blanc de Blancs. The Blanc de Blancs non-vintage DELAMOTTE is our showman. Honestly, I do not fear anyone. In December 2012 Eric Asimov, wine expert of the New York Times, did a blind tasting for the New York Times. He had 30 wines of Blanc de Blancs. DELAMOTTE Blanc de Blancs came out with first, and this created an incredible snowball effect. In Japan, the Blanc de Blancs DELAMOTTE is the wine the sold the most, it is really a “benchmark” for Champagne and for the Blanc de Blancs.
BC: Why does DELAMOTTE, with its long history and great champagnes not benefit from its notoriety like other brands of champagnes, who are much younger?
DD: DELAMOTTE House is more than 250 years old and we have owned this house for 25 years. It was attached to other larger houses and in fact, it was choking so that others might live. When I returned, it produced less than 220,000 bottles a year. Today, DELAMOTTE produces 700,000 bottles per year, which is still not bad in terms of growth in 15 years. Tey, the volume for me is just one aspect. What is interesting about DELAMOTTE is that the volume has increased, the quality has increased and it makes a lot more money with DELAMOTTE.
What always makes me happy is being told constantly, "the quality of DELAMOTTE increases every year." This is a sign that theor at the expense of a price which is cheap. When you raise the price and volumes, and the quality increases the volume, we can still be happy.
BC: We talked about quality and branding of SALON DELAMOTTE. What is your approach to distribution?
DD: The key is finding the right partner for distribution. When you work with someone who is in the same creed, who understands and has the same aspirations, we can make him understand very quickly that the price maintenance and price increases are necessary. For me, a good distributor is not someone who speaks price when they start the discussion. An aggressive price can work the first time but it will not work long term. The distributor must know how to sell something expensive. Of course the brand plays its role. In fact, it's quite a mix. This is why the French market is still super-important for all brands called "luxury". I do not like using the word 'luxury' but all the famous brands and know-how must be recognized in France or Italy is also a good market brand to be accepted in other less matured countries.
BC: The champagne's traditional markets such as France and England are tired. For the next five years, what markets are you paying a lot of attention to?
DD: I do not quite agree that French or English markets are tired because they may have some variations in percentage more or less, but they are extremely stable markets. France remains the primary market for our industry with 180 millions of champagne bottles. Almost two-thirds of all champagne is drunk in France.
Nevertheless it is a market that can still grow, but is stable so it's great to have the local market, which is within our reach because we are here, being so powerful. Do not forget that there are 70 million visitors each year in France and in all the studies that are done on the image of France, when we speak of France first it is Paris, then the Eiffel Tower, and champagne is the third word that comes up. It is absolute power. The brand makes great Champagne; it is extraordinarily powerful. That is why we must protect our name and pay close attention to the use of the word Champagne because it is our stock in trade. All these mature markets, I have a greater attention to them because they are needed, it is our base and it is a basis of radiation on less mature markets or new markets like China or perhaps Brazil.
China today for the champagne market is very small, with 1 million bottles last year, but in the next 10 years, we will reach 20 million bottles of champagne in this market, I'm sure, since China is like Japan 30 years ago, except that they are one and a half billion inhabitants. We also look to Russia as part of BRIC’s throughout Africa because when you add Africa is as populous as China.
BC: What is the challenge of managing a house as prestigious as SALON, which produces one of the most expensive champagne?
BC: Mr. DEPOND. You are not originally from Champagne but you became Champenois. What is champagne in your life?
DD: I have been in Champagne 27 years, in the group LAURENT-PERRIER since SALON & DELAMOTTE were a part of this group. I am originally from Tour and I arrived in Champagne at the age of 22.
When I returned to Laurent PERRIER, I met two extraordinary men: Bernard NONANCOURT who was the president of the group LAURENT-PERRIER and who was like a second father to me, and Alain Terrier who was the winemaker of the House. There are 37 vintages in the LAURENT-PERRIER group and at SALON & DELAMOTTE. There is a very small number of cellar masters who stay as long in the same house. So I was, you could say, adopted by these two men and they taught me a lot in 27 years and, in my case, I did different things within the group to since 15 years become the president of SALON & DELAMOTTE. I was 33 years old when President Bernard NONANCOURT appointed me and I was the youngest President of SALON & DELAMOTTE. Last year, I traveled with DELAMOTTE SALON for 132 days in 40 countries. For now, champagne is my life.
BC : What would life be without champagne?
DD : Life without champagne is something inconceivable for me but it will come one day when I would not be at SALON and DELAMOTTE any longer. There will be someone else to replace me because it is what must happen. But in any case, to have served SALON, DELAMOTTE, the group LAURENT-PERRIER already for 27 years, has been an immense pleasure. I have done it even more easily than I had for Bernard de NONANCOURT who was my boss clearly but more than a boss, for example. When you work with someone like that for 27 years, there is nothing better.
BC : Do you drink champagne every day?
DD : 2 times a day!
Follow the link to discover Delamotte champagnes: http://www.bestchampagne.co/houses/salon
Follow the link to discover Delamotte champagnes: http://www.bestchampagne.co/houses/delamotte