Clovis Taittinger, the heir apparent to the famous Champagne house, talks about his family’s pride and joy
Humble, charming and soft-spoken, with a thick French accent, Clovis Taittinger may be 31 years old, but he has the poise, maturity and expertise of a man many years his senior. Born in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, France, Clovis grew up in Reims, the Champagne region of the country, before moving to Paris, where he earned his master’s degree in history at the Sorbonne. Upon graduating, he entered the field of banking and spent years managing his own company in the real estate and hotel industry. In 2007, after the Taittinger family secured control of its beloved winemaking business, Clovis joined his father, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, in working there.
Today, he spends a tremendous amount of time traveling the world representing the family and forging relationships with Taittinger’s distributors and clients. In addition, Clovis oversees grape-grower relations, a partnership he calls “vital to the success of our company.” While this married father of three has the luxury of jetting around the globe and visiting some of the most exciting cities in the world, he clearly has a passion for New Orleans, which is evident in the way he compares the “soul” of the Crescent City to his famous bubbly. Twice now I’ve had the privilege of spending time with the heir apparent to the family business. On his most recent visit we chatted (over a glass of Taittinger, of course!) about the renowned Champagne house, its interesting past and what the future holds.
I understand that Taittinger has quite an interesting history.
Oh, yes! My great-grandfather, before the First World War, was a sales rep in Paris for a Champagne brand. He was a great man, a social man with many friendships who enjoyed the finer things in life, particularly great food and wines. When he was a soldier in the French army he had to report to one of the army leaders, who had a small castle located near Epernay, in Champagne. So the legend goes he fell in love with the castle and bought it after the war. The castle and the few vineyards around it eventually became the birthplace of Taittinger. He later became a famous politician. His brother François was a difficult man to manage; he was quite a character. He turned out to be the genius of the family, and when he came to Champagne, he quickly became the president of Taittinger at just 18 years old. He’s the man who for the first time put the name “Taittinger” on the bottle. Not only did he change the name, but he created a new style of Champagne; a style more elegant, delicate, feminine and with more finesse. He was going against the common way of making Champagne. After World War II was over, Taittinger became one of the top luxury brands and [one of the] three biggest houses in the world.
Your father, Pierre-Emmanuel, is the current president of Champagne Taittinger. What is it like to work with him?
You know, you have the big chief and the Indians, and I’m belonging to the Indians right now. [Laughs] My father is very open; he allows and encourages us to follow our own ideas. The task is vast. We don’t look at each other like father and son. We just try to do our best and do what’s best for the company. We put our relationship aside because it’s about what’s in the company’s best interest.
You’ve worked in other fields, namely banking and consulting, as well as managing your own company in the real estate and hotel business. Then in 2007 you joined the family business. What prompted you to do so?
Buying back Taittinger was a difficult process, as we had to go up against 60 or 70 competitors, so there was lots of uncertainty. Before making the deal, my father told me that he wished I were there alongside him to help buy back Taittinger. He asked me to promise that if we got the business back that I would join him, and of course for me it was a great honor to do so. It’s something very rare to buy back a company; it’s something very passionate. It’s not a question of money, it’s not a question of ego, it’s a question of assuming your part of the legacy. It was also a question of friendship and respect for my father. I have a great father; he’s my best friend, so in good or bad times, it’s important for me to be by his side.
The company was sold to Starwood in 2005, and after a tough battle, your family got it back in July 2006. Why was it so important to regain control of Taittinger?
Both my father and I are great believers. I think he wanted to buy it back to pay tribute to the memory of François Taittinger and for his grandfather. For him it was very sad to see the name go into different hands. My father was the mayor of Reims and really helped to develop the region, so in addition to paying honor to my family, he did it for the people. In part I think he also did it for me and for the next generation, but on a larger scope I think he fought to get it back for all of the Taittinger partners in the world. I think he wanted to buy back Taittinger for the customers. The brand is prestigious, but he always focused on quality and consistency. He was concerned that in the end having the brand in someone else’s hands, that the style, quality and consistency would be compromised. For us there is a passion, which is always telling you not to compromise. It’s very important to always be clear in your mind, clear in your spirit what you want to do and what you want to sell. With Taittinger what we want to be and what we want to sell is the top Champagne brand in the world. We did not buy back Taittinger to please our ego, but more to maintain a legacy. When you are named Taittinger, it’s not only a pleasure, it’s a duty, a good duty to maintain the brand in the fashion it deserves.
How many acres of vineyard do you own?
We own about 900 acres, which covers about 50 percent of our needs. Today our vineyards are located in about 30 prestigious villages and are mainly planted with chardonnay and pinot noir and a little bit of pinot meunier.
So then you purchase quite a bit of grapes from growers. How important to your success are those relationships?
Taittinger is a company of growers. While we own a lot of vineyard land and are deeply linked to the soil—to the terroir—we need also to buy grapes. We purchase grapes from about 300 top suppliers in Champagne, and those relationships are the key. If you want to develop a brand, if you want to be respected, you must know every aspect of the chain. Our relationships with our growers are vital to our success.
How many wines does Taittinger produce?
For me, it’s only one. We produce one Champagne in different expressions. We make about seven different pictures of Taittinger.
How would you describe your house style?
Definitely one of finesse, style and elegance. It’s a jazzy wine … musical, if you will. Wines of life, wines of vitality. Always sharp. The main goal is to give pleasure. We make wines of happiness, and that’s very important. Our wines are not masculine. They are pure; they are very solid, very precise. We let the quality of the fruit express itself. We are not here to put makeup on the wines, but rather let the purity shine through. We have a vision of what we want to do in our mind, and the technical side merely helps us to reach that goal. At Taittinger we love beautiful things. We are dreamers, we love elegant things, and we try to make our wines this way.
I love your rosé! Tell me what makes is so special.
Chardonnay is the backbone, which is unusual for rosé, as most are made primarily from pinot noir. Our rosé is filled with finesse and vitality, elegance and great length. Secondly, there are two methods to make rosé; one is where you let the skin of the fruit color the juice. While you can produce more this way, we don’t think it makes the best quality. What we do at Taittinger, and that’s unique in Champagne, is that we add some quality red wine (about 10 percent) from the Champagne area to the chardonnay must and that gives the rosé its beautiful color. It also adds character and complexity.
What does your job entail?
My main occupation is to present the brand and to deal with my 110 agents in the world. It takes a long time to get to every country and to every city to make sure Taittinger is at the top. I deal with every country, with representatives from every city, and am the liaison between them and Taittinger. Everyone is in a different situation and has different needs, so it’s my job to try to match our international vision with each of our customers. My main duty is to look after my customers—my Taittinger friends in the world. And my second responsibility is to look after our relationships with our growers.
How involved are you in the winemaking aspect?
I’m very involved, first of all because it’s our name on the label, so it’s representative of us. We have two oenologists in charge of the process of the wine. The man who ultimately decides is my father, who has 31 years of experience with the company, so he knows perfectly how the best blends are made and so on. Maybe one day I’ll be the one to decide, but for now it’s him. We have a tasting committee with all the board members, of which I’m a member, and we give advice, but at the end my father makes the final decisions.
What does the future hold for Taittinger?
We are working on many things. For example, we are building a welcome center in Reims. We are also changing our packaging. It won’t be anything drastic, but it is evolving somewhat. We are working on significant marketing changes and making some internal company changes. We are very open-minded people. We are always observing other businesses, and we are not against moving into other products outside of wine. Champagne is our roots, but if we feel good about something new, and we have the people to support it, we would be open to it. We have experience in the hotel industry, in fine luxury products like crystal, so we are not limited to one field. Diversity and openness is good … if we can successfully create the next Google, we would do it! [Laughs] It’s important to continue to explore and stretch beyond your current boundaries. I don’t know that the future holds, but we are builders for sure.
If you could only have one last bottle of wine or Champagne, what would it be and why?
Ahh … it’s a difficult question. I like all our babies, but to give you an answer, I would say the Brut La Francaise. It’s our very first wine; it’s the wine which requires the most attention. The wine we are producing the most of, the wine which is making Taittinger so well known worldwide. It’s easy to make 10,000 bottles of good wine, but to make 4 million bottles of great wine with excellent consistency, with great elegance requires much more. I’m very proud to offer such a luxurious wine at an affordable price. The real knowledge is in this bottle.
This is your second visit to New Orleans in the past year. You must be fond of our city.
It’s difficult not to be a fan of New Orleans. Both Champagne and New Orleans share something magical called jazz. If Champagne is the wine of happiness, the wine of life, I think jazz is the music that touches your heart—it wakes up your instincts, it makes you dream. The soul of jazz goes very well with the soul of Champagne. It’s not always happiness … it can be emotional, it can be sad, but it’s overflowing with great emotion. People think Champagne is the wine to celebrate, but I think it’s the wine of emotion; it’s spiritual, it’s inside you. New Orleans is all that. I wish the New Orleans spirit could come to France and make our country a bit more friendly, more dancing, more sexy. Then there’s the food. For me, it’s one of the best places for food in America! You have great seafood, spices and ingredients, a great culinary legacy, Creole and Cajun influences. It’s a great mix of aromas and flavors. The city, like the food, has a great deal of charm and spice, so it’s easy to love!