Though owned by Lanson-BCC, Philipponnat is still very much a family-run house with Charles Philipponnat at its head since 2000. A discrete man with a permanent smile and great knowledge in champagne making, he follows the family traditions with humility to craft wines of extraordinary contrast between full-bodied intensity and distinct freshness. He explains how great terroir and precise winemaking–combined–produce the magic of champagne: contrasts, in balance, for superior taste.
How would you explain your house and your champagnes?
We are very much a connoisseurs’ house. At Philipponnat we make wine. Our champagnes are intense yet fresh. By that I mean tasty and fruity, and with the correct level of acidity. Both elements need to lean against each other to create the right balance and length.
At Philipponnat we make wine. Our champagnes are intense yet fresh.
Intensity and freshness is not something we have invented; it comes from the earth, from our terroir. The intensity comes from the fact that all our vineyards are south-facing and 90% are planted with pinot noir so they are naturally big and fruity. We pick our grapes a little later than usual which means they have richer sugar content and more aromas. This also means a bit less acidity. The freshness comes from the terroir. We are located in the very heart of Champagne, with rich mineral concentrations in the sub-soil made of pure chalk. But also, from our winemaking methods that allow maintaining the purity of the terroir and the fresh perception of acidity. We pay a lot of attention to avoid premature oxidation, which could make the wine heavy rather than intense. And, in general, we avoid malolactic fermentation to retain more malic acid in the wines and naturally enhance the acidity. But we do not avoid it as a principle that we apply to all our wines; it is something that we use to create the right balance and this may vary according to the vintage.
Our desire is to maintain freshness and intensity because we want to take the natural qualities of the grapes to the consumer, nothing more.
Do you think intense champagne makes it more difficult to understand and appreciate?
Yes and no. I find that non-expert consumers tend to like the style because the intensity is understandable, and the fact that it’s fruity comes as a good surprise, which makes the wine immediately likable. It can be a bit more difficult with champagne experts, but many have gotten to know us over time and love us. These people have been used to drinking elegant, light champagnes like blanc de blancs. Champagne made mostly of pinot noir is a little newer and we still have a lot to learn and understand. But we have made exceptional progress in Champagne in the way we work this grape. Previously, there was limited attention paid to oxidation, with excessive notes in the wine of oxidation or reduction, making a good balance difficult to achieve. We have learned to facilitate this balance with temperature control and by using oak to stabilize the struggle that might occur with pinot noir.
Indeed, Philipponnat is one of the few Champagne houses to use oak. Why? What is your philosophy on this subject?
Wines kept in oak gain in complexity and maintain freshness. Yet fully oaked wines can lose freshness because they oxidize more and gain aromas from the oak itself, which can be overwhelming. Fully oaked wines are interesting but that is not our aim because we feel that the oak takes away the transparency of these wines. We use oak in a controlled way. A little more than half of our champagnes are fermented in oak and the rest in stainless steel. All the reserve wines used in the blends of our non-vintage champagnes are kept in oak. But if you can notice the oak in a wine it is because there is too much of it. It should be a little something that you can’t pinpoint but makes the wine more complex.
A little more than half of our champagnes are fermented in oak and the rest in stainless steel.
Your champagnes are also characterized by their moderate dosage. Why? What is your view on this topic?
Dry wines are more transparent, and the aromas come through more clearly, whereas large amounts of the sugar can hide them, and there is a tendency among connoisseurs to drink drier wines. A century ago, most champagnes were very sweet. When I started working in Champagne 30 years ago, a large proportion of champagnes were demi-sec, and brut was a specialty. Over time, the average dosage has been lowered to the point that very little demi-sec is produced and the spot that was once occupied by brut is now occupied by extra brut and zero dosage champagne. I think that we are coming to the end of the historical preference for sweeter champagnes. If you have a well-produced wine with good aromas and no defaults, you have nothing to hide but rather something to show. This puts pressure on the producers to make better wines and I think the quality of champagne is much better now than 30 years ago. We have better technology and more control from the vineyard to the winery. We have fewer problems with pests and fungi and use stainless steel tanks with temperature control, which help produce better wines.
The fact that it is made from a clos is irrelevant; it is the vineyard itself that makes it special. Clos des Goisses is a very special place; I think about it as the most original vineyard in Champagne. It is a combination of very chalky soil, extreme slope and full south exposure. The result is a wine that is both very intense and fresh because we get immense maturity and acute minerality in the grapes.
Clos des Goisses is a very special place; I think about it as the most original vineyard in Champagne.
Where is Philipponnat most appreciated, and which new markets are you considering?
Historically, our largest market is Italy. Italians love beautiful things, living well and in style, and our philosophy meets the needs of this market. Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden are also excellent markets for us. New markets include Eastern Europe, Russia, and Ukraine, which are doing very well. Asia is developing slowly.
How important is distribution for you?
We are not very well known to the public, and consumers look for the advice of retailers who express an honest passion for a product. Therefore we work with distributors passionate about our products and who pass that passion onto the retailers who in turn pass it on to the consumers.
And how important is the brand?
For me, a brand is as strong as the quality in the bottle. The brand is our signature and I think that our brand is associated with quality. Our real investment is inside the bottle, in the attention to detail; that is where we put our marketing money.
For me, a brand is as strong as the quality in the bottle.
What is your advice to properly appreciate champagne?
Forget the bubbles, it’s about wine, taste, intensity, and freshness. It’s very easy to put bubbles into champagne and champagne is not so different from other sparkling wines in terms of the bubbles. We are set apart because of our terroir, climate, and the way we make and age our wines. People tend to forget that champagne is aged in contact with the lees for many years. So, forget about the bubbles and concentrate on the taste. Have champagne as an aperitif if you like but try to combine it with food; you’ll discover that champagne is more than just sparkling wine.
Try to combine it with food; you’ll discover that champagne is more than just sparkling wine.
Do you drink champagne every day?
Yes, unless I am on vacation, when I like to try local wines. At home, of course, I drink champagne.
What does champagne mean to you?
It’s my life! It’s a way of living, it’s not just about making champagne. Many people put up a wall between their personal and professional life, but if you like to make and drink wine, there is no border. I was born here and many generations before me have made champagne and I hope the next generations will continue.