Gilles de la Bassetière is the man behind the increasing success of de Venoge and its contemporary identity, an intriguing mix of an old aristocratic soul–its history–with a new spirit–its president. An elegant Frenchman full of energy, good vibes, and ideas, he perfectly embodies the two faces of this maison: sober elegance and dynamism. With the support of the group, and thanks to its drive and direct involvement in the winemaking, he has taken de Venoge to new heights. The recent high ratings received are proof of how a clear vision, passion, hard work, and the use of key principles in quality champagne making that he explains, have done their magic.
The Lanson-BCC group acquired the beautiful de Venoge mansion, located on the legendary Avenue de Champagne, in 2015, testifying to the strong dynamism and desire to renew the house. What is the story of this acquisition?
Founded in 1837, at the end of the 19th century, de Venogewas already one of the three largest houses in Champagne with over 1 million bottles produced per year and exports worldwide alongside a very important aristocratic clientele. In the 1990s, the house changed owners and eventually joined the Lanson-BCC group in 1998, which bought the brand and a part of the stocks and then began a major development plan.
When I arrived at the head of the house in 2005, it didn’t own a building anymore, but to give it back its shine, we needed a one worth of our glorious past. Finally, this fabulous edifice, built in 1900 and owned by the town hall of Epernay, became available and the group financed its purchase in 2015. We have undertaken important renovation works to put it back in its original state by using the plans of the time. We have also decided to open it to the public with unique guest rooms.
Why the choice, unusual in Champagne, of opening to the public with these rooms?
Everywhere in the world, wine estates are opening their doors to the public, and we don’t see any reason why we should not do the same in Champagne. We opened the rooms in August 2016 and the success has been far greater than our expectations. The clientele is mostly foreign, which contributes to our growing visibility abroad. We now offer something unique in the region with exceptional rooms in the heart of the Avenue de Champagne, in a Champagne house.
Everywhere in the world, wine estates are opening their doors to the public, and we don’t see any reason why we should not do the same in Champagne.
In 2017 de Venoge received very high notes by the Wine Advocate by Robert Parker. Can you give us the details?
Our Blanc de Blancs (Princes range) received 91 points. Our Blanc de Noir and Extra Brut (Princes range) received 93 points: this is the highest rating ever given by this guide to non-vintage champagnes. Our prestige cuvées Louis XV 2006 and Louis XV 1996 received 96 points. Our prestige cuvées Louis XV 1995 and Louis XV Rosé 2006 received 97 points. The latter was even voted the best champagne of 2006. And our brut non-vintage Cordon Bleu received 91 points and was given the same high rating by Wine Spectator too. We are therefore one of the best-rated Champagne houses. We are delighted that these experts recognize the exceptional quality of our wines.
Tell us about Cordon Bleu, your BSA, the business card of every Champagne house. What does it transmit with its style?
The idea is to compose a brut non-vintage champagne that is vinous but always fresh and elegant. What we are looking for in all our wines is to keep some freshness. Cordon Bleu (of 2018) is composed of a base of 2013, with 50% pinot noir, 25% chardonnay, and 25% meunier, with about 20 wines from all the Champagne with grands crus, premiers crus and other crus. We only use the cuvée, which also allows for a low dosage of 7 g/l. We include a minimum of 20% reserve wines, normally from the two previous years (10% + 10%), except for particularly difficult harvests. We guarantee aging on lees of at least three years, and three months of rest after disgorgement. A peculiarity of our house is that we store the bottles standing after disgorging so that the wine is never in contact with the cork to avoid any risk of cork taste.
What we are looking for in all our wines is vinousity but always with freshness and elegance.
After 20 years of the same assemblage, Cordon Bleu evolves naturally and from the assemblage of 2015, we include a little more chardonnay to accentuate this freshness at the heart of our style. Our goal is to compose a blend of one-third of each variety. And, from 2018, we reduced the dosage to 6.1-6.9 g/l.
The Princes range received a lot of attention for its high ratings. What is its origin, and that of its unique decanter-shaped bottle, which is also used for your Louis XV cuvées?
In the 19th century, the Royal Family of Holland used this decanter to remove the deposit from champagne and serve it. In 1961, the Trouillard family, owner of de Venoge at the time, had the idea to use this carafe and make a champagne bottle with it.
The Princes range is very old, with its first appearance in 1850, but it included only blanc de blancs. When I arrived at the helm of de Venoge, I understood the potential of this range and decided to develop it, later including extra brut, blanc de noirs, and rosé. The first bottling was done in 2008 and the official launch took place in 2015 because to make quality champagne you need time. We are now taking advantage of the work done beforehand.
You are the ultimate decision-maker of all your assemblages. What is the blending philosophy behind these champagnes?
This underlying philosophy of the Princes range is to use few, carefully selected crus.
Princes Blanc de Noirs is made of 100% pinot noir, of which 80% from Verzenay (grand cru) for freshness and elegance, and 20% from Riceys in the Aube for power and roundness, with 20% reserve wines and a low dosage of 6 g/l.
Princes Blanc de Blancs is made of 100% chardonnay, of 80% from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and 20% from Trépail, a premier cru with a lot of character and here again a low dosage of 6 g/l.
For Princes Extra Brut, we include one-third of each grape variety mainly from premiers and grands crus, with pinot noirs from Hautvillers, meuniers from Rillly la Montage and Chigny-les-Roses, and chardonnay from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. With the power of the grands crus and the reserve wines, we use a very low dosage of 3.5 g/l.
So, we build the assemblages on a grand cru with its dominant characteristics, accompanied by other complementing crus. But we select not only good crus but also good vine growers, whom we know personally and whose way of working we appreciate. But we systematically refuse grapes that do not conform to our quality requirements.
We build the assemblages on a grand cru with its dominant characteristics, accompanied by other complementing crus.
What makes a grand cru in your opinion?
Some terroirs have been declared grands crus because they consistently produce the best grapes, simultaneously possessing the best acidities and sugar levels. But it is not just a question of vineyard exposure and ripeness of the grapes as one might think; there can also be premiers or other crus that give great maturity and a lot of acidity without bringing complexity. So, it’s a question of terroir in its whole and the empirical historical classification of Champagne remains valid.
What do you think about the increasing popularity of mono-grand-crus champagnes?
Grands crus can produce great champagnes with no blending, thanks to their unique terroir and particular taste. Premiers or ordinary crus used alone can lack in character and peculiarity and can be magnified with the assemblage when their intrinsic qualities are associated with a grand cru.
Tell us about your prestige cuvée Louis XV. Why this name?
This cuvée is a wink to birth of champagne as we know it today: the edict of Louis XV in 1728. On May 25th of that year, the king authorized the bottling of Champagne wines and only Champagne wines to transport them to Normandy. It would appear that he established the law for the Marquise de Pompadour, his favorite mistress who lived in Normandy, who wished to have sparkling champagne delivered for her dinners. Whether or not true, the edict allowed champagne with bubbles to begin its development, with the first house appearing in 1729.
Louis XV 1995 is composed of 50% pinot noir and 50% chardonnay, only from grands crus: Mailly, Ambonnay, Verzenay, and Bouzy for the pinots, and Avize, Cramant, Oger, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and Chouilly for the chardonnays. After aging for 10 years (disgorgement in 2006) and a dosage of 6 g/l, Louis XV 1995 has benefited from additional aging in the bottle–after disgorgement–of over 10 years that adds incredible complexity to the wine. With this long aging, the chardonnays stand out and dominate the pinots, which is surprising: the minerality of the grands crus of chardonnay is evident. In this wine, there is elegance, finesse, freshness, length, and complexity: in my opinion, this champagne has it all. For Louis XV 2008, for the first time, we did not carry out malolactic fermentation to keep more freshness, at the heart of our style.
What are your ambitions for the future?
My goal is to grow in volume very slowly while keeping the level of quality that we have attained and improve it even further. This quest for quality will result in a small increase in our prices, which will probably translate into a reduction in sales in France and an increase in exports.
My goal is to grow in volume very slowly while keeping the level of quality that we have attained and improve it even further.
Do you think that this tendency of the best Champagne houses to invest more and more on quality, given the competitive business of sparkling wines, is sustainable, with the related increase in the price of champagne?
For sure, there will increasingly be a “two-speed Champagne” with houses and other producers who will succeed in making champagne a luxury product of very high quality on one hand, and on the other hand, producers who will not reach this level.
We should not forget that in 1890, a vintage de Venoge champagne was more expensive than a Château Latour or a Château Margaux. Today, these wines are 10 times more expensive than champagne. Meanwhile, Champagne has expanded from 30 million bottles produced per year to 300 million today. The production of these Chateaux, meanwhile, has not progressed in the same way. In this regard, champagne is not so expensive.
What is champagne to you?
Champagne is celebration. I remember in one of the first business trips to California, a sales sales representative told me that champagne is a celebration of good and bad moments. At that time, he was celebrating his divorce!