Jean-Marie Barillère was appointed president of the UMC and co-president of the Comité Champagne in 2013. A man of incredible experience in the champagne trade, he wasn’t born in Champagne, but in Charente, in southwestern France.
After studying agronomy, he started his career at the National Institute of Agronomic Research (INRA). He then moved to Champagne to become director of viticulture at Mumm and Perrier-Jouët, two iconic houses, of which he became president in 1999. In 2006, he joined Moët Hennessy, which owns Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, and Ruinart, as director for all the Champagne activities. In the same year, he was elected vice-president of the UMC where he teamed up with its President Ghislain de Montgolfier, to take his relay in 2013. Since then, he has pursued the vision and hard work of three centuries, with great joy and a strong sense of responsibility for the continued prosperity of the best wine in the world.
In this interview, he provides a lucid and engaging overview of the past, present and exciting future of champagne, with understated optimism and great lucidity–typically Champenois.
The UMC was founded to defend the word “champagne” against the encroachment of other wine-producing regions and then to organize the fight against phylloxera. How has this role evolved since the creation of the Comité Champagne?
The mission to defend the champagne name and region–previously held by the UMC–was passed to the Comité Champagne at its creation. The role of the UMC today is to be the guarantor of champagne’s excellence and to further improve its quality to satisfy the ever-evolving expectations of our consumers. The members of the UMC who traditionally produced most of the champagne have always carried out R&D activities. In the 19th century, they made hazardous investments to gain a better understanding of the alcoholic fermentation and the development of bubbles in the wine, thereby democratizing the Champagne Method. This is why the UMC and its members still carry this vision of excellence and champion viticulture and enology for the greatest possible quality of champagne, maintaining its leadership as the king of sparkling wines in a world that constantly evolves with the challenge of global competition.
The current trend is to pursue higher-quality champagne in the vineyard more than in the cellar. Why?
The quality of champagne has been constantly evolving in the last 20 years–thanks to better pressing, greater mastery of alcoholic and malolactic fermentation, and a wider knowledge of the oxidation-reduction phenomena. But a great wine is not obtained just with technique but especially with great raw material, the grapes. For the last 20 years, global warming has led to climatic hazards that have a significant impact on the vineyard, especially resulting in earlier harvests. We are also all aware of the environmental expectations of consumers and the environmental impact of vine-growing practices. All this makes the people of Champagne more attentive to viticulture because the soil is the source of the quality of our wines.
In 2000, we put in place a sustainable viticulture plan to limit the use of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, making our region a pioneer in sustainable development with important results achieved; but the margin of progress still available in viticulture is enormous. We are still obliged to protect our crops from diseases, but today, this work is done with greater sensitivity toward its environmental impact and therefore, we are seeing a reduction in the quantities used. This requires the evolution and sophistication of the vine growers toward greater expertise. I think that in the next 10 years in Champagne, there will be no need for herbicides or insecticides. Fungicides will still be needed to control mildew and botrytis, as it will take another 50 years to obtain grape varieties that are resistant to these fungi. But the path to follow is already mapped out.
Beyond quality, what roles do the “champagne” brand and individual brands play in your overall success?
Quality is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the success of champagne. Consumers join a brand that implies a certain quality and image, and a price/quality ratio of its product in line with this image. A brand must be built primarily on the quality of its product and then create the dream around it. Therefore, champagne must continue to evolve with the expectations of its consumers so as not to lose value, by advancing the standards and specifications of our wine region. But it is the champagne producers–houses and growers–who decide this collective effort. In this context, individual brands of champagne that go well beyond the standards and specifications, in accordance with their vision and philosophy, strengthen and benefit the entire champagne world and brand.
The champagne sales of recent years confirm a gradual contraction of the traditional markets (France and the UK first) and an expansion of the markets outside the EU. How do you explain these results?
Not being a basic necessity, but a luxury product, champagne requires growing economies and/or optimism in the consumers to keep expanding. France is the first champagne market. Since 2011, we have seen an erosion of consumption linked to a diminishing purchasing power and that results in a champagne market that continues to shrink in volume and value. In the UK, our second market, the contraction of champagne consumption has worsened with Brexit. In Europe, where economic growth is lower than global growth, shipments of champagne continue their decline in volume but increase in value, thanks to Italy, Belgium, and Spain. On the other hand, the distant markets show strong growth and continue to develop in volume and value, with the US, Japan, and Australia being the first three markets of this zone. These distant markets offset the loss of some traditional markets and this is accompanied by higher value creation through the increase in sales prices. We clearly see that the producers who are successful in the US and Asia–whether houses or growers–beat their sales and earnings records every year. On the other hand, producers who are strongly present in France and the UK lose market share year after year.
In 2018, for the first time, champagne exports exceeded France’s consumption, which today represents less than 50% of sales in volume, this is a trend that we expect to continue. Even if, as I hope, the French market will stabilize, continued growth will come from export markets outside the EU. But these distant markets are unstable and much more expensive to develop compared to proximity markets. Some producers have anticipated these pockets of economic growth and have been present in these markets since their origin. Those who had the means to invest there are doing very well. We must always try to anticipate and adapt to market trends. This should be the first rule to follow: keep pace with the times.
Which are the most promising distant markets?
Today, Japan and Australia are the most dynamic new markets of champagne, but this remains very much linked to the economic cycles. Five years ago we talked a lot about Brazil and China, while today we talk about Nigeria and other fast-growing economies in Africa. The consumption of champagne is intrinsically linked to economic development and to people who want to stand out by buying the dream, the image of French savoir-vivre, of which champagne is part of. In the long term, I foresee a return to the situation of a century ago, when champagne will be exported more than consumed in France, and in 10 or 15 years maybe only one-third of the champagne production will be consumed in France, one-third in EU, and another third in the rest of the world.
You underline the growth in value to compensate for the loss in volume. Why this strategic choice?
In Champagne today, we talk about growth in value and not in volume anymore because the latter is no longer possible. In the last 40 years, we have multiplied the sales volumes by five to six times but we can only further increase them by not more than 10% during the next 30 years as the Champagne vineyard is reaching its full production capacity. As there are more and more consumers in the world and we cannot increase significantly the volume of champagne produced, we are forced to strive for growth in value, marking a record in revenues every year, while volumes remain more or less stable. On the other hand, the production capacity of sparkling wines outside Champagne is almost unlimited. As we have the obligation of excellence, with the corresponding price, we will only be able to compete with these variables.
How do you look at the competition of these other sparkling wines that are constantly growing in volume and quality?
This highly competitive framework is positive because it forces us to further increase in quality. As we are at the top of the pyramid of sparkling wines, we must always seek greater excellence and be consistent with our value. But our competition is no longer only represented by sparkling wines from other regions but also by other alcoholic beverages such as red wine or spirits, depending on the markets. That’s why the proximity of markets and understanding their evolution is crucial in continuing to position champagne as the king of wines and meeting the expectations of its consumers.
How do you look at the future of champagne?
I’m very optimistic about the future of champagne for a simple reason: this international product is synonymous with celebration, success, lifestyle and I think there will always be a demand for it. We have an extraordinary future ahead of us as long as we satisfy this demand for pleasure in the world. To do this, we must be good vine growers, enologists, marketers, and managers and have the means of investing to develop distant markets with margins large enough to make it sustainable.
How do you feel being at the helm of the trade association of the best wine in the world?
It gives me a great sense of pride to be at the helm of the UMC and the Comité Champagne and to participate in the success of champagne. It is such a joy to be in this industry where we are producers of happiness in the world. At the same time, I feel the pressure of the responsibility to be as precise as possible in our forecasts because this information allows houses and growers to work better for the present and future of an industry that attracts revenues of five billion euro per year.
What is champagne to you?
Champagne is a product that breathes French art de vivre, joy, and sharing happiness, of which it is an essential component. Champagne is an effervescent wine of extraordinary quality that we all want to share. Drinking champagne brings people together for moments of great sensory pleasure and builds friendships. Compare the experience of opening a bottle of wine, alcohol, or champagne at the aperitif and you will see which is the most appreciated!
Do you drink champagne every day?
I drink it often, very often.
How would life be without champagne?
Sad. A week without champagne would be tough.