Laurent d’Harcourt joined Pol Roger in 2006 and became president in 2013. Prior to that, this MBA graduate was Export Director at Bruno Paillard, another great Champagne house. He is also at the head of the committee for the protection of the Champagne Appellation since 2019. Not being Champenois but a native of Burgundy, he has a very interesting view of Champagne from the outside. A friendly and approachable man, his clear thinking makes the champagne world easy to read.
What have you learned about champagne from your current and previous experiences?
I am originally from Burgundy and I arrived in Champagne in 1996–a superb vintage–after working abroad extensively. I soon learned that the word champagne is magical, that this wine is magical. People living in Champagne are very lucky to have a brand like this and they fight for it with passion.
People living in Champagne are very lucky to have a brand like this and they fight for it with passion.
What is the history of Pol Roger and how is it intertwined with the UK and Winston Churchill who gives his name to your signature vintage champagne?
Pol Roger himself started his adventure in the world of champagne in Epernay in 1849. He made his beginnings as a wine trader. This way, he came across exceptional champagnes that gave him the desire to put his name on the bottle. He started by selling them abroad, in the UK. When he passed away in 1899, his two sons Maurice and Georges Roger had already been involved in the business. They realized that their father had created a strong brand with Pol Roger; therefore, in 1899, they asked the French government to add Pol–a first name–to their family name. They then became Maurice and Georges Pol Roger.
In 1900, the house was growing rapidly but experienced a catastrophe: parts of the cellars collapsed and destroyed almost 1 million bottles. Thanks to the solidarity of the Champagne people and houses such as Moët & Chandon, Perrier-Jouët and Mercier, Pol Roger got back in business and continued its development, especially in the UK where it enjoyed unmatched fame.
Later on, Winston Churchill, a great champagne connoisseur, hugely contributed to the development of the brand. He loved Pol Roger vintage champagnes, especially those made with a majority of pinot noir. He became even more engrossed in the house when he met Odette Pol-Roger, Jacques Pol-Roger’s wife, who was the ambassador of the house in England. Winston Churchill used to write to her: Odette Pol Roger, 44 Avenue de Champagne “the most drinkable address in the world,” Épernay, France. Churchill even named one of his horses after Pol Roger. In 1965, when Churchill died, we put a black lining on the white labels of the Pol Roger Vintages that we sent to the UK.
Winston Churchill used to write: Pol Roger, 44 Avenue de Champagne “the most drinkable address in the world.”
There is also a relationship between the two families. Christian Pol-Roger, who has been the Export Manager for the house for over 40 years, is the godfather of John Winston, Churchill’s grandson. And each new vintage of Sir Winston Churchill champagne is submitted to the family for their approval.
As Pol Roger is one of the eight Champagne houses to have received the Royal Warrant, we were able to respond to a tender issued by the English Court for the wedding of Prince William and Katherine Middleton. We had the privilege of receiving an order for 600 bottles, but we had to refuse because we think that magnums are the right flasks for a wedding; thus, we sent 300 of them.
The English market is an essential part of the history of your house. In what way did the so-called English taste influence the style of your wines?
There was definitely an impact. When we talk about the English taste, we talk of champagnes with more maturity. But nowadays, I think that there is little or no influence. There is a Pol Roger style that has existed for years. This is the style of wines that we ship worldwide. However, it is true that we let our wines age more than average; we have excellent cellars where our champagnes age in the most optimal conditions.
How would you describe the Pol Roger style today?
In a bottle of Pol Roger, you will find complexity but also finesse. They stem from its assemblage. Our non-vintage Brut Réserve champagne is composed of a third of each of the Champagne grape varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, of which 70-75% from the current harvest and 25% of reserve wines from the three previous years, from the best terroirs in grand and premiers crus. Finally, thanks to the slow second fermentation and long aging in our low-temperature cellars, we get smaller bubbles and extra complexity.
In a bottle of Pol Roger, you will find complexity but also finesse. They stem from its assemblage.
How being a family-owned house impact the quality of your wines?
I am the chairman of the company’s board. Hubert de Billy, part of the fifth generation of descendants, is a member of the board. His father, Christian de Billy, is the chairman of the supervisory board and his sister Evelyne de Billy is in charge of the vineyard. These people live in the company, pass their values to their children, to their brothers and sisters, to their cousins. This way, we keep striving for excellence, to the extent of our means and by following a profitable model.
What are your ambitions in terms of growth?
Today, with the quality and quantity of wine we have in our cellars, we could release major volumes on the market. But would we be able to do it again with the same quality? Today, Pol Roger has 90 ha of vineyards that cover 50-55% of our supply needs, which is huge for a Champagne house. If we wanted to expand, we would need access to quality grapes. Today, this would be difficult because everybody in Champagne is looking for chardonnays and pinots noirs from grands and premiers crus. Expansion should not come at the expense of quality. We have to be careful not to go above our means and our capabilities. If we do, we will need to change our distribution network, our communication, and probably our customers too. Eventually, I think we can grow at the same pace as our industry.
Is the UK still your biggest market?
We produce 1.7 million bottles a year and have 9 million bottles in stock in our cellars. Many believe that we heavily depend on the English market because Pol Roger is very popular there. It is indeed our biggest market, but we export there about 300,000 bottles a year which only represents 17-18% of our annual production.
What are the other markets of interest for Pol Roger?
We have an important presence in Northern Europe, in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. Australia is also a very interesting market for champagne that has greatly expanded. However, when a market is developing, the low prices take the upper hand and therefore destroy the value. A few years ago, we were among the first exporters of champagne to Australia. Today, it is not the case anymore, even though we sell the same number of bottles, as we have exited the price war.
There are also new markets where we continue our development. Japan is a very good market. Other parts of Asia, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are interesting mature markets. China remains a very complicated market for which we will have to wait. It is not ready yet for a brand like Pol Roger. Russia is a very interesting market where people like to open the bottles, show it off and share it. It is a historical champagne market that I firmly believe in. We are also looking at South America and the Baltic countries.
France remains the main market for champagne. What is your positioning here?
France is a challenge for us because we are not famous enough here. We continue to develop the brand in the traditional market (CHR–Cafés, Hotels, Restaurants) in coherence with our image.
How would you define champagne?
Champagne is magic. Champagne is partying, celebrating, and friendship.
What would life be like without champagne?
It would be very complicated. I would have to dream a lot to find the effervescence.