Philippe Baijot has been at the helm of Lanson since 2013 until retiring in 2019. He is the man that together with Bruno Paillard, orchestrated the rebirth of this great house. I saw in him a sharp and audacious businessman in love with his product. He perfectly incarnates the strong entrepreneurial spirit of the great people of Champagne who built a world of quality, luxury, and dream. In this interview, he provides a very interesting insight into the champagne world, from the perspective of somebody who did not come from it but greatly succeeded in it.
How did you start working in the champagne world?
I am not from the Champagne region and I don’t have any family background in the champagne industry. I came to the champagne business out of passion. When I finished my studies in Reims, I discovered champagne through friends whose parents were working in this industry. I thought it was wonderful! After working in other Champagnes houses, I tried my luck, together with Bruno Paillard.
Lanson, the most prestigious house within the group, has a new chef de cave, production line, and cellar. What are your vision and ambitions for the house?
My ambition is that Lanson, a house that suffered in the past, regains its position.
My ambition is that Lanson, a house that suffered in the past, regains its position. Since the Lanson family left, the house changed ownership several times and this took its toll on it. When we took over, we noticed that Lanson was like an old lady people would refer to with emotion; they would say: “My parents used to drink that champagne” or “It was my wedding champagne.” But this old lady that we were dusting off had solid bases: its wines, thanks to a great chef de cave who managed to keep a course of action and a style that is today the Lanson style; and a beautiful brand, very well known on the British market. Today we need to get this awareness in other markets.
Which markets are you most ambitious on?
For the past few years, we have been working on regaining a position in the US, which is the second-biggest export market for champagne. We can’t also overlook France, which is an important vitrine and where half of the products are sold, but the purpose of a Champagne house is to promote its product all over the world. I believe that exports are key, but they are expensive to develop and take time. It has to be done little by little and by finding quality partners. We have a subsidiary in the UK, and we have set up a second subsidiary in the US. This is a promising market, but we need time, money, and people. We also need to look at Asia, as we see how champagne is progressing in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. China is complicated today, but why not tomorrow?
Lanson is famous for its wines that don’t undergo malolactic fermentation, making them crispier compared to other champagnes. Is this style suitable for the American market?
Indeed, the American palate is different from the British, it is sweeter, but we have products that meet this American difference. Black Label is Lanson’s spearhead because a Champagne house is judged on its brut non-vintage, and it must take its place as much as possible, but on the American market we rely a lot on our Rosé, a suppler and rounder wine.
Is this why you introduced oak barrels for the aging of some of your reserve wines?
There are a lot of things happening at once in the evolution of our style.
Reserve wines combined with wood bring us something important for the future. There are a lot of things happening at once in the evolution of our style. We have a new chef de cave, Hervé Dantan, whose vision is different from his predecessor. We are not going to rush things, we need to make them evolve. Lanson must remain Lanson. But we can progress in our style.
What is the most important aspect of the new success of Lanson?
Distribution. We need people that grow with us and that will believe in us. In my opinion, everything is based on people. We need to find people that have the same mindset, who are courageous and ambitious so we can build something with them in the long term. Lanson-BCC is the second largest group in Champagne but compared to LVMH, we are still small. They have immeasurable resources and means, but we have to fight with other means and identify people with whom we can rebuild the brand. I look for talents because we can’t achieve anything without a team of quality people.
You mentioned the importance of the British market. What do you think of the success of Prosecco, especially in the UK where now more bottles are sold than champagne?
The success of Prosecco never worried me. We are very lucky to be in the industry of sparkling wines, which is growing. Three billion bottles of sparkling wines are sold every year, of which 300 million bottles are champagne. Customers choosing Prosecco are usually younger people who will, later on, choose more elaborate wines like champagne as they have more disposable income. Prosecco is a nice product which I drink from time to time, but I can’t imagine myself inviting someone I love and offering Prosecco; when you want to honor somebody, champagne is much more suitable.
Champagne is a product that everyone dreams about, so it has a responsibility toward history to be on top of the sparkling wine pyramid.
Champagne is a product that everyone dreams about, so it has a responsibility toward history to be on top of the sparkling wine pyramid. It has to set an example, be perfect and outstanding, but there are steps to reach the top. Champagne must keep this image of “elite product,” which is not always simple.
What do you think of 10-euro champagnes that can be found in supermarkets in France?
It’s a must for us to get rid of champagne bottles at 10 euro, but it’s complicated. Certain people in Champagne are responsible for it, as bottles without specific destinations happen to be sold “on lees” (trading of champagne bottles between houses, before disgorgement) due to cash flow issues. Also, in France, supermarkets struggle and buy market shares at a loss.
How do you see champagne’s future considering all this?
Champagne will be a two-tier product. On one hand, there will be great brands, which I hope we will be part of, and on the other hand, there will be the rest.
More and more champagne will be a two-tier product. On one hand, there will be great brands, which I hope we will be part of, and on the other hand, there will be the rest.
You are not Champenois. How do you feel about the Champagne region?
I feel I have a responsibility toward it, I want to do things right and I want to leave a legacy. We have only a short stay here and I think it’s good to build something and be able to say: “The day I leave, I hope I will be proud of what I have achieved.”
What would the world be like without champagne? What does champagne mean to you?
Champagne represents the good things in life.
The world would be a lot less pleasant without champagne. For me, champagne represents the good things in life. It’s about sharing, it’s friendship, it’s love, it’s living gently, and it’s France. Champagne makes life easier.