Champagne is the drink of celebration. There are those who can afford to indulge regularly, and then there are those who covet it. In 2015, UNESCO granted it a World Heritage status. It is also the drink of reconciliation, according to Michel Drappier, the Drappier family scion whose name is on every bottle that comes out of his winery in Champagne, France.
Drappier, one of the finest boutique producer from Champagne is the latest entrant in the Indian market. On a recent visit to New Delhi, Michel Drappier spoke to CaLDRON Magazine about his family legacy, his champagne and his plans for the Indian market.
Jaswinder Singh (JS): What according to you is the reason that makes champagne such a coveted drink?
Michel Drappier (MD): Champagne has seen a lot of conflict, especially during the First World War. A lot of fighting happened in our vineyards. For that very reason, champagne became a drink of peace, of reconciliation and celebration. It is not only a wine of great expression, it is a way of life. It is a symbol of elegance and luxury, enjoyed by the kings. You can enjoy champagne with food, on its own, any time of the day. There is no moment of the day for champagne, unlike scotch or gin.
It is an aperitif and a digestive, so it suits a lot of palates. It suits all kinds of foods, all situations. It is a ‘Grand Vin’, made with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which are fantastic varietals. The light acidity makes it a refreshing thirst quencher. The bubbles bring out the aroma and enhance the flavours of the wine. Add to that the pop of the cork, the foam head, the bubbles, it is the only wine that talks to you. If you put the glass close to your ears, you can hear the foam like you are at the beach. All the other wines are silent. That is probably one of the biggest reasons for the popularity of champagne.
JS: You spoke about pairing it with food. What do you like to pair it with?
MD: There are so many ways to pair champagne, just like we did it at the beautiful dinner last night here in New Delhi. It is a story between you and the wine. Every wine has its own experience. You can pair champagne with so many dishes and cuisines from all over the world. I realised it on this trip to India that it works beautifully with spicy food.
JS: How do you see the Indian market for Drappier? How has the reception been so far?
MD: The reception has been very good, and pretty much according to our wishes. Drappier is a small, family owned vineyard, one of the very few to be 100% family owned. I’m the 7th generation of the family to run the business, it is my name on the label. The reputation of the brand relies on the content of each bottle. So commitment of my family towards the product and the consumers is our first focus. We will never be a mass producer of champagne. India for us is a market with fantastic wine lovers, not too many, but we would like to create a fan club for Drappier and meet the people. And so far, it has worked well. People are connecting with the brand on a personal level, some of them have come to visit us, to see our cellars in France, in a far away village in the middle of nowhere. They enjoy discovering the brand and that is our goal – we want to sell a few cases, we want to sell them to the right people and build a reputation of the brand for the long term. It will never be a large volume.
JS: Is the pricing of your product working in your favour in the Indian market?
MD: We are a ‘Grand Vin’ of Champagne. Given the market position we have for the brand in the Indian market, the relationships we have with the importers, and the fact that our focus is on gastronomy and finesse, I believe the pricing suits our philosophy of not being a mass appeal product. We are very happy with it.
MD: (Laughs) That’s a good question – the generations. It has been fantastic. My father is a great man, he turns 89 at the end of this month and he is in good shape. We’ve had a lot of discussions and conflicts, especially on raising the grapes. My father is more of a farmer than a winemaker. When I made my first wine in 1979, after the first day of sharing the cellars, we decided it would be too difficult for both of us to be there. So he continued in his role as the farmer and I was the winemaker with oenology degree and some experience. It took me forty years to reach his level of understanding in raising the grapes. And now, he is retired, and I’m responsible for all the vineyards. Soon my son will be joining the company. He has earned a degree in oenology, vinification and viticulture, and now it is time for me to live through the experiences of my father with my own son.
Actually, he joins today at 8AM local time. He must be very happy that papa is in India. But I’ll be there tomorrow.
JS: I believe the vineyards in Champagne are replanted every 60 or so years. When were your vineyards replanted last time?
MD: We replace the vines every 50-60 years. Vineyards can be kept for centuries, but we prefer to refresh them regularly. The oldest vines we have are 55 years old, planted by my father. There are no vines from my grandfather’s time, but I may keep some of the vines from now for the next generations.
Quality-wise, vines between the age of 25-50 years are best suited for wine grape production, according to pre-global warming situations. Beyond that age, the yield starts to go down under some climatic and soil conditions.
MD: Our vineyards were destroyed by the phylloxera and replanted in early 1900s. Then started a rather depressing period in our history. The First World War was disastrous for the family. We lost our biggest market in 1917 when Russia closed its doors on us after the Revolution, then the American Prohibition and the Great Depression, followed by the Second World War.
Our family fled, leaving the vineyards and cellars to the mercy of God. Germans came and helped themselves to some champagne from our cellars. My grandfather said after the war that we may hate the Germans now, but they will be our customers one day. I’m glad that his words came true and Germany became our first market outside France after the war. And that’s why I believe Champagne is a drink that represents peace and reconciliation.
Through all this, there have been many vintages, produce-wise, vinification-wise, but the one I absolutely love is the 1996 vintage. My youngest son was born in that year and the champagne had a lot of body to it. Although 1995 vintage was also memorable for its elegance.
JS: Any parting thoughts about India?
MD: India is a fantastic country, warm and friendly, I feel like it’s all family here for me. People have a liking for sophistication and they love champagne. Your Prime Minister was in France earlier when he signed the deal for Rafale fighter jets. At the reception hosted by the French President, Drappier Champagne was served. Of course, PM Modi did not drink, I’m told, but it is a great honour for us to be present at this historic moment in Indo-French relations.