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Inside the bubble: The Etterbeek family business carving out a niche in champagne
You could say Virginie Taittinger has fizz running through her veins. Not only was she born and bred in the heart of France’s Champagne region – where she says she drank bubbles from “a very early age” – she is a member of both the Taittinger and Piper-Heidsieck dynasties and has worked in the industry her whole career.
After working alongside her father, Claude, at Taittinger for 21 years, she branched out on her own to launch new-style Champagne house VIRGINIE T., recently teaming up with her 25-year-old son, Ferdinand Pougatch, to create a blend of “experience and the future”.
Champagne VIRGINIE T. comes from one of the finest vineyards in the Champagne region and is run from their home in Etterbeek, where Taittinger, who has dual French-Belgian citizenship, also finds time to serve as a local councillor. They tell ING’s head of expatriates, Dave Deruytter, about carving out their own niche within a multi-billion-euro market.
Tell us about your Champagne heritage
Virginie Taittinger: I was born in Reims and studied there. I was drinking Champagne from a very early age. (“How early?” “Very early...”) Through both my parents I was involved in the Champagne business. My mother’s family owned Piper-Heidsieck – they created the brand in 1851 and we ran it until 1988 – and my father’s family was Taittinger. So I really was involved and have a very good connection with the area and the people who live and work there.
What brought you to Brussels?
VT: We came with our three children to Brussels 17 years ago because my husband, a gynaecologist specialising in fertility, had a good opportunity here. At that time I was in charge of Taittinger’s international public relations and we were living in Paris, but moving here really didn’t make a difference to me. It was sometimes quicker to go to Champagne country from Brussels than from Paris, where there is so much traffic!
You could have taken an easier path when Taittinger was sold. Why start a whole new company?
VT: When I started Champagne VIRGINIE T. in 2007 I was 47. It was a good time. I had enough experience but I was still young. I had the idea of creating a new style of Champagne company with everything being done direct and online. I was interested in thinking about the new consumer. I realised I would never be a competitor for big companies like Moët & Chandon or Laurent-Perrier. I wanted us to be Champagne 3.0.
I’m not sure if I was naïve, but I didn’t realise how difficult it would be. Maybe it’s good, because if you knew everything beforehand, you’d do nothing. It was a big adventure to take this crazy decision. I knew I had to be modern, I had to create, to make a Champagne with innovation, because if I tried to produce the Champagne of the past... it’s been done, I would lose. And if the Champagne was just regular, I would lose, so I had to make a very good blended Champagne with amazing Grand and Premier Crus grapes. I have a great relationship with the vineyard owners. My first production was during the 2008 financial crisis.
They were struggling so it was easier to find a contract, and it was a fantastic year for the grapes. When you start a company, you need some luck. I’m also very lucky because my son is working with me. It’s better to think about the Champagne of tomorrow with him, because he’s of a different generation. I am not connected – I see that when I use my cell phone or computer. It’s simple for him. We make a good team: experience and the future.
What’s innovative about it?
VT: I decided to sell the Champagne online, because people like to have direct contact with the producer, and no one is doing that. To have a good price you have to cut out the intermediaries. The problem is that Champagne is alcohol, and inside Europe it’s very complicated to sell directly. Because the rules are different in England, in Belgium, in Germany, in France… you have to print a different label for each country. The taxes, the excise, the recycling rules are different – where is the EU in all this?
Ferdinand Pougatch: We’ll be sending six bottles to Greece later today. But it’s the same amount of work to send six as it is to send 600.
VT: When you ship one bottle it’s cheaper because they’re sent as everyday packages, but you have to have a strong box. About 40% of our shipment broke in the first week!
FP: We have a ‘Russian doll’ of boxes to protect the bottles now. Our test is to throw it to the ground from two metres in the air and see if it breaks.
VT: And because we want to be innovative, I wanted to do something useful. So the top of the box unfolds and turns into an ice bucket.
FP: I took one skiing with my friends and we filled the ice bucket with snow.
VT: We also use thermochromic ink on the labels. When chilled to minus 10°C it turns red so you know you can drink it. I come from tradition in Champagne, but at the same time I want to look forwards and not backwards.
FP: Our labelling is also a new way to communicate on Champagne. We’re showing a ‘6’ on our first special cuvée, which means six years of ageing, and you never see that. We’ll release a new aged cuvée every two years, and also some special ‘concept’ Champagnes.
It’s a French company: does it make a difference to run it from Belgium?
VT: No, because there are three important things when you lead a Champagne company. First, you have to sell. You have to see your clients, and they are everywhere. I’m leaving soon for Monaco to present our new special cuvée. Next week I will be in Dusseldorf for a packaging fair, and also I go to Reims where our winery is. Secondly there’s administration. I hate it but you can do that anywhere; here or in Reims, Bordeaux or New York. Papers are papers, and boring things are boring things. And of course you have to make the wine, but you don’t do that every day. Sometimes I go to Reims twice a week, but I don’t need to be kissing the grapes every day in the vineyards. They need love, but not every day.
How do you marry the efficiency of the internet with luxury and the personal touch?
FP: Do you feel you have a human connection when you go to Carrefour and stand in front of the champagne shelf? The internet can seem cold, but it’s the only way to be direct. I know all my consumers, which is more human than selling to a distributor. Of course, you’ll always have a different experience when you go into Hermès and touch the clothes, but luxury is going more towards the web. We have a different conception of luxury now. It’s something that is a small quantity, niche, haute couture and very direct. It’s not a question of money.
The UK is your third largest market, after Belgium and France. Is Brexit a concern?
VT: I am small and niche so I am not concerned by this big decision. I think people who want the cuvée will want the cuvée. We’re producing 20,000 bottles of it a year and the public price is €69 a bottle, so we’re not competing with supermarket Champagne. We’re the niche of the niche.
For you, what is Belgium’s biggest selling point?
VT: The first thing is the quality of life here. Belgian people are really fantastic, they are open-minded. As a French foreigner you feel immediately comfortable. You find fantastic restaurants here. And to have a good quality of life you have to have a nice place to live. In Paris the prices are three times more, so you have three times less space. People say the bad point is the weather, but I had the same in Reims.
FP: The weather gives you a good reason to stay home and read.
VT: And do the paperwork!
What would be your advice to a newcomer?
VT: The first thing I did was to go for a week of Flemish immersion. People were astonished that a French girl was trying to learn Dutch, and it was a good thing for my integration. I also subscribe to Le Soir and La Libre.
FP: It was almost brutal for us! She wanted to be integrated so much, it was a radical switch. From very young we read the Belgian newspapers and watched Belgian TV.
VT: It’s very important to be part of life here. I am involved in local politics as a councillor. I’m concerned because I think local politics is very closed to people.
What was your path into the business, Ferdinand?
FP: I finished school at 17, then studied in England for a year before spending three years in Canada, and a year and a half in New York working for a wine and spirits PR and events agency. I was applying for a work visa, but Mum called me two months before the results, saying she needed me. I waited for the result of the visa but I didn’t get it, and I was quite happy. In the family business we are all involved, day and night, weekends… as we say, the bubble never sleeps.
Do you argue?
FP: We fight every day.
VT: It wasn’t easy working with my father every day for twenty-one years, but now I work with my son, I miss my father! This one puts so much pressure on me!
Photo: Bart Dewaele. This article first appeared in ING Expat Time