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China bubbles war

DESPITE a struggle to meet global demand, Champagne houses are fighting for market share in the growing Chinese mainland market. Two differently-structured maisons with similar approaches to quality and food and wine pairing are trying to convince local bubbly lovers there's more to the region than Moet or Mumm.

Established in 1931 when the family bought the Reims-based property planted in 1734, Taittinger, distributed by Torres China, is a name familiar to connoisseurs the world over, even if local drinkers are only just starting to recognize the brand.

In an appellation where land can cost as much as US$1.32 million per hectare, the maison is one of the few remaining family-owned houses after current president Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger reacquired a controlling stake in 2007.

This included about 280 hectares of vineyards and a cellar of about 21 million bottles.

Competing hands-on with the financial might of industry giants such as the LVMH group or Pernod Ricard is a foolhardy endeavor, and the family heir is taking a more creative approach to selling his wine. "Instead of building an image, I see it as increasing the number of friends I have all over the world," Taittinger said. "If I produce five million bottles in a good year my role is to find just one million friends in a world of six billion.

"If a good Taittinger friend drinks five bottles per year, I only need to find one million friends, which is a small number.

"Taittinger has become well-known because of its consistency, high quality and the regular style of delicacy and great elegance due to the heavy proportion of chardonnay we use," he added.

Champagne, as designated by the Appellation d'Origine Controlee, France's national wine governing standard, is made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Taittinger is one of the largest buyers in the Cote des Blancs, noted for its fine chardonnay vineyards.

While Japan is currently still the largest market in Asia for Champagne, Taittinger is excited at the prospect that more and more Chinese drinkers are appreciating fine Champagne as a wine, not just a fad.


"They (local consumers) are starting to enjoy it - they take it as a symbol, but also as a great wine," he said. "Chinese are very energetic, like Americans; they like to work hard but also to enjoy. Champagne is all about enthusiasm and there is a big future.

"Also there is good gastronomy (cuisine) in China, and Champagne goes well with all good food."

While the more established houses own large amounts of this highly-prized land, the majority of Champagne landowners are independent growers with long-term contracts to supply grapes.

Spread over 1,500 hectares in the Cote des Bar, Cote des Blanc and Vitry, Champagne Veuve A Devaux is a co-op with about 750 associated grape growers, many on Premier Cru vineyards.

Founded in 1846, the Champagne house was made famous by the widow Madam Devaux (much like the other famous widow, Madam Veuve Clicquot) and upon death, her name was inscribed on the facade of the house.

The current structure of the company was set up in 1986, and it is considered to be one of the region's fastest improving marques.

Unlike Taittinger, Champagne Devaux, which is distributed here by The Merchant, is a newcomer to the market, having just launched in November. "It is important to present Devaux as a house that is not looking to do what others are doing in this market," said Jean-Noel Girard, export director for the brand.

"The market has been dominated by large companies who have done quite a good job promoting the luxury image of Champagne. Now it is time for some specialist houses - specialist on different levels," he said. Devaux will encourage sophisticated customers to take more Champagne with food. "Remember that Champagne is a wine, and like any wine, enjoy food with wine. We know there is still a lot of education to be done and there is so much diversified food in Shanghai."


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