"The calculations confirmed the opinion of the specialists – our idea was unrealistic. There was really only one thing left to do: realize it."
The quotation from Pierre-Georges Latécoère, the famous French aeronautics pioneer, is the leitmotiv for the recently-launched Champagne Brimoncourt.
Indeed, establishing a Champagne brand from scratch, when one has no ties to the local wine industry, is considered to be near impossible. Champagne is a notoriously closed wine region: most players have been established for several generations and new grape contracts are rare as hens' teeth – especially now that the appellation has reached its total planting capacity. Add to this the extortionate production costs and a very slow return on investment, and one quickly understands the potential difficulties.
Yet, if you look at Champagne’s history you can see that the big brands of today established themselves against all odds, and often with large initial losses.
“They struggled for survival before they thrived and found their niche market,” says Alexandre Cornot, one of the founders of Champagne Brimoncourt.
Cornot is Champenois, but his only tie to the local wine industry is that he took a job as a cellar hand when he had just left school. “It is at that time that I really fell in love with the magic of Champagne and I started to dream of creating my own Champagne house," he recalls. The dream grew in amplitude as Cornot carved out a successful career as an international art dealer.
A second-hand brand
In 2008, Cornot came across the Brimoncourt brand, which had already been registered with the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) and it was love at first sight – a "coup de foudre [thunderbolt]," he says. When he was offered the opportunity to purchase the unused brand a year later he did not hesitate. However, he did look for an accomplice, finding the ideal business partner in an old friend, Arnaud Dupuis-Testenoire, who made his fortune in the steel industry.
“I thrive in challenging situations and the apparent madness of the idea instantly appealed to me,” says Dupuis-Testenoire, who is just as passionate about Champagne as Cornot.
Both founders quickly realized that creating a Champagne brand is a money-guzzling activity (they have already bankrolled the enterprise for four years without any financial return). They don't comment on the figures but it is a fair bet that the pair have plowed up to 5 million euros ($6.5 million) into making and storing wine.
To meet these obligations they opened up the project to investors almost right from the start. Today, the company’s advisory board includes 10 small shareholders, and according to Cornot there is room for more.
Setting up base camp
Not long after they created the company, the partners purchased the Eduard Plantet printing premises in Aÿ to create their offices. Plantet has been an institution for Champagne labeling and dressing bottles since 1883, and upon entering the building one is immediately surrounded with Champagne history.
However, the iconic building is really not set up to produce Champagne – it has no cellars or winemaking facilities. Instead, the wines are made and aged in a rented facility that has been used by Mumm and Bollinger in the past. Brimoncourt hopes to integrate a winery into the old Plantet building in 2015.
For now, according to Cornot, the building is a place where Brimoncourt can entertain in a relaxed and friendly way. The house has a large garden, and the partners recently added an extended roof-top terrace with amazing views over the grand cru vineyards of Aÿ. Cornot explains that “we wanted to create a fun place where we can share the beauty of this region and the magic of its wine in an unusual way."
And frankly, it is not every day that on entering a Champagne house one stumbles across two almost identical British Racing Green vintage Porsches in the driveway; nor is it common to encounter an original Rodin sculpture ("The Thinker," No. 21) towering over a stack of pallets in an otherwise empty room. (It belongs to Cornot.) These touches definitely add to the unusual character of the brand.
However, we should not forget that what drove Cornot and Dupuis-Testenoire to persevere in this surreal adventure is their love of Champagne. Their aim is first and foremost to make an excellent sparkling wine.
To this end, they approached the renowned oenologist François Huré, who is known for his artisan style of Champagne. Together, they looked for the best villages to source grapes from and bargained hard to establish high-quality grape contracts that can expand with the brand. The pinot noir is mainly sourced from the Montagne de Reims, Huré’s home territory, whilst the chardonnay comes from the Sézannais and the southern slopes of Épernay.
Dupuis-Testenoire explains that “the chardonnay from there is rounder and less austere than the chardonnay from the heart of the Côte des Blancs; besides freshness it also adds lightness to the blend.” And this lightness is exactly what the Brimoncourt founders are looking for in their non-vintage Champagne.
Bringing the fun back to fizz
According to Cornot, “Champagne has fun, lightness and airiness in its DNA. However, this message is often forgotten today. With Brimoncourt we want to bring it back to the foreground."
It is also the reason why they chose to call their Champagne Brut Régence. The Régence was the period that came straight after Louis XIV's death, when France was governed by Philippe d'Orléans until Louis XV reached adulthood. The new regent brought a breath of fresh air and certain playfulness to the royal court and it was also then that sparkling Champagne took off in France.
A last deft touch is the red inside the Champagne neck foil, designed to go with the red Brimoncourt emblem. Says Dupuis-Testenoire: “Up till now, no one in Champagne has ever played with the inside of the neck foil, yet it is one of the first things people will see when they open a bottle. We feel that adding color here adds an extra stylish touch in a fun way.”
A soft release of the Brut Régence took place at Vinexpo last month, but the brand will be launched officially in September. At that time Brimoncourt will also release an NV Rosé and a Blanc de Blancs; a vintage Blanc de Blancs (2008) will be added to the range next year.
To begin with, the wines will be available in France, Hong Kong, the United States, Singapore, Japan and Australia. However, Corton and Dupuis-Testenoire have ambitions to expand their area of distribution as the brand grows in volume over the next decade. During their first year of production, 2010, they turned out 65,000 bottles; in 2013, they are aiming to more than double that figure. A small acorn is rapidly growing into an oak.