Moët & Chandon is a brand rooted in legacy, but one whose strong anchor to tradition has not stopped it from moving with the times. It is no wonder that it remains the number one champagne in the world.
Including here in Africa. Currently, the Business Development Director for the region Africa, Middle East and Global Travel Retail for Maison Moët & Chandon, Charles de Pontevès, is touring the continent following his appointment back in March 2021. We sat down with him when he came to Lagos to learn more about the Moët & Chandon brand and why it is loved globally.
In conversation with Charles de Pontevès begins now
ALM: Is this your first time in Africa?
CdP: It’s my first time in Africa … I started to really visit Africa early this year. I tried last year, but last year, with the COVID, it was very difficult to travel. I managed to go to Dubai in November 2021, you know, which is kind of different.
But since January, I visited South Africa, I visited Ivory Coast, Kinshasa, Israel. And today, Lagos – very, very happy to be here. And I need to continue to really understand as much as I can this beautiful diversity that you have in Africa. It’s completely fascinating, and I am really enjoying that very, very much.
ALM: In your role as Business Development Director AFME & GTR for Moët & Chandon, what have you found to be most surprising so far?
CdP: The way that the brand is understood in Africa amazes me. People are completely connected, especially in Nigeria. But also … you have this very strong link between the brand and people: there is an understanding of the quality, understanding of the image. And this is really spontaneous. There is an immediate connection both with Moët & Chandon and Don Perignon.
I could see that yesterday in Lagos – each time that we had a chat with people, there is this very strong connection which for me is fantastic. And wine and food pairing, it works. History, everybody understands. Precision of the quality, everybody understands. This is amazing … and there is a fascination also about how these brands have evolved, have been created. So for me, it is a great surprise.
ALM: What inspired your career path?
CdP: At the very beginning of my professional career, I was into computers – nothing to do with wine – and I moved into champagne a bit by passion. I knew nothing, and I started in 1990 with Ruinart, which is a fantastic champagne house. And I learned really most of what I know today being on a daily basis with the serving master of Ruinart who taught me a lot about Ruinart, about champagne. And then I moved to Moet&Chandon and Don Perignon, and I continued to learn.
This world is in fact very complex and you don’t stop learning. And I believe that I really enjoyed very much discovering this world which is moving all the time, improving all the time, changing, becoming more and more complex. And it is also a world where you meet people, and I like to share, just like with you now (smiles). I really like to meet people, exchanging, sharing passion; we don’t necessarily always have the same point of view, but it is a world where you’re really connecting a lot.
ALM: Is there anything you still do not know about the brand?
CdP: Oh yes, there are so many things!
First of all thanks to … well, I think it’s good news for you. I am fortunately not in charge of making a bottle of wine. (we laugh) It is extremely complex. You have the choice of the grapes, how do you analyse them, then how do you blend them, Each step of the process is very technical, you know, up to the end of the process, where you’re adding a little dosage … and all that. These steps are very, very precise, and you need to be an expert to make that happen.
On the sales side, I am a little bit more knowledgeable; on the marketing side as well. But even so, I continue to learn every day. Today, for example, we’re very much into sustainability. We’re really paying attention on making sure that our soils are as clean as possible. We did not know 20 years ago that when we were adding products, fertilisers, sometimes it was not a good idea. Today we know that what we have done in the past sometimes was not really optimal.
For example, today, we’re putting ‘vertes’ between our vines – grass. Why? Because we discovered that the grass reduces the evaporation of the water and also grass reduces the erosion. Many of our vineyards are on slopes and 90% of our own vineyards today are [covered] with grass. Of course, we need to work a bit more in order to ensure that the grass is not growing to eat too much of the food which is for our vineyard.
This is a recent discovery and we keep discovering new things. And I think that as long as all the people on our team continue to be passionate, we will progress, slowly, but we will progress.
ALM: Which of the Moët-Hennessy brands would be the best for a new convert?
CdP: Ehrrr, Moët &Chandon (we laugh)
And now, I am going to explain to you why. Moët &Chandon … the vision of Moët &Chandon is to propose champagne for every palate and every moment of consumption. So, in fact, the number of qualities that we have is extremely large. It goes from Moët Imperial which is a fantastic brut, but it is a brut which is very versatile, very easy to drink. Because we are blending one-third, one-third, one-third basically – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot Meunier – and as a result, the champagne is not aggressive, it is very round, it is very smooth when you drink it. It has some aromas – white flowers, citrus notes – but you can drink it for brunch, you can drink it during your lunch, you can drink it for an aperitif, you can drink it at night. You’ll never have a headache with Moet Imperial. And if you like this brut style, it’s very very nice. It is not too rough, we don’t put too much pinot noir, we don’t put too much chardonnay which is another style. So it’s a very approachable quality [drink].
If you have a sweet tooth, you have Nectar Imperial with the dosage which is different. The notes that you will get are very much into tropical fruit notes like the pineapple, the mango, this direction. It is a completely different experience, but, if you like this kind of taste, it covers this palate. And Nectar Imperial is fantastic with spicy food. So, if you enjoy spicy food, you will enjoy Nectar Imperial.
This is why I am suggesting Moët & Chandon. You have the Rose Imperial, you have the Grand Vintage, you have Ice Imperial – if you prefer to enjoy champagne on ice, you take a bottle of Ice Imperial, you add 3 ice cubes and then you will still get also a different experience.
ALM: If you were not doing this, what would you be doing?
CdP: I’ve tried always to do something where I was passionate. And I am really passionate now with champagne, you know, it has been quite a long time. So, to quit champagne, I don’t know. I’ll probably continue to move in the direction of the wines, because I find that there is really a lot to still discover, both in Europe where we are producing wines — but we’re changing as well the way that we are approaching wines — and also in the new world wines. There are fantastic opportunities, so I don’t know.
Otherwise, computers, why not? Because you know, I was not bored, I just wanted to discover a new world, But I believe that my first direction would be wines or perhaps hospitality because I also enjoy very much meeting people, sharing passions … You’re helping me discover what I could do next! (we laugh)
ALM: What are the 3 largest misconceptions about your job?
CdP: I would say that because we’re always sharing, enjoying celebratory moments, perhaps, sometimes, we give the impression that this is an easy job. And also, we’re always having a good mood, we smile, we laugh and this is normal because the moment is one of celebration. In reality, I believe we are also very precise, very serious, and that is something that people don’t necessarily see. On the other hand, I think – who said that? – the people who never smile are not necessarily serious people. So, we like to do very, very well: we’re passionate about what we do, but we do it with a smile.
We can be perceived probably sometimes as a bit artificial? Then, there is a second dimension of which we are very careful. This is the link with the alcohol. You can enjoy our champagnes without being drunk. As a consequence … we don’t want young people especially to become drunk. So we have lots of programmes to educate our younger ones. We do that through hotel schools, but also through lectures in universities or écoles or schools in order to explain that you can really enjoy your bottle of wine, your bottle of Don Perignon with really one glass, two glasses…
And we organise radio rallies, presentations, lectures[and] tastings with these young ones in order to educate them. We also organise events in sometimes nightclubs. We educate as well, we distribute tests [breathalyser] to check if you can drive or not. And there is internally … we have a lot of control … because we really don’t want to associate our champagnes … we don’t want to associate our brands with exaggeration, consumption exaggeration.
And then, there’s perhaps a third point, since you asked me [for] three points. There is a perception that when you are a large champagne house like Moët & Chandon, it is a bit less qualitative. And in reality, in champagne, because of the fact that the vineyard is very much north, one harvest, we’re going to have fantastic grapes in this piece of vineyard, but the next harvest is going to be a disaster.
So, in order to really have a very high quality consistent year after year, you need to have supply from many, many different vineyards in champagne. And the larger the champagne house, the better. This is why we can achieve this quality with this volume because we have this very, very large source of supply. Either through our own vineyards – and then we own about 50% of what all the champagne houses own. The champagne appellation, it is 35,000 hectares. All champagne houses together own about 3,000 hectares, 10%. We own 1,200hectares, almost 50% of the total champagne houses. This is huge, you know. And when you add the vineyards owned by Veuve Cliquot, which is our first cousin, we are more than 50%, because Veuve Cliquot owns 450 hectares roughly.
So, as a group, we are really extremely strong with our vineyards, and we are actually showing the champagne region how to improve the culture of our vineyards because we are sharing of course, what we are discovering with everyone. So, to be big in champagne is a great advantage. And that is not necessarily understood because very often … you know sometimes small is beautiful, this is what we keep in mind very often. In champagne, it is not the case.
ALM: There have been lots of partnerships between luxury brands recently. If you were to pick an African luxury brand to collaborate with any of your own brands, which would you go with?
CdP: Nigeria (But what brand in Nigeria?) Nigeria is a brand (laughs) Nigeria is a fantastic brand: Nigeria and Nigerians. When I look at all the fantastic things you’re doing in Nigeria and outside Nigeria: I mean you have so many fantastic talents. There is a lot of creativity. And this is probably what also helps connecting (sic) Moët and Don Perignon with Nigeria. There is really an understanding; you have a lot of refinement in fashion. This is amazing. In cultural (sic), in art, you have a beautiful story. So all that creates wonderful touchpoints, contacts. You understand wine and food pairing intuitively.
We had a dinner yesterday evening, it was amazing… at least I enjoyed it very, very much. And so this is why I am saying Nigeria, because it goes in all directions. And you’re also extremely good in having great, young Nigerian students targeting the newest technologies. Somebody from our team recently decided to join Bitcoin technology. Fantastic, fantastic! This is why I don’t want to limit my answer to something too tiny because I would be unnecessarily restricted. This is why I said Nigeria.
ALM: How do you enjoy your champagne?
CdP: Oh, every day!
But how? I enjoy them at different times of the day with moderation. I enjoy them as an aperitif; I enjoy them by the beach; I enjoy them during lunch or dinner. And then I don’t only drink them; [but] really, I find you’re not tired. They have this style which is very nice because you can drink them on a regular basis without being tired. And I can tell you that [because] I have been 30 years in this area. So, I don’t drink them a lot, but I drink them regularly.
ALM: Do you find a difference in the way Africans consume your brand in comparison to the rest of the world?
CdP: There is more passion in Africa. There is an instinctive connection, There is a huge understanding of the complexities to produce Moët, to produce Don Perignon, and there is a huge respect behind it.
And then, there is a great connection in celebrating. With Don Perignon, [it is] a bit also a status symbol, you know, ‘I am going to have a lovely moment with my friends, I am going to celebrate something special, I take a bottle of Moët, I take a bottle of Don Perignon.’ This, in more mature countries, is not necessarily the case. There is this kind of ‘I love the brand,’ which is not necessarily as much the case in ehhrr, countries which perhaps drink Moët since longer time. (sic) There is intuitively an understanding in Africa, and in Nigeria in particular.
ALM: What are your 3 favourite African cities and why?
CdP: That’s a difficult question because in fact … before being in charge of Africa, I was in charge of France and before that, I spent 10 years in Belgium. Before that, I was in North America. So I don’t know yet very well the African continent.
I visited Johannesburg, I visited Abidjan, I visited Kinshasa and now Lagos. But, I love each of them completely, passionately. Because each time you have the history, you have the culture, you have a lot to discover. You have stars in the eyes of … or bubbles in the eyes of the people I meet, which is really energetic for me. It transmits a lot of passion and understanding of the brand. And so I want to continue to discover. And I will continue to travel a lot and come back to Nigeria. I really enjoy very much Lagos, but it is difficult for me to give you a definite answer because I need to visit more (African countries).
ALM: Do your products appeal to people as an alternative investment option?
CdP: I am sure that many people do it, especially with champagnes that you can age a bit. So the champagnes you can age are definitely Don Perignon, the Grand Vintage of Moët &Chandon. The Imperial range of Moët &Chandon is produced to be consumed in the next 3-5 years max.
But some people do … because you know, champagne is a wine I would say, ehrr … I hope that they are successful. We are producing our champagne to be consumed, I would say between 3 years for the Imperial range, up to 10-15 years for Don Perignon. It is not necessarily produced originally to be kept for a long period of time.
In fact, for a bottle of champagne, we’re taking out of the bottle just before being sold … we’re taking out the yeast, you know the sediment. So the evolution of a bottle of champagne is not like a bottle of wine. It’s going to be a lot slower, and you’re not going to gain – the ageing process is done in our cellars.
I’ll say yes, of course, you can buy some bottles; unfortunately, the price of the bottle is going up and up every year – so you can certainly capitalise a bit on that. I’ll be just careful… and I don’t want to give advice on something that I really don’t control: I am a bit careful about that.
ALM: Complete the following sentences
- I never leave home without…
CdP: Giving a huge hug to my wife.
- I never go into a meeting without…
CdP: Smiling. As I like to say… I think that if you go to a meeting with a [frown] you should cancel the meeting because you’re going to give a negative energy and it is going to be a catastrophe. So I like to transmit passion and be positive as well.
ALM: What are you doing in Nigeria for the next few days?
CdP: Oh, I have a huge program… meeting people, training, visiting as many points of sales to understand… But as it is, I am already fascinated by the way. So yea, meeting people, doing lunches, dinner, field visits, restaurants, to understand even more. Discovering also your beautiful cuisine cos I love it! I have a sensitive palate, so spices are not for me. But the chef understands so usually, they bring it down. But really, I enjoy it very much.