‘Champagne is a symbol of happiness and celebration, for when the smile is back’
Vitalie Taittinger took over the family business in a tough year for all champagne producers
Vitalie Taittinger took over as president of the eponymous champagne house early this year. Champagne sales are expected to drop from 300 million bottles to 200 million a year, dure to the pandemic, creating huge financial uncertainty for growers and producers alike
Although the champagne business has always been dominated by men, it has had a few strong female leaders too. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, Louise Pommery, and more recently Lily Bollinger not only ran highly successful champagne houses, they were also responsible for introducing many of the innovations that make champagne the drink we enjoy today. Another woman joined this elite group more recently as Vitalie Taittinger took over as president of the eponymous champagne house in January this year.
The previous incumbent, her father Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, was a dynamic force, responsible for bringing the champagne house back into family ownership from Starwood Capital. Vitalie and her brother Clovis, who was promoted to general manager this year, joined the firm in 2007. Vitalie was 28 at the time and spent the next 12 years in various marketing roles including development, communications and artistic direction, eventually becoming director of marketing and communications.
When I ask her if she has encountered any difficulties as a woman being accepted as the president of a leading champagne house, she doesn’t hesitate. “Not for the moment,” she replies, “but that certainly was never in doubt for us here within Taittinger and, so far, I haven’t come across any bad comments from outside.”
She is not alone being a woman in a position of power in the champagne world. Margarethe “Maggie” Henriquez is president and chief executive of luxury champagne Krug; Alice Paillard shares responsibilities with her father at Bruno Paillard. There are others too. Together with Vitalie they are part of La Transmission, a 10-strong all-female group that wants to help and inspire the next generation of female champagne professionals.
She couldn’t have foreseen it, but Taittinger took over in what was to be one of the most tumultuous years for all champagne producers, with a massive slump in demand due to Covid-19. Sales are expected to drop from 300 million bottles to 200 million a year, creating huge financial uncertainty for growers and producers alike. A dispute between the two was resolved in mid-August with growers agreeing to cut yields, thus avoiding a serious glut of wine.
“It has been complex,” says Vitalie. “It is never easy to find a good compromise, but we are very confident that the agreement will allow champagne to go forward with a serenity. Sometimes when you are challenged, it is the best time to make the necessary changes. This is the best moment to unite the entire region, to think together.”
The 2020 harvest was finished by early September. As for the impact of Covid, she says, “It has been the same as for everyone in Champagne. We are an area strongly linked to restaurants, hotels and travel – so everything was badly affected. Distribution stopped for a few weeks at the end of March, and since then we have been recovering step by step, reopening gradually. Distribution has recovered, but a lot of countries have been severely impacted. We are optimistic though; we see in every country people are returning to drink champagne. More than ever we need champagne. When you have a crisis, it is normal to see a drop, and then afterwards a rebound. Champagne is a symbol of happiness and celebration, for when the smile is back. When you want to enjoy life with your friends, it is time for champagne.”
Vitalie is reluctant to be drawn on what changes she intends making in Taittinger. “When my father became president, he made many changes which had a very positive impact on the quality of Taittinger champagne and I will certainly continue this. But our team is young, and our objective is to write the story of Taittinger in our times, while sharing the values of Taittinger. This year is more a transition year.”
We are preparing for the 2020 harvest and we are very happy with the quality so far
Taittinger is renowned for its chardonnay-based wines, the prestige Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs being one of the finest expressions in champagne. “The beauty of the Taittinger style is chardonnay. We will continue to write a different story with different cuvées but always based on the purity and elegance of chardonnay. That is our signature; it is in our DNA. This year the big release will be the 2008 vintage of Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs. It is a great vintage and has spent 12 years in our cellars. It is perfect now.”
Taittinger caused some surprise when they bought a property and planted vines in the UK. Domaine Evremond in Kent produced its first grapes in 2019. “It is doing very well,” Vitalie tells me. “We are preparing for the 2020 harvest and we are very happy with the quality so far. This will be the first vintage able to produce some bottles. We won’t release anything until 2024. All three champagne grapes are there (chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier). It is a test to see how each variety shows its potential, and we may then develop more of one grape. It is all to be discovered.”
Pierre-Emmanuel hasn’t completely left the scene yet. “My father is still around and continues to spend some time with us. It is always a pleasure sharing experiences with him. He is a legend and will always have his place. But he is also full of surprises; he recently bought a glass company and spends a lot of time with that too. He is a man with a lot of energy. The entire Taittinger family has been involved in the company from the very start, since we arrived back in 1930, and that certainly won’t change.”