9 October 2020

Champagne Taittinger: a family heritage built on rock

Champagne Taittinger is one of the great family-run houses of Reims, built on family ties that are as solid as the ancient Roman foundations beneath them. These images, together with an excerpt from the last issue of Club Oenologique magazine, show the family as Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger hands over to the next generation

Words by Adam Lechmere

Photography by Vincent Boisot

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Among the great Champagne houses, Taittinger stands apart. Undeniably one of the grandes marques, it doesn’t have the flashy allure of Louis Roederer’s Cristal, say, or Bollinger – even though it is the official World Cup Champagne, sponsors the BAFTAs, and was James Bond’s favourite fizz long before Bolly got in on the act. The family won a particular place in the hearts of British Champagne lovers with the 2015 announcement by the ardently anglophile Pierre- Emmanuel Taittinger that he had bought land in southern England for the making of a new English cuvée to be called Domaine Evremond.

In 2019 Taittinger announced that he was handing over the presidency of the family house to his daughter Vitalie; her brother Clovis was named general manager. For Pierre-Emmanuel, the decision to cede control was easy. He had always intended to step down at 65 or 66, ‘and I did it. It can be a disaster for a company when the boss wants to stay too long.’ As he tells it, sharing out the senior positions was no more difficult. The company structure is democratic. ‘No single role is more important than another; every decision is taken by six or seven people. Clovis is running the global business, [chef de cave] Damien [le Sueur] is in charge of production and finance, and Vitalie carries the general spirit of Taittinger.’

There is trauma in the history of Taittinger: this is a family that almost lost everything

The house sits on solid foundations – literally: it is one of the handful in Champagne to be built on the famous crayères cellars of Reims: 2.5 miles of tunnels hewn out of chalk by the Romans. With nearly 300ha of vineyard in every grand cru, it has some of the biggest holdings in the region and makes some 6m bottles a year, spearheaded by the great blanc de blancs, Comtes de Champagne.

Solid as it appears, there is trauma in the history of Taittinger: this is a family that almost lost everything, and the memory is still raw. The story of the sale of the group to investment firm Starwood, in 2005, and Pierre-Emmanuel’s triumph in buying back the Champagne and wine parts of the business two years later, is well known. ‘When the group was sold, we realised that we had this heritage,’ Vitalie says. ‘The company was part of our identity. That was when we understood the meaning of a family company.’ When their father’s bid to buy back the company was successful, she and Clovis asked him if they could come and work with him. ‘Every day we consider how lucky we are,’ she says. ‘We’ve never been as strong as we are today.’

Vitalie Taittinger took over from her father as president of the family house on 1 January 2020.

The garden and rear view of Château de la Marquetterie , the historic home of Taittinger above Epernay.

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger (left), with Vitalie and Clovis, had always intended to step down at 65 or 66. “And I did it. It can be a disaster for a company when the boss wants to stay too long.”

Both Vitalie and Clovis describe their father as conservative – slow to make decisions but, once settled on a course of action, moving very fast. ‘Actually, most of our decisions are made very quickly,’ Clovis says.

Vitalie in the cellars under the main Taittinger building in Reims. “When the group was sold [to US investment firm Starwood in 2005], we realised that we had this heritage. The company was part of our identity. That was when we understood the meaning of a family company.”

Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger with his grandfather Pierre Taittinger, the founder of the house, who as a young Parisian army officer was quartered at Château de la Marquetterie in 1915. He fell in love with Champagne and bought the château in 1932, founding the house of Taittinger soon after.

The cellars at Champagne Taittinger
The cellars at Champagne Taittinger by Louis Teran

Taittinger is one of the handful of Champagne houses to be built on the famous crayères cellars of Reims: 2.5 miles of tunnels hewn out of chalk by the Romans. With nearly 300ha of vineyard in every grand cru, Taittinger has some of the biggest holdings in the region and makes some 6m bottles, spearheaded by the great blanc de blancs, Comtes de Champagne.  (pictures: Louis Teran)

The handover from Pierre-Emmanuel to his two children was a year-long process, Vitalie says. ‘We have traditions in France, and as a father you project yourself more into your son. But at the same time, you’re thinking about him and feeling maybe this won’t be the best gift. It has to be a decision for the right reasons, and this is the moment when, more than ever, personal feelings have to be subdued.’

‘No single role is more important than another,” says Pierre-Emmanuel. “Every decision is taken by six or seven people. Clovis is running the global business… and Vitalie carries the general spirit of Taittinger.”

The cover of Club Oenologique magazine, March 2020, featuring Vitalie Taittinger, her father and brother, in the cellars of Champagne Taittinger (this picture and main shot: Martin Morrell)

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