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Jean-Guillaume Prats’ professional life has changed enormously since February 1 last year. On that Friday he walked out of Château Cos d’Estournel in St-Estèphe and, the following week, started his new job at the Paris headquarters of LVMH’s wine interests. As the public face of Cos, sold to Swiss businessman Michel Reybier in 2000 by his father Bruno, Prats was no stranger to airports and long-haul flights. But now, instead of the route between Bordeaux and winemaker dinners in Asia, his travel schedule takes him to virtually all corners of the wine world, as well as frequent trips to London, where his boss Christophe Navarre is based.
As president and CEO of Estates and Wines, the Moët Hennessy wine division, Prats’ remit is personally to look after the fortunes of all LVMH’s non-French wine interests: Cloudy Bay in New Zealand; Cape Mentelle and Domaine Chandon in Australia; Domaine Chandon and Newton in California; Domaine Chandon in Brazil; Domaine Chandon, Terrazas de los Andes and Cheval des Andes in Argentina; Numanthia in Toro in northern Spain (a sparkling wine project in Cava country was abandoned long ago); Domaine Chandon in India; Domaine Chandon and a new red wine project in China. The major problem of this new role is that there is never a moment of the day or night when his white iPhone lies silent. But, during the three days I spent with him recently in China, he claimed that his current travel schedule is less tiring than the old one of having to perform over multiple vintages of Cos until late into the night.
We spent quite a bit of the nearly eight hours we drove in the Himalayan foothills discussing travel, both of us being travel agents manqués. His father, now a Swiss resident and keen sailor, apparently bulk buys EasyJet tickets between Geneva and Alicante. Prats, meanwhile, showed a keen interest in the Ryanair Stansted-Bergerac link that I drew to his attention. He never knows exactly when he might be needed for meetings in London and Paris, even though he and his family are for the time being still based in Bordeaux. He admits that 80 per cent of his assistant’s time is spent organising, and reorganising, his schedule.
But he seems to have fully made the transition from being Monsieur Cos of St-Estèphe to Monsieur Moët Hennessy of the world of wine.
He pointed out with some pride that Moët Hennessy was the first major French wine company to venture into the New World, establishing a winery in Mendoza as long ago as 1959. It started its sparkling wine enterprises in Brazil and the Napa Valley in 1973, six years before Baron Philippe de Rothschild startled the wine world by announcing the seminal joint venture with Robert Mondavi of California that was to become Opus One.
And he reeled off more reasons to be cheerful as head of the world’s most disparate upmarket wine company. (“I have cut out all wines that sell for less than $15 a bottle,” he told me firmly.) Cloudy Bay needs no introduction, but he is particularly proud of its 1,000 hectares of Argentine high-altitude vines, where single-vineyard bottlings are being developed. Then there was the impressive number of visitors to Domaines Chandon at Yountville in Napa Valley and Yarra Valley outside Melbourne: 250,000 and 220,000 a year respectively, both operations successfully playing the food and fizz card.
The combination of wine and carbon dioxide is crucial to the wine fortunes of LVMH – not just with Moët & Chandon and all its champagne brands (Krug, Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart et al) but around the world too. It is betting on the fact that the world’s wine drinkers will want bubbles wherever they are – even in red wine-obsessed China. The fizz from its new winery in Ningxia, launching this September, will be heavily marketed exclusively to the Chinese, Moët Hennessy’s greatest revenue earners. The wines made sparkling in the Yarra Valley are available only in Moët Hennessy’s Asia-Pacific markets.
Most Domaines Chandon produce wines in the image of champagne, transforming locally grown Chardonnay and Pinot grapes into fizz (Chenin and Riesling Italico in India) using the same intricate process as in the Champagne region, but the South America wines are made fizzy in tank rather than in individual bottles, and Brazil uses some Riesling Italico. Although destined for very different markets, all six Domaine Chandons are to have the same label – presumably involving Prats in many man-meeting-hours. Brits will be the first to be exposed to the new livery: Chandon’s Argentine fizz will be launched in the UK at £15 a bottle, backed by a £1.5m campaign, on May Day – a champagne alternative for the proletariat perhaps?
And there is a British element to the story of a forthcoming addition to the LVMH portfolio, a New Zealand Pinot Noir based on a vineyard in Central Otago recently leased together with leading producer Felton Road. When he heard that Prats was to leave his family’s wine estate, Stephen Browett, the owner of London fine wine traders Farr Vintners, invited him for lunch and served him Felton Road, Block 3 Pinot Noir 2002 and a 2002 Domaine Dujac Premier Cru Chambolle-Musigny. The Kiwi Pinot so impressed Prats that he made sure he visited Central Otago on his next tour of duty in Marlborough, where the iconic Sauvignon Blanc Cloudy Bay is made.
Prats is also spending considerable energy upgrading the Newton vineyards on the western hills of the Napa Valley to maximise their potential. It would be strange if there were not further acquisitions. “We should be in Italy,” he told me, and only this week LVMH announced their first foray in Burgundy with their acquisition of the grand cru Clos des Lambrays.
But I had the impression that the new red-wine venture in Yunnan, whose ambitious produce may not be launched before 2016, had particularly captured Prats’ imagination. I will be writing about this beautiful and virtually unexplored corner of the wine world in much more detail in the coming months.
The Chandon fizz family
With location and year of establishment. India and China are in the pipeline.
• Argentina, Mendoza, 1959 The oldest Moët Hennessy wine outpost, in Agrelo, makes a zesty, fruity blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
• Brazil, Serra Gaucha, 1973 40 per cent Riesling Italico with the usual Chardonnay and Pinot Noir seems no detriment to delicacy. Featherlight and fun.
• California, Napa Valley, 1973 All three champagne grapes make a slightly richer wine than its stablemates. The restaurant is an important component in the Yountville operation.
• Australia, Yarra Valley, 1986 A blend of Victorian and South Australian cool vineyard fruit. 60 per cent Chardonnay, 40 per cent Pinot Noir with more than 20 per cent reserve wines that are up to three years old. Very sophisticated, dry wine.