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Bruno Paillard: from Champagne broker to established Maison

1981 was a fairly average year in Champagne. Harvest was small and the wines were somewhat thin and austere. Following World War II, both the popularity and sales of Champagne had once again surged. Despite this, the region had not seen a new house for over 100 years. Bruno Paillard had been working as a broker since 1975, his lineage of brokers and growers in the villages of Bouzy and Verzenay dating back to 1704. Champagne run thick in Bruno’s blood and during his time as a broker he acquired a deep and extensive knowledge. At just 27 years old, without a penny to his name, Bruno sold his vintage Jaguar for 50,000 francs to satisfy his burning desire. A desire to create a different Champagne. Almost 40 years later, he and his daughter Alice direct one of the most prestigious houses in Champagne. I spoke with Alice about beginnings, relationships, challenges and the future.

Bruno was born in Reims in 1953. Since 1704 his family had been growers and brokers in the Grand Cru villages of Bouzy and Verzenay. Following in the family footsteps, he begun work as a broker in 1975. After just six short years, Bruno could keep his desires at bay no longer. In 1981, armed with nothing but a sense of determination, he sold his Jaguar, a collector’s item, to fuel his dream and open the first new Champagne house for close to 100 years. This might have seemed like a moment of madness in a region characterised very much by conservatism.

His first wines were made from carefully selected grapes sourced from independent growers in a rented cellar. ‘He had had time to make his opinion quality wise. This is how little by little the wine shaped itself within his mind. And with this in mind, it was clear which crus should enter the composition‘ explains Alice. There were growers who refused to sell their Grapes, but many appreciated both Bruno and the ambition of his project and so agreed to work with him.

It wasn’t until 1984 that he had built his first ‘above-ground’ cellar. This allowed Bruno to strictly regulate temperature, lighting and humidity. Seven years after selling his Jaguar, Hugh Johnson defined Bruno Paillard as “small but prestigious … with excellent silky vintages and non vintage” In 1990, with architect Jacques Bléhaut, Bruno designed the current winery. The structure consists of stainless steel, glass and wood symbolising the three vessels used in the production of Champagne.

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Image credit @studiocabrelli

In 2007 Bruno’s daughter, Alice, joined the family adventure. Having worked in the vineyards and then in the cellar for the first year, she dedicated the next four years to developing exports. Alice now co-manages the Maison with her father and continues to spearhead the philosophy and evolution of the house.

In the vineyards

In 1994, Bruno bought his first vineyard: 3ha in grand cru Oger in the Côte des Blancs. He continued to build his vineyard holdings which now provide more than half (70%) of all required grapes. The remainder are purchased from the same independent growers, from more than 30 different villages, with whom Bruno Paillard has been partnered with for many years. At Bruno Paillard owning vineyards is important, not only to take ownership of the terroir but also to ensure long-term viability. LVMH are a dominant force in securing new grape contracts, maintaining a relatively high percentage of ownership Bruno Paillard hedges against this challenge.

The house has worked with the same carefully-selected growers since it was founded; ‘This relationship is now, for the most part, across two generations, even three generations in one case‘ Alice tells me. In a manner similar to that of the classic approach in Barolo, Bruno Paillard seeks to work with a range of sites which more completely express Champagne.

I spoke with Alice about the dynamic of the relationship between Bruno Paillard and the farmers, her response was too valuable not to share. ‘of course we choose them, but, as in all good relationships, they choose us just as much. Serious growers have convictions and beliefs. Of course it does not mean we all share the same convictions and beliefs, but if they choose to bring their grapes to us, it is around a common theme, respect. Bruno Paillard involves the farmers in its journey, they project their ambitions far and wide, putting the farmers at the centre of these intentions.

The vineyards now cover 32ha and are spread across the best villages of Champagne, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger, Cumières or Verzenay, to name a few. The exception is Les Riceys; situated in the south of Champagne, it is the flagship village of the Aube. Close to 100 different plots are represented, each with a different terroir. 12ha of the vineyards are grand cru, which considering grands crus represent only 17 of the 320 villages of Champagne is relatively impressive. It is often the case that the house owns parcels of land geographically close to those of its farmers, this gives both a real sense of experience, a sense of belonging which transcends a simple quality charter.

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Bruno Paillard adopts a sustainable approach to viticulture, something Alice has championed. No herbicides or pesticides are used and the vineyards are ploughed regularly. Ploughing oxygenates the soil, encourages roots to grow deep, creates a natural mulch and reduces the need for herbicides. Frédéric Mugnier says he has not used herbicides since 1989 and credits this as a major factor in the improvement in the health of his vineyards. As is the case at Ruinart, at Bruno Paillard regularly assesses individual sites, based on the results of this analysis each sites nutritional status can is adjusted according to its individual needs.

Maintaining robust and resilient vines is crucial to vigneron, particularly in the face of climate change. In Piedmont resilience is considered the first and most important line of defence. Bruno Paillard encourages the planting of flower-covered headlands, with particular focus on species native to each village. This biodiverse landscape supports the native bee population, enhances soil microbiology, anchors the soil and strengthens both vine, and the soils, resilience during challenging times such as drought and severe rain. Alice refers to this as transversality, a notion of how spaces can intersect. She is optimistic about the future and the positive role of mankind in its custody of the land; ‘When we purchase a parcel, we do not purchase what it is, but what we believe it can become.

In the winery

Grapes are crushed in the press house nearest to the vineyard and the must transported to the winery in Reims. Only the first press juice is used, the first 50cl yielded by each kilo of grapes. In the winery, the must is divided between tanks or barrels according to origins, grape varieties and parcels. Alcoholic fermentation occurs seperately in both open tanks and small oak barrels.

Malolactic conversion begins freely. The acidity level of Paillard’s wine tends to be a little higher on average than a number of other houses. This is in part due to the fact that only the first press is kept and because of the high proportion of chardonnay used. Between the first series of vins clair tastings and final blending, nearly 6 months will pass. Almost 500 barrels and 110 cuvées are regularly tasted. Following this, wines are selected and the composition of each cuvée finalised.

Bruno Paillard shared some thoughts on variety and site characteristics with Jamie Goode. These thoughts offer a unique insight to the houses blending decisions and elaborate on why Paillard has chosen particular sites. On varieties, Bruno thinks;

VarietyCharacteristics
ChardonnayA tenancy toward white flower opposed to citrus fruit, and fresh almond.
Pinot NoirRed berries and red flowers
Pinot MeunierMore exotic fruit, banana, mango and pineapple. A little softer and more rounded

On site characteristics, Bruno thinks;

VarietyTerroirCharacteristics
ChardonnayChouillyCitrus
ChardonnayCuisCitrus and apple
ChardonnayMesnilA little more power
Pinot NoirMaillySmall red berries
Pinot NoirVerzenayPear and white redcurrant
Pinot NoirBouzyA little richer with wild strawberry
Pinot NoirChignyNervous in nature with citrus and raspberry
Pinot MeunierRillyVery exotic and fruity
Pinot MeunierChignyVery fruit and exotic
Pinot MeunierFeignyPear and some peach

There are producers making great wines in Champagne from what could be considered ‘no where’ in the wider hierarchy of prejudice, for example Ulysse Collin in the Coteaux du Sézannais. I asked Alice about lesser spoken about villages which she admires. ‘Some other villages are absolutely stunning … one example could be Grauves, which is on the North part of Côte des Blancs, and on the other side of the hill: a very different orientation. We always loved this cru, and even more in warmer vintages‘ An interesting thought to explore, as the climate warms the preconceived notions of appellation hierarchy may shift entirely.

The secret lies in Solera

For multi-vintage, the aim of the vigneron is always to reinterpret the original blend, to maintain consistency. Reserve wines make up close to 50% of the blend at Bruno Paillard. The houses reserve wines are kept in tanks and small oak barrels. In these tanks and barrels are wines already blended from the year before, themselves including 20 to 50% reserve wines from the previous year and so on dating back to 1985.

This solera-style technique is not frequently seen in champagne and is most often associated with artisan growers opposed to houses. Advocates of the style include Anselme Selosse and Jerome Prevost. Selosse visited López de Heredia in the 1970s, it was this time spent in Jerez that planted the seeds for became Substance. In the mid 1980s Selosse decided to adopt the solera style. Substance includes all vintages, good, bad and average; hot, cold and neutral. In theory, all of these different expressions should net out in the blend.

The term is used loosely in Champagne to refer to wines made with what can be more accurately described as a perpetual reserve in which the wine from a base vintage is blended with the reserve wines of all previous vintages. This style is an invaluable asset to maintain style and balance. Bruno Paillard multi vintage champagnes seeks to counter the vintage and retain consistent style. With the Champagne climate being particularly troublesome from one year to another, this solera-style assists in maintaining consistency.

In pursuit of consistency

During the spring which follows harvest, once blends have been determined, the wines are bottled. They are are sealed with a temporary cork, not cap, and undergo extensive stable ageing under only sodium light, no UV, Brad Greatrix, would be most pleased. Paillard chooses to age the wines for longer than is required by law, ranging from 3 years for Première Cuvée up to 8 to 10 years for N.P.U.

Hand riddling is a resource-intensive and inconsistent process, at Bruno Paillard only Jeroboams and Methuselahs are riddled by hand. Gyropalettes ensure a much greater level of consistency and precision than any human could replicate. They turn the bottle by precisely one degree and rotate it 1/12 of a turn. Over 8 to 10 days the bottles are rotated until upside down, where they are ready to be disgorged.

In the past, disgorgement was done by hand; however, achieving consistent quality in manual processes is difficult. Today the neck of the bottle, including the sediment, is frozen at -25°C, allowing for easy extraction and controlled loss of wine. Bruno Paillard Champagnes are all Extra Brut, meaning relatively low dosage, at most 6g/l. There exists a prominent philosophy that lower dosage better respects the purity of the wines, the terroir and maintains a certain vigour and tension.

In 1983, Bruno became the first champagne producer to display disgorgement date on each bottle. This commitment to both transparency and the telling of a story is a trend which has continued across Europe. Producers like Nyetimber and Krug now etch codes in to their bottles allowing consumers to further explore, and in the case of Krug digitally track, the bottles they purchase.

A commitment to Champagne and future challenges

Bruno Paillard is committed to defending the region and takes an active role in shaping it. Elected in 2001 to manage the “commission on defence of the appellation” department of the CIVC, he works on maintaining the global respect of the Champagne Appellation. He was also elected administrator of Union des Maisons de Champagne in 1989. As if this wasn’t enough, he also heads the quality commission on the Champagne 2030 project.

As Champagne’s position comes under increasing attack from upstarts like Prosecco, the region responded with Champagne 2030, its goal to retain Champagne’s position as the world’s pre-eminent sparkling.

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When you discuss challenges with a person you are offered a snapshot of their perspective, their resolve and their character. I asked Alice what she believed were the biggest challenges facing Champagne over the next decade. ‘The first one is the climatic one‘ she tells me. Champagne sits at the northernmost borders of viticulture (as the climate stands today) it also experiences a continental influence which means little humidity. This lack of humidity does relieve some of the pressure of increasing temperatures,. Despite these challenges Alice is vocal of her optimism, she believe the challenge should help strengthen the Champenois’ resolve in evolving their approach to viticulture.

‘I am amazed at how beautifully the vine and the terroir reacts. I am an optimistic character, but a proven one

The second one I see is staying a community‘ much of the strength of Champagne throughout history has been in the Champenois’ ability to muster round their appellation, they have understood that individual success could only come from a strong appellation achieved by all, ‘their common precious gift’ Alice says. She hopes his sense of community and shared responsibility is shared with the younger generation in what we hear is a time more defined by individualism.

I hope to have offered you the opportunity to better comprehend the profound philosophy of Champagne Bruno Paillard. The house represents respect, purity, elegance and the continuity of the Champenois.

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