Jay Z's secret Champagne chateau, by Tristan Rutherford
easyJet Magazine, March 2017
Emilien Boutillat, winemaker at Armand de Brignac, knows how to shock. We’re standing 30m below the village of Rilly-la-Montagne near Reims, alongside 400,000 gold-plated bottles of Champagne. The cellar is like Fort Knox with extra fizz. Each 750ml flask, hand-worked with a pewter Ace of Spades label, retails around €250, ranking it among the most expensive aperitifs in the world. There are 3l Jeroboams ageing in the half-light. Plus 9l Salmanazars. “We are the only prestige Champagne producer to make the 30l Midas bottle,” explains Boutillat. One graces the wine list at Las Vegas restaurant Hakkasan with a price tag of over €250,000.
Champagne has long been a global brand. Down in Armand de Brignac’s cellar, Latin graffiti dates from 1680. Centuries ago cellar workers wore steel face masks to protect against exploding bottles – until the British, tired of half their imports erupting en-route, invented the thick glass bottle we know today. Napoleon Bonaparte carted dozen of cases when he invaded Russia in 1812. The pint-sized emperor was forced to discard them – at perfect sipping temperature – in the Moscow snow. “The Tsar’s army started the nation’s love affair with French Champagne,” says Boutillat, “a product that now sells in 198 counties.” Worldwide a bottle is popped each second.
But the tale of how Armand de Brignac won its largest market contains more sparkle than a magnum of Veuve-Clicquot. Back in the noughties hip hop stars like Jay Z and The Notorious B.I.G. started rapping about Champagne. Wiz Khalifa’s sparkling wine rhyme Black And Yellow scored 250 million YouTube hits, twice the number of viewers of the Super Bowl final: “I'm sippin' Clicquot and rockin' yellow diamonds; So many rocks up in the watch I can’t tell what the time is.” American consumption of Champagne rose in tandem with the celebrity endorsement.
In 2006 the favoured brand of French fizz, Louis Roederer’s Cristal, was ditched overnight, after these off-colour remarks were made to the Economist by Roederer MD Frederic Rouzaud: “We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.” In retaliation rapper Jay Z led a nationwide boycott of Cristal: ”I used to drink Cristal, them motherfucker's racist; So I switched gold bottles on to that Spade shit.” After watching the 2014 French Open tennis tournament with his wife Beyoncé Knowles, the businessman-baller drove to the Armand de Brignac cellar and purchased the brand lock, stock and French oak barrels.
“Jay Z’s only remit was to create the greatest Champagne possible,” says Boutillat. “It’s a nice task.” We sample the results with the Gold Brut first. It’s a classic local mix of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier. The taste is like sucking peaches and cream. Only two items govern the essence of sparkling wine: technique and terroir. As the Champagne region is divided into 280,000 tiny plots (unlike Bordeaux where endless vineyards surround the big chateaus) grapes are sourced from 320 individual villages, or cru – 17 of them Grand Cru, 43 Premier Cru. Armand de Brignac uses only these top two tiers.
Next up is a metallic pink bottle of Rosé. Its hue is derived by blending 15% red wine from intoxicating older vines. The flavour is like smearing sparkling strawberries around your palate – a sensation that only €425 a bottle can offer you, “or €2,500 for a Jeroboam size”. Like most Champagnes it’s a blend of different vintages. The key to marketing fizz is to bring the same distinct flavour so that each assemblage is unique, but not dramatically different. So passionate is Jay Z about creating a mythical drink that he allows the winemaking team to ditch entire harvests if they don’t make the grade. “The 2011 grapes were not exceptional so we simply skipped that vintage.”
Our final bottle is a platinum flask of Blanc de Noirs, an assemblage released in late 2016. The 100% Pinot Noir is a whirlwind of peppermint and honeysuckle. Fine Champagne Magazine rated its initial release as the best champagne on the planet. There are only 2,333 bottles in the world. Or 2,332 now. Oops. But such figures beg a key question: is selling €800 a pop Champagne to elite buyers the future of this premium market?
The answer might lie west along the River Marne. Before the railway arrived in 1849, bottles were floated past rows of vines towards the English Channel and their principal market, Great Britain. Bucolic towns like Chateau Thierry crown the route. A century ago in World War One, American troops pushed back German forces during a 20-day do-or-die battle right here. Back then the daily ration for trench soldiers was a litre of wine per day – which in this part of the world would have been supplemented by Champagne. Americans stationed here sampled the drink then contributed to the region’s post-war rebuild – the Rockefeller Foundation donated funds to Reims’ damaged cathedral.
“We have always loved the Champagne region and its fizz,” says Terence Kenny, the American export director of local house Champagne Pannier. “But since 2016, while French and the UK sales have been falling, the US has risen to become the world’s largest Champagne market by value.” During a tour of Pannier’s hand-hewn cellars Kenny explains the uniqueness of celebrity endorsement. In 1991 France’s Loi Evin made it illegal to market an alcoholic beverage using an image of anyone not connected with the drink’s production. Overseas the law becomes null and void, and if Champagne-sipping celebrities are making globally viewable YouTube videos with 100 million hits apiece, it’s great for all bubbly brands. “You also have to understand that Jay Z simply loved Ace of Spades (Armand de Brignac)," continues Kenny. "He wasn’t paid to endorse it. That kind of celebrity commendation could change the marketing of Champagne.”
The subtle winds of change are blowing in the ritzy regional capital of Épernay. The city’s avenue de Champagne hosts 15 grand houses, most open to the public, including Perrier-Jouët and Moët & Chandon. Underground, 110km of cellars keep the global bubbly supply at around 1.4bn uncorked bottles: enough to pour every man, woman and child in the world a generous snifter. If the entire stock came onto the market tomorrow it would have a GDP value greater than Bahrain or Azerbaijan. It’s become such a universal product that the Comité Champagne, the drink’s governing body, weren’t shocked by Jay Z’s Armand de Brignac acquisition. “There is nothing new about foreigners buying Champagne houses,” says its communications director Thibaut Le Mailloux. “Krug, Heidsieck and Deutz were founded by Germans whose families married into Champagne aristocracy.”
The Comité Champagne headquarters in Épernay liaise with 16,000 regional growers and 300 houses, and manage the globalised Champagne brand. “The adoption of Champagne as a signature drink by celebrities first gained positioning with aristocracy in the early 18th century,” explains Le Mailloux. “Following this era, Champagne became the wine of choice of countless stars: Sarah Bernhardt, Marilyn Monroe, James Bond.” As the Comité Champagne claim: “One can only applaud the adoption of Champagne by artists from the American hip hop scene”, but they see the trend as nothing new. Are they missing a – quite literally – golden marketing opportunity?
“Yes and no,” declares Henry Jeffreys, author of recent wine history Empire of Booze. “Remember that the Champagne establishment are used to marketing to old school British wine merchants. They still wear tweed and read Le Monde. YouTube isn’t on their radar.” Jeffreys says that the various committees were more bemused than thrilled by the recent hip hop love-in. “You can understand their point. The Champagne brand is a protected entity with 200 years of heritage.”
Jeffreys makes a key final point: what if the rapper paid to endorse your maison becomes untrendy in ten years time? “Worse still they could be ‘capped’ as the parlance goes.” In 2013 rapper Rick Ross became the American face of French sparkling wine Belaire – and had a near-miss in a drive-by shooting as he stepped from his Rolls-Royce. “Granted, a once struggling drink like Cognac saw its fortunes transformed when hip hop stars rapped about the product,” says Jeffreys. Some commentators claim there should be a statue of Busta Rhymes in Cognac’s historic centre. “But Champagne is eternal, not controversial.” Whether they will erect a statue of Jay Z in downtown Épernay remains to be seen.
Kathryn and Tristan regularly write about France's Champagne region. Read more travel stories here.