In 2013, a premium champagne brand called Champagne Collet was re-launched. Despite its apparent newness, the wine’s origins are old: established in 1921. Collet is a wine produced by the region’s oldest cooperative, Coopérative Générale des Vignerons de la Champagne délimitée, which represents hundreds of winemakers. At their head quarters in Aÿ, there is a Champagne museum, taking visitors on a tour through the fiery formation of the world’s most famous wine region, and the battle to keep it.
Champagne Collet arrived in New Zealand in late 2014, distributed by James Barber of Mineral Wines. About a month ago, the commercial director of Champagne Collet, Bertrand Glory, came out from France to visit. We took him to Apero, the first place in New Zealand to pour Collet, to have a glass with a few of the people who helped bring this champagne into the country and spread the word about it, including Antrim Duncan, Collet’s Australasian sales manager, and Morven McAuley of Tradecraft, who works on marketing and social media for the brand here, and, naturally, Apero’s Ismo Koski.
Champagne is a world famous drink, a luxury industry in its own right, dominated by flashy bottles and equally flashy parties. Inserting a new product into such a traditional environment is no easy task, and it was fascinating to hear these people talk about how they’ve done it, and what they’ve tried to do differently. This as an excerpt from that conversation, edited for clarity.
James Barber: Apero was the first place to pour Champagne Collet in New Zealand.
Ismo Koski: Oh really? I was stoked when the opportunity came about, because I wanted something different, that no one else had. I wanted to have a point of difference, and I trusted James wasn’t going to bring in something that was not up to speed, but in the end it was much better than I anticipated. I think the packaging is wicked, and the champagne itself is delicious.
Bertrand Glory: In terms of quality, what do you say?
Mo: For me, it’s so clean. The bead is lovely and fresh and zingy. I think it speaks for itself, and as you learn the story of Collet it just becomes a cooler brand.
James: I like to say it’s a champagne born out of revolution, essentially, in that the guys who set it up were at the forefront of protecting the Champagne name. In true French style they revolted, burned a couple of buildings down, and that sort of carry on. It was also born in a really cool era, the 1920’s.
Mo: The people behind Collet started the movement for Champagne as we know it. If they hadn’t been there, Champagne grapes could have come from anywhere. So that’s an even cooler story.
James: It’s a drink for good times.
Antrim Duncan: And bad as well, and breakfast. If you come in at 9 in the morning and say, ‘I’ll have a glass of shiraz’, you get a funny look, if you say, ‘I’ll have a glass of champagne’, people say, ‘oh, you’re classy’.
Mo: I like your style.
Bertrand: I’m quite interested in what your customers say when you say Collet, because probably they don’t know the brand, do they trust it just because of you?
Mo: I think I’ve definitely got to that point now, where people will trust. It’s helped that you see it a little bit more, around the place. That marketing has been awesome because it hasn’t been misrepresented, or put in the wrong places – it’s been quite discrete. You don’t see it at the polo. It definitely fits with Apero because I didn’t want to have that named champagne that everyone knows, I wanted to pour something that would have a little bit of interest, and I also wanted it to be accessible for people. That’s been quite an important thing for me, to be able to make it affordable for people.
Bertrand: Exactly, that’s the way we wanted it to be. I mean, we wanted it to be premium, selective, but also affordable. We can achieve that because we’re a cooperative. The brand was launched three years ago, and now we’re creating a new distribution network for it. So far we’ve been quite successful, export-wise we sell two thirds of the total production of Collet. Collet is about half a million bottles, and New Zealand was country number 25. Now we’ve reached 30 countries. We’re not going to be everywhere in the world, probably 40 to 50. In each country, we won’t go to supermarkets, we won’t go to chains, we want to be very selective, because we can’t afford to produce millions of bottles, and we want to stick to the quality. We don’t want to be mainstream.
Morven McAuley: Was New Zealand seen as a market that was very open to champagne, somewhere that you thought would be a great market to experiment with?
Bertrand: There are two kind of markets: there’s a volume market, and if we have a very small share of it we’ll still be selling a lot. That’s good for the profit of the company. Then we have specific markets, like New Zealand, which are good for the image of the brand. This market is not very big, but it’s a growing market, and it’s a country where you have education about wine because you are producing wine. So consumers are well able to distinguish what’s a good champagne vs. one that’s not so good. That’s the reason we wanted to be in New Zealand.
James: At Mineral, we’d searched for a while for something like this… we weren’t super active about it, but we were definitely keeping our ears open, and talking to people and being approached by people. There’s different kind of roads we could have taken. I was talking before about the movement towards growers champagne – these are the guys who actually grow the fruit and make the champagne themselves and then sell it – but they’re often very small outfits. It’s like the whole natural or orange wine movement, it’s a bit hipster, and a bit faddish, in a sense. That does them a disservice because they’ve been producing these wines for hundreds of years, and they’re amazing, but we wanted something we could be passionate about, with Collet the wine is fantastic but at the same time, they have the commercial nous to be able to make it into something really cool in this country.
Bertrand: And that’s a worldwide situation. Our customers all want something very specific, high quality, but they don’t want to find the bottle everywhere. Collet people are people who think differently, and would love to have a product for the quality of it and not just for the brand, they don’t care really about the brand in comparison.
Morven: It is a challenge, you know, the champagne market. People are… probably quite uneducated about what’s in the bottle, but so happy to be marketed to and directed into buying a specific brand. I think Collet has got this lovely sense of discovery for people right now, and when you’ve got people like Mo who can introduce people to it at places like Apero, that’s so valuable.
Mo: I always wanted my champagne by the glass to be sub $20. Basically $24-$26 is a standard, in Auckland I think, at places I’ve worked. Considering that, it was amazing for Collet to win that Cuisine accolade last year. One of the guys on the judging panel came in here and was stoked that we had it by the glass. He honestly reckoned he’d never heard of Collet before that tasting, and he said, in his opinion, it was hands above everything – it blew him away. That’s special, you know. In a market that’s dominated by brands, for quality to stand out.
James: We wanted to change the way people drink champagne in this country. Of course it’s a luxury item, and it’s a wine to be enjoyed in celebration, but why not be able to drink it in the same way you have a glass of chardonnay, or a beer? In order to do that, it needs to come in at a certain price.
Antrim: In France there’s always a time and a place for champagne. In oyster season you can get oysters and a glass of champagne for sub 20 euro. It’s part of the culture. London is a great example of that, too – 68 million people and 32 million bottles of champagne per year. Then you look at the States and they can’t break more than 20 million bottles a year. It’s a cultural thing, it’s about it being an acceptable drink to have on all occasions. Celebration or commiseration.
Mo: Or just because you feel like it, you know. Yeah I think some people here have that stigma too, we’re quite humble I suppose, Kiwis, and maybe it’s seen as being a bit of a show off thing. But you know what, sometimes it just has to be a glass of champagne.
James: We’re trying to take the wank out of it, essentially.
Mo: That’s right, that’s why it’s really important not to have all the bells and whistles, you just want to take the cork out of a bottle of champagne, pour it and just enjoy it.
Bertrand: I get your point. Champagne is not always a luxury product, because over 300 million bottles are produced every year. So it’s a wine, but it is a celebration wine, you can’t escape from this. That’s traditional, but we have to show Collet to consumers in a modern way, because it is also just a glass of wine. You can play on both.
Antrim: If you take a bottle of champagne, any champagne to a party, everyone immediately knows that it’s special.
Mo: And you hear the pop.
Antrim: It hits all the senses.
Morven: I was sitting on a sparkling wine panel for a trade tour that we did last year and it was really interesting talking to people, particularly restaurateurs, about serving champagne at the end of the night. Sometimes it’s really nice to cleanse your palate as you’re walking out the door, to finish with something that’s beautifully acidic and fresh and clean and zesty and bubbly. That’s what’s really great about the varietal blend of Collet, because it can be that celebratory toast, but it has the legs to last the meal. It’s got structure. Because of that happy balance between the chardonnay and the pinot noir…
James: The Brut Art Deco is 40% chardonnay, 40% pinot noir, 20% pinot meunier. I think that makes for a lovely, fine, juicy, food-friendly, versatile style of champagne. It will work with the spicy food through to some of the richer food that Leslie cooks here at Apero, from the sausage through to terrine.
G&H: So Mo, what do you like to serve it with here at Apero?
Mo: The raw fish dish, that is a great match. Whether it’s the kingfish, the snapper or the trevally. There’s a little hint of horseradish and it’s a really elegant, delicate dish to pair with Collet. See the recipe >>
Thanks to these folk for taking the time to sit down and let us eavesdrop on their chat.
If you’d like to know more, follow Champagne Collet on instagram @champagnecolletnz.