Alexandre Ponnavoy is Cellar Master for the Maison Taittinger. Originally from Burgundy, this son and grandson of farmers studied agronomy and plant physiology in Dijon before devoting himself body and soul to the world of champagne. With a diploma of oenology in his pocket, he set off through the world of effervescent wines in California and South Africa before joining the Station Œnotechnique de Champagne where he worked as a oenology consultant for more than ten years. As head of the winery located on the outskirts of Reims, he has been crafting Taittinger wines since 2018.
The family farm where I grew up specialised in fruit production and I was fascinated at an early age by the transformation and marketing of the products. On arriving in Reims for my oenology studies, I immediately fell in love with the multi-faceted world of the Champagne appellation. From the vineyard to the bottle, there is an alchemy that corresponds to many of the aspects of what I was looking for professionally. Then everything came together very quickly: travels that gave me a broad view of the effervescent wine sector, ten years of oenology consulting primarily based in the Aube district, and then in 2015, the first contact with the Maison Taittinger, which was looking for a successor for its emblematic Head of Cellar Loïc Dupont, who was close to retirement after 34 years of service.
I am very loyal. I knew from the beginning that the relationship with Taittinger would be a long-term affair. I had to put some thought into it of course, but I got along well immediately with Loïc… Three years of training and transmission with many blending and tasting sessions while I learned to take stock and understand this heritage. And then came the finishing touches on the new winery. Three years of very good memories, sounding out our ideas and hopes, knowing that we were in tune from an oenological point of view. When I started tasting the cuvees, I immediately identified with the Taittinger style; it thrilled me and I recognised in it my own values and predilections. The Côte des Blancs Chardonnays from the Vitryat and Sézannais terroirs shine for their taut and mineral nature, the Montagne de Reims Pinots Noirs provide depth, and the Pinots Noirs from Aube offer crispness and fruity notes. A style founded on elegance, refinement and purity while possessing a fleshy and sensual base that ensures excellent ageing potential. In short, a simple yet accomplished blend.
In taking over as Cellar Master, I became the guarantor for the Taittinger style. I am duty bound to perpetuate this style, the cornerstone and capital on which the Taittinger house and family are built. I will, of course, add some small personal touches over time, if only to adapt to new developments, but always with the overriding provision to never stray from our core values. The new winery is extremely symbolic in this respect: this highly technological building holds many of the old vats with the microbial flora that expressly distinguish our wines. Modernity at the service of tradition.
On a daily basis
I am responsible for fashioning wines that develop over time. I create a cuvee which will only complete its ageing process in several years. It is often said that a Head of Cellar works for their successor. The role of Head of Cellar requires not only technical expertise but also intuition. This begins early in the year: the quality of the plots before harvesting even begins already makes it possible to pinpoint which are the most promising and to imagine how to prepare the winery in consequence for the future blends. The harvest is crucial as vinification will be decided at the time of pressing. Then it is a question of monitoring the wines as they develop and seeing how they express themselves with regard to vintage and terroir. Our winery provides the aromatic palette from which we will create our blends. Then come many tastings, discussions, interactions and note-taking to determine how to best orient the wines with relation to our cuvees. In the art of blending, one plus one does not make two; each wine brings its own personality to another to create something completely new and unique. We renew this creation every year with different parameters in order to obtain a consistent result. Nevertheless, although we can control the quality of our wines through technique, we cannot control the wine’s essence, which is what makes this craft so fascinating.
For the time being, we note that global warming has had a rather positive effect on Champagne wines, as proved by the quality of the last fifteen years. But what worries me the most is the increase in extreme violent weather events. Heavy rains, intense storms, hailstorms and heat waves threaten vineyards since they do not flourish in great extremes. We try to do what we can at our level: our plots are covered in grass and worked mechanically without using herbicides. This is better for both the environment and our wines as it allows us to harvest high-quality grapes that really express the terroir. But the big picture is a bit of a guess. We will have to be increasingly reactive in adapting to these phenomena and in finding the right tools and methods. As I am an optimist at heart, I sincerely believe that we will find the solutions to continue producing champagne, that totally unique and exceptional wine.
It is a champagne that induces pleasure and emotion. For me personally, it is fresh and taut with a robust structure. A strong backbone clothed in lace.