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Hiding in Plain Sight: Rapeneau Family Estates

Chateau de Bligny

Château de Bligny is the crown jewel of Rapeneau Family Estates, a pristine set of Champagne brands secured over four generations by the Rapeneau family. Today the collection includes three récoltant-manipulant (grower/producer) wine estates and four maisons (houses). All seven brands are highlighted at the end of this story.

100+ Years of Champagne

More than a century ago, the family enterprise was sparked by patriarch and wine merchant (négociant) Ernest Rapeneau. In 1901, Ernest was selling both still wines and Champagne in Hautvillers, a village considered to be the birthplace of Champagne. As the process of delimiting vineyards and setting appellation boundaries began to take hold in France (1927-36), Ernest shifted his business exclusively to the Champagne trade. (In fact, Ernest was involved in creating the regulatory process to protect place and quality.) When he retired in 1965, son Bernard took over with twenty years of experience working side-by-side with his father. Bernard’s son Jean-François developed the brand’s domestic market, while son Christophe joined the family firm (1983) after earning a degree in oenology from the University of Reims. Christophe currently serves as president of Rapeneau Family Estates.

Rapenau Family

(Top to bottom) Ernest and Christophe Rapeneau

All three of Christophe’s sons have joined the business as well. Two of his sons run the winery with their father, while son Jean-Remy represents the brand in North America. According to Jean-Remy, “the business runs by consensus. My mother isn’t involved in the business, but she drinks a lot of Champagne!”

Acquisition Strategy

Christophe purchased Château de Bligny in the Côte des Bars in 1999. This purchase marked the beginning of the family’s intentional acquisition strategy in vine-saturated Champagne. “My family wanted to buy as much vineyard property as possible to control the supply of Champagne so we could control the brand,” said Jean-Remy.

Although there are over 15,000 winegrowers in Champagne who collectively own about 90% of all Champagne vineyards, the big Champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Cliquot are much better known global brands. Rapeneau Family Estates is the largest grower in Champagne, one of few family-only growers (no shareholders) and “very Champenoise” –no investments in other countries or French appellations. “It’s not just a business, it’s our passion for Champagne,” said Jean-Remy during a recent visit to Cincinnati as part of the Shaw-Ross Lineage Collection event hosted by Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine. “We are definitely competing with the big brands.”

Passion for Place: Côte des Bars and the Village of Bligny

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The property’s location in the southern reaches of Champagne, in the Aube region of Côte des Bars, lends several elements of distinction to the brand.

The Côte des Bars makes up about one-third of the Champagne appellation. Château de Bligny owns 30 hectares. Among the thousands of Champagne winegrowers, Château de Bligny is the only grower-producer to use “Chateau” in its name, and to bottle the bubbles on site at the vineyard property. Jean-Remy shared proudly: “There may be 10,000 chateaux in Bordeaux, but only one in Champagne!” Inspired by its proximity to Bordeaux, its name signals the importance of the Château’s Grande Reserve cuvée (house style) to the brand.

The vineyards of Château de Bligny are planted with seven traditional grape varieties on the limestone soil that signals the route to Chablis in the northernmost area of Bourgogne. “The taste of Champagne from the southern area (of the appellation) is completely different from the (mountainous) north.”

Rapenau Glass

Terroir notwithstanding, the village of Bligny owns an important spot in history as home to the Bayel crystal glassworks factory since the 1300s. Once the largest producer of crystalware (cristallerie) in France, Bayel’s production peaked in the late 1800s. There are just a few employees remaining today. Bayel crystal is highly collectible. The Rapeneau family has several neo-Gothic stained class windows in its cellar marked for visiting on the “Champagne Tourist Trail.” Paying homage to the town’s deep history, the family has amassed a collection of more than a thousand champagne glasses.

About Jean-Remy Rapeneau

Jean Remy

As the fourth generation of the Rapeneau family, Jean-Remy was literally born into the business of Champagne the same year (1983) that his father joined Rapeneau Family Estates. “I was born for a reason,” he said with a smile in his voice.

Even as a young boy, Jean-Remy worked in the vineyards and helped to make the bubbles. After learning all about winery operations through the family enterprise, Jean-Remy decided to complement his hands-on experience by studying international business (London, Westminster University). In 2008, he moved to the United States to introduce Rapeneau Family Estate brands into the North American market. “It was a natural process,” he said. “We were already working successfully over four generations with everyone in France and Europe, so North American expansion was the only way to grow.” At the time, the family’s brands were distributed only in California, so he settled in San Francisco (and also wanted to be near the Napa/Sonoma wine country).

Three years ago, the family decided to focus primarily on grower brands. Today, grower Champagne represents only 5% of the total Champagne market in the United States “so there is room to grow”! Jean-Remy spends about half of the year in France, and the other half in the U.S. and Canada. A charming, gracious and super-smart family representative, Jean-Remy revels in having “fun introducing people to grower Champagnes.”

Visiting Champagne and Château de Bligny

Quite intentionally, there isn’t much information available online about the Rapeneau family, or even about Château de Bligny. “We don’t want to put the family’s name on the labels. We want the wines to speak for themselves.” That said, the family is keen for Champagne lovers to visit, to experience the winery for themselves! The renovated Château has been open to the public since 1999. You can visit the house, which, along with its land and the village of Bligny has great historic, architectural and wine-making heritage. The dining and reception rooms have retained their decorative woodwork and ceilings painted with cherubs and cupids. Fun fact: there is a nightclub in the cellar, complete with a disco ball, for private events!!

By appointment only:
10200 Bligny, France
Telephone +33 3 25 27 40 11
(Or fill out the contact form on the winery’s website)

Maisons (Houses)

Rapenau - House

H. Martel & Sons was the Rapeneau family’s first acquisition, purchased in Epernay 1979. In 2015, its historic crayères (chalk cellars) were named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Champagne Victoire is made from grapes grown in the family vineyards, a cuvée of mostly premier cru grapes.

In the historic heart of Reims, Maison Charles de Cazanove was purchased in 2003 because of its strong international brand.

Champagne Vieille France is an historic property in the Côte des Blancs, also purchased by the Rapeneaus in 2003. Today, the cuvée is a blend of grapes from the winery’s traditional vineyards blended with reserves from Rapeneau family vineyards.

Récoltant-Manipulants (Grower Producers)

Rapenau - Grower

Château de Bligny was built in the 13th century by the Marquis de Dampierre. It is situated in the heart of the Côte des Bars, in the historic and architecturally significant village of Bligny. “Grande Reserve” is the Château’s cuvée (50% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir). Three thousand (3,000) cases are distributed throughout the U.S. The Château property is available for events such as weddings.

Charles Orban is a legacy winery of a family that had been growing grapes on the left bank of the Marne since the 1770s. Best known for Pinot Meunier, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also grown.

P. Louis Martin was founded in 1864 in Bouzy, an area devoted to Pinot Noir. Martin family members are credited with helping to found the first cooperative in Bouzy.

Photo credits: Society of Wine Educators, Château de Bligny/Jean-Remy Rapeneau, winery websites.

Interview with Jean-Remy Rapeneau August 8, 2018.

Shaw-Ross Lineage Wine Tour

 

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No one knows exactly how many wine brands there are in the world today. Market dynamics in wine-world are wild and wooly. The space is crowded, complicated and consolidating.

I actually tried to research the answer to this brand volume question. (Scroll down to catch a glimpse of some fascinating trends.)

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My motive was to contrast the noise of a crowded marketplace with a very special limited edition experience recently presented by Cincinnati’s Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine and hosted by Miller Gallery. This tasting was like a treasure hunt where the “X” was already drawn on the map! Shaw-Ross International Importers represents a small collection of prestigious family vineyard brands. Its Lineage Collection emphasizes “the ‘savior faire’ of the winemakers who create them.” It was deeply gratifying to meet the current generation of family winemakers, and in coming weeks I will share their remarkable stories (and wine tasting notes) with you.

In the meantime, here’s a short introduction to the winemakers and wines. You can purchase (or order) these wines from Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine.

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Clockwise from top left: Jean-Remy Rapeneau, Patrick Leon, Jake (and Ben) Fetzer, Ophelie Loubersac, and Jose Luis Muguiro

Château de Bligny, Jean-Remy Rapeneau
Third generation grower/winemaker/owner

  • Brut Champagne
  • Blanc de Blanc Champagne
  • Rosé Champagne

Château Les Trois Croix and Château d’Esclans, Patrick Leon
Consulting oenologist and winemaker for Sacha Lichine’s brands

  • Château Les Trois Croix (2012)
  • Château d’Esclans (2016): Rock Rosé, Les Clans Rosé, and Garrus Rosé

Masút Vineyard & Winery, Jake Fetzer
Third generation winemaker/owner

  • Pinot Noir

Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Ophélie Loubersac
Oenologist and communications manager

  • Mouton Cadet Reserve (2015)

Marqués de Riscal, Jose Luis Muguiro, Jr.
5th generation family owner and brand ambassador

  • Rioja Gran Reserva (2005)
  • Bar de Chirel Reserva (2010)

Now back to the context of market dynamics. The number of brands changes faster than the International Organization of Wine and Vine (OIV) can track them. OIV’s 2017 statistical report on world “vitiviniculture” (based on 2015-16 data) sheds interesting light on the dynamic situation.

In the past decade, the volume of wine production has increased 24%, and the value by 61%. The top five wine-producing countries in rank order are Italy, France, Spain, United States, and Australia. In the race for vino market share, China is in hot pursuit, eclipsing a steady pack of countries better known for producing wine: South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and Germany.

According to The Drinks Business (2017), China now has two of the top ten brands in the world (#10 Great Wall Wine Company and #4 Changyu Pioneer Wine, which is venturing into e-commerce). The brand structure looks a bit different in China than in most of the rest of the world. There is a single brand name, but as many as 50 different styles of wine ranging from sweet to dry, sparkling to still, and more. At #2 in the world, the Chilean conglomerate Concha y Toro is primarily a single big brand, albeit with multiple sub-brands to differentiate quality and style. Rounding out the top ten is a small but mighty group of big global companies that own multiple brands:

  • Constellation > 100 (#7 Robert Mondavi)
  • E & J Gallo > 70 (including #3 Gallo and #1 Barefoot)
  • Treasury Wine Estates > 70 (#9 Beringer)
  • Trinchero Family >40 (including #6 Sutter Home)
  • Accolade Wine >20 (#9 Hardy’s), and
  • Casella Family Brands, a relatively small portfolio that includes #5 Yellow Tail.

I love the tradition of independent, family-owned wineries, and I loved experiencing these wines. My case selection is on its way!