A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, “apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party.”
I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:
By Tolu Ogunlesi
On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.
Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.
Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”
In his heavily accented English Pecriaux encourages us to ask questions. “I really can be boring,” he quips. But his job, which he describes as travelling around the world “to taste our champagne and to talk”, is certainly not boring. In the last decade he has visited 60 countries.
Pecriaux has worked with Moët & Chandon since 1978, when, over a one-month period, he “changed everything” – moved homes, got married and changed jobs (his old job was as an internal auditor at Unilever). Around that time he even started to grow a moustache as well (his wife took ill, and he settled on the idea of a moustache to amuse her). “But at the time the moustache was brown. Now it is white,” he quickly reminds me. Unlike the moustache, however, I doubt that the bald patch atop his head is a personal choice.
Travelling the world tasting and talking champagne has given him tremendous insight into patterns of human behaviour across the world. He is dismayed by consumers who, because of inexperience, “consider champagne [merely] as a drink of pleasure and of celebration, and [thus] pay less attention to the complexity of the wine and the fact that it is wine.” Such consumers, he says, are only interested in consuming champagne because it is “something fashionable and expensive, which can be replaced by any other fashionable thing.”
The Russians were like that at first, he says. On his first trip to that country (which, before his first trip there, hadn’t hosted a “champagne training” since the Russian revolution in 1917), he observed that “[they] were not really interested in quality, they were interested in brands, in spending as much money as possible on what they consumed.”
But things soon changed, the inexperience increasingly giving way to a sophisticated appreciation. On a return visit, two years later, “people were really asking questions… very precise and sometimes tricky questions.” He likens the Nigerian market to the Russian one, and foresees a similar transformation happening here. “I think that affluent Nigerians who enjoy Moët are also people who travel abroad, who meet foreigners, so are exposed to other experiences. Naturally they become more demanding and they try to understand the pleasure they have.”
If he hadn’t become a Moët Ambassador, what else would he have been? “[A] hermit,” he says, straight-faced. “The pleasure which I have with [Moët] probably cannot be replaced with something else.” Possibly not even his love for hot-air ballooning.
Pecriaux takes literature as seriously as his wines. “Mainly French classical literature,” he explains. “My best friend is a writer of the French renaissance of the 16th century, Michael du Montaigne, he wrote one big book which I’ve read maybe four times or five times.” His post-retirement reading list is intimidating: Balzac, Stendhal and Proust. “I made the choice a long time ago, with a few exceptions, to read dead authors, because then there’s a natural selection… [the] selection is made by time. If after two centuries a writer is still printed, he’s still talked about; maybe this means he’s worth reading.”
This trip is his first to Lagos, and he’s loved every bit of it. He says it reminds him of his year-long stay in Ivory Coast in the early 1970s, on French military service. “It was my first experience of another culture; I’m still marked by it. I still feel it, it was a great experience. It’s the Africa I love, and I found elements of it [in Lagos].”
When he retires, in a few months, it’ll be to “take care of my cellar, drink my wines instead of drinking my employer’s wines, read my books, take care of my garden, settle down and travel for my own pleasure.”
Moët is manufactured from three different varieties of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. “What really matters is the raw material,” says Pecriaux. He explains that the wine-making process can only “maintain / magnify” the innate qualities of the grapes.
The grapes must possess “very specific characteristics”, conferred by the weather – which varies from year to year. One important quality the grapes must possess to make the final cut is that they must be “just ripe”. Coming a close second to the quality and character of the grapes is the wine-making process (“Méthode Champenoise”).
At harvest, the grapes are picked by a band of 3,000 “pickers” employed by Moët & Chandon. Picking is done only by hand. The grapes are then taken in small baskets to processing centers (the company currently has six of those). Everything possible is done to avoid damage to the grapes. At the processing centers the grapes are crushed gently, so gently that only 2,500 litres of wine is taken from 4,000 kg of fruit; and each batch of wine is transferred into a giant stainless steel vat. (The company has 700 of those vats).
The choice of stainless steel is to help minimize the risk of oxidation of the wine. With the juice sitting in the vats, waiting patiently to be turned into wine, Moët’s secret practices are ready to commence. The wine house has its own secret strains of yeast (“yeast that respects the aromas coming from the grapes”) to facilitate the fermentation process.
Following this is the blending process, where batches (from different vats, and even different years) are combined by a team of 11 “winemakers”. The blending is done in a giant vat (6,000 hectolitre capacity). When full the vat will contain hundreds of thousands of bubbles.
The wine is then transferred into bottles. Special strains of yeast, as well as rock sugar, are added to the bottles, which are sealed with crown-corks. A second round of fermentation, which may last weeks, takes place in the bottles. The wine-making process is deemed completed only at the discretion of the “Master Blender”.
After the secondary fermentation, impurities are expelled from the bottles by a special freezing technique, sugar is added, and the bottles are corked, and labelled. The world’s leading champagne, and one of its finest luxury brands, is born.
'Pop Something' (below), by Nigerian dentist-turned-hiphop-musician, Dr. Sid, is one of the country's best known Champagne-Anthems. Yahoozee, another of those anthems, proclaims a manifesto of “Champagne Hennessy Moët for everybody.” The Moët brand is a too-conspicuous feature in the song's video. Yahoozee, a shameless celebration of the art – and rewards – of email scamming, and the cash-suffused lives of its youthful practitioners, is the song which famously got former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell dancing, at the ThisDay Music and Fashion Festival in London in 2008. (None of the blame should go to Mr. Powell though; he could not have been expected to understand the lyrics, which are a mixture of Yoruba, pidgin English and urban Nigerian slang.)