Champagne Pol Roger: an interview with Hubert de Billy

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

Hubert de Billy is the great-great-grandson of Pol Roger, one of the few family-owned Champagne Houses and a perennial favourite in the UK. We caught up with him before the confinement in France to discuss history, philosophy, gastronomy and more besides.

On ties to Champagne

“My destiny to work in the Champagne industry was confirmed at birth! My mother, Chantal Budin, was born at 11 Avenue de Champagne in Epernay and my father, Christian de Billy, was born at 48 Avenue de Champagne in Epernay. My maternal grandfather was the General Manager of Perrier-Jouët and had been Mayor of Epernay during the Second World War, whilst my father was the great-grandson of Monsieur Pol Roger and grandson of Maurice Pol-Roger, the mayor of Epernay during the First World War.

“Had I not had such strong roots to Champagne, I did have childhood dreams of becoming a rally driver and, before joining the family business, managed a team in the RAC Rally.”

On eureka moments in wine

“I do not remember ever not drinking Pol Roger, having been brought up on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay, but the first vintage I remember tasting was the 1971 and there have been many ‘eureka’ moments with this wine ever since.

“My birth year, 1963, was a dreadful vintage with the exception of Vintage Port, but I am lucky enough to be friends with the Symington Family and, when I visit them in Oporto, they occasionally let me check how well their 1963’s are maturing.”

On Pol Roger’s winemaking philosophy

“We are very lucky to be one of the few Champagne Houses to still be in family ownership. As such, this allows us to take a little more time to do things; we make wines that continue to improve in the cellar over many years. Family ownership is very important to us and, since we started importing to the UK in the early 1850s, we are proud to have enjoyed longstanding relationships with many other great wine families in the UK, such as Berry Bros. & Rudd.

“We know that Berry Bros. & Rudd supplied our most famous exponent, Sir Winston Churchill, over many years: the first invoice we have confirming the relationship, from the Churchill Archive, shows him purchasing 10 cases of Pol Roger Brut Vintage 1921 in March 1937.”

On pairing Pol Roger with food

“When I come to see my friends in the UK, they have convinced me that you do not need anything too complicated! I have found that Pol Roger Brut Réserve works brilliantly with fish and chips, as does a bacon sandwich washed down with a glass of Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill! But of course, when we are entertaining at home in Epernay, we tend to enjoy more classic combinations such as Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs with turbot, or an old Pol Roger Brut Vintage with well-aged Comté – heaven!” 

On wines other than Champagne

“Whilst I am lucky to drink and enjoy Champagne every day, I also benefit hugely from having great friends producing fantastic wines in other areas, notably my colleagues in the Primum Familiae Vini (PFV). One of my earliest memories of the PFV was drinking the great Vega Sicilia 1977; a wine I will never forget. I am also fortunate to have a small collection of the Joseph Drouhin Clos des Mouches. If I am very lucky, I might get to drink a bottle of the fabulous Joseph Drouhin Montrachet Grand Cru “Marquis de Laguiche” on my birthday on the 5th December!”

On recently enjoyed bottles

“I have just returned from La Rochelle where I had a fabulous lunch and enjoyed oysters, scallops and sweetbreads matched with a bottle of Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frederic Emile 2015 followed by Château de Beaucastel 2010.

“I am about to visit my father, Christian, who was born in the great 1928 Vintage and is still going strong at the age of 92. During lockdown, he has been sustained by Delamain Cognac and, of course, Glenfarclas 15 Year Old – I’m sure we’ll enjoy a dram together before lunch!”

On personal favourites from Pol Roger

“We still have some stock of the Pol Roger Brut Vintage 1914 made by my great grandfather, Maurice Pol-Roger which, in his words, was ‘picked to the sound of gunfire, drunk to the sound of trumpets’. Still, 106 years on, it is slightly effervescent and distinctly Pol Roger.

“Of course, I never get bored with our Brut Réserve non-vintage, but I am particularly proud of our outstanding vintage champagnes – especially Brut Vintage 2012 which is drinking very well now; I will be putting a few cases away in my cellar to drink in five or six years’ time. We make so little Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill that it is by no means an everyday drink, but we are looking forward to getting the Pol Roger family together to mark the anniversary of Churchill’s birthday on 30th November with a magnum of Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 2009.

“2024 it is going to be a very special year for Champagne Pol Roger and Sir Winston Churchill; we will be celebrating our 175th birthday and the year also marks the 150th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s birth.”

For Christmas 2020, we are delighted to be offering 20% off a selection of Grande Marque Champagnes from Pol Roger, including Brut, Pure and vintage 2012. These are stunning wines, worthy of any Christmas celebration. Shop the range here.

Category: Champagne and Sparkling Wine

What we’re drinking: staff picks

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We recently asked our team a simple question: “what are you drinking these days?” Here, five of our colleagues from across the business give us their personal recommendation.

A charming Californian Chardonnay

2018 Berry Bros. & Rudd, Sonoma County Chardonnay by Ramey Wine Cellars

Having previously spent some time in the US, my impression had been of domestic wines that were never quite in balance: too sweet, too tannic, too much (or not quite enough) oak. I should point out that I grew up in Bordeaux and the first white wine I fell in love with was a Pessac-Léognan: 100% Sauvignon Blanc, aged in new oak – so I do like oak! Clearly, I hadn’t been drinking the right wines.

Working at Berry Bros. & Rudd has restored my faith in American wines, and this Chardonnay by Ramey is a perfect example as to why. I recently enjoyed a bottle late on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, with family that I hadn’t seen for months. The wine instantly brought us back to warm summer days: there’s lively acidity, gunflint, lemon zest, ripe nectarine and just the right amount of smoky and toasty oak flavours. It’s nicely balanced, and has this additional, welcome, richness. This is a great California Chardonnay; I’d strongly recommend buying by the case rather than the bottle.

Clara Bouffard, Marketing Executive

A birthday treat from Veneto

2015 Valpolicella Superiore, Marion, Marcellise, Veneto

I picked this up as a birthday treat to myself, and we took it along on a recent break in Devon. We savoured every drop; the wine has a perfect balance of bramble fruits and spice, coming from a little bit of age. It went wonderfully with the tomato-based pasta dish we made – though I suspect it would shine with just about any food.

Once lockdown ends, I think I’ll be booking some tickets back to the Veneto, to enjoy this in situ with proper Italian food.

Benjamin Bathurst, Digital Marketing Executive

The “other” white Burgundy

2018 Bourgogne Aligoté, Aligato, Cuvée Z, Domaine de la Soufrandière, Bret Bros, Burgundy

I have a soft spot for Burgundy’s “other” white grape at the moment, and this one is a belter.

This cuvée comes from a tiny 0.3-hectare plot of estate-owned fruit. The bold label and play on the Japanese word arigato (“thank you”) is enough to make the bottle, let alone the wine, stand out. My own resounding memory of this wine is of sharing a few glasses with family over a birthday dinner during lockdown in May. It’s nothing revelatory to note just how unusual May 2020 was; starting a meal with buttered brown shrimp and griddled sourdough, served with this wine, was a brief glimpse of “normality”. The wine offers some hallmark bruised apple and citrus peel, with fantastic weight and texture. It’s characterful and rounded, with a racy acidity to tie it all together. Cracking.

Distinguished by yellow wax-topped bottles, opulence and approachability, wines from this domaine never disappoint. Based in the south of Burgundy, the Bret brothers are stalwarts of organic and biodynamic viticulture, renowned for their terroir-driven wines – true of both their estate label and their négociant operation.

Will Protheroe, Digital Merchandising Executive

Northern Italian excellence

2015 Berry Bros. & Rudd Barolo by Giovanni Rosso, Piedmont

I recently enjoyed this Barolo in the pre-lockdown company of some very good friends. The agenda for the day was a simple one: visit my old Exeter University housemates (newlyweds; now Mr. & Mrs. Smith), watch the rugby, grill some food and enjoy some wine.

The rugby was some match; the nail-biting European Cup final between Exeter Chiefs and Racing 92 had plenty of excitement and drama. Best of all, the West Country triumphed!

Next, it was time to light the firepit and salt the meats. We had plenty to celebrate, so I’d brought a couple of bottles of the 2015 Barolo along with me. Barolo is always something of a treat for me, a wine for special occasions. Into the decanter it went while we gathered round the flames, checked the coals and debated which meat to stick on first.

Half an hour later, we served up a delicious platter of flame-grilled meats and vegetables, with some home-baked olive bread on the side; the Barolo was a delight with such a feast on this fire-warmed October evening. With beautiful aromas of dark cherries, forest berries, violet and black tea, this Barolo is excellent. The palate is lusciously silky, with some savoury spice. It’s got plenty of warmth and depth – perfect with rich foods. The second bottle went down a treat, shared around the re-stoked fire, admiring wedding photos and reminiscing about university antics gone by.

The Italians are firm believers in the simple things in life: good people, good food and good wines. All in all, it’s a hard philosophy to beat!

Will Blakely, Senior Wine & Spirits Advisor

A standout Cognac from Frapin

Berry Bros. & Rudd F.L.B. Grande Champagne Cognac, Frapin

At this time of year, it’s great to have something to warm the cockles, and this fits the bill nicely. Frapin has been making exceptional Cognac since the 13th century; they consistently produce fantastically smooth, nutty and fragrant Cognacs that make the heart sing.

I first encountered this Cognac in a tasting of the impressive Frapin range at our Warehouse Shop. This was a real standout, holding its own among its older and more established siblings. There’s an amazing depth of flavour, and the price is approachable enough to entice Cognac aficionados and novices alike. I’ve shared this with friends and family, and it’s always a crowd-pleaser. Whether as an after-dinner tipple, a celebratory toast or after a takeaway pizza, F.L.B. punches well above its weight.

Markus Ljunghammar, Wine & Spirits Advisor

Browse all of our staff picks here.

Category: What we're drinking

An interview with Alessandro Palazzi

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Dukes bartender Alessandro Palazzi behind the bar at the famous hotel
Alessandro Palazzi, bartender at Dukes Bar, photographed by Lesley Lau in September 2020
As we launch our Vesper Martini, we speak with Alessandro Palazzi, the legendary manager of Dukes Bar manager, about what it means to him to work in this special corner of St James’s

Charismatic bar manager Alessandro Palazzi was intoxicated by the history and atmosphere of St James’s long before he worked at Dukes Bar. In fact, he remembers visiting Berry Bros. & Rudd as a young sommelier and bartender. “A few times I’d go in there with no money, and they’d always treat me like a king,” he says.

Now, Palazzi counts many of his neighbours – including those at Berry Bros. & Rudd – as friends. The warmth in his voice suggests his enthusiasm for working here hasn’t waned. “Sometimes when I come to work I think, ‘If I could go back 200 years I would buy a place here.’ Now it’s impossible. My wife and I say ‘If you could win the lottery, where would you buy a house?’ It’s easy: St James’s.”

On doing business in St James’s

“This building became Dukes Hotel in 1908. Before that it was a private residence, like most of the places around here, and in 1908 it became Dukes Hotel with 40 bedrooms and 28 apartments. Then, slowly, these people sold their apartments, and the previous owner bought it. Now we have 90 bedrooms and one penthouse. In St James’s there are a lot of clubs. At the beginning of the century this place was quite exclusive, and business was done here. And then also opposite us is the old Carlton Club, so when the club was closed, the members would come to us.”

On the area’s unique atmosphere

“Sometimes, if I’m early, I just walk around the neighbourhood. It’s an incredible atmosphere.  During lockdown I cycled around, found small streets, discovered a few areas which I’ve never seen, and the park is magic. One of the things I always say is when you move house, being friends with your neighbours is very important: it’s the same here. But here, you have history; you have Buckingham Palace down the road. Jermyn Street, with all its amazing shops. What more do you want?

On the St James’s community

“On my second day at Dukes, I noticed there was nothing from Berry Bros., so I went to the shop, introduced myself, and this is how we started the relationship. And the same thing I did with the other shops, because we have Lock & Co, who we have a fantastic relationship with, Fortnum & Mason, Floris, Truefitt & Hill. In my menu, some of the drinks are inspired by these people. I have a cocktail called Oddjob 1697, in honour of Lock & Co – they invented the bowler hat, and they made the bowler hat for the James Bond movie.”

On the changing face of the area

“It’s changed a little bit, and become a little bit more democratic. In Jermyn Street, you find women’s shops, whereas 200 years ago there was nothing. We’ve changed here, for instance: we have way more than the martini. People come in to have a drink and talk, and sometimes we know if it’s someone famous and we make sure they’re not disturbed. There’s nobody taking pictures. We have a lot of regulars, too – we have people who, when they were younger, the father or grandfather brought their sons.”

Alessandro has collaborated with Berry Bros. & Rudd to create a Vesper Martini which will launch on bbr.com this weekend.

Category: Spirits

A closer look at the design of The King’s Ginger

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An image of a man pouring a cocktail from our latest bottle of The King;s Ginger

We’ve collaborated with Stranger & Stranger to bring the latest bottle of The King’s Ginger to life. Our ginger and lemon spirit is deeply rooted in the history of Berry Bros. & Rudd, and its new look is inspired by its rich heritage. Explore the inspiration and considerations behind its latest design.  

The King’s Ginger owes its name and spirit (in all senses of the word) to King Edward VII, whose passion for country sports led to the development of a “restorative” ginger liqueur that could be enjoyed outdoors.  

Since 1903, The King’s Ginger has been evolving continuously – from a well-kept secret amongst the upper classes to a staple in modern cocktail bars.  

Now, 117 years later, we’re thrilled to reveal our latest design. Quietly regal, our new bottle of The King’s Ginger acknowledges its rich heritage while striking an unmistakably modern note. 

The saddle flask 

We collaborated with design agency Stranger & Stranger to revitalise The King’s Ginger for a new age. The new bottle comes in the shape of a saddle flask, the sort that Edward VII would certainly have carried, in recognition of its heritage.  

“The saddle flask recalls a shared enjoyment with friends,” says Guy Pratt from Stranger & Stranger. “Historically, it’s rooted in the tradition of horseback sports that would have been enjoyed by the upper classes in the time of King Edward VII. We wanted to bring that story forwards and situate it firmly in the now.” 

Today, the saddle flask might seem like a historical artefact, but they were once commonplace. “In the days before the commercial advent of the motorcar, before Mr Ford made it popular and accessible to everybody, people used to travel around on horseback,” explains Ronnie Cox, our Brands Heritage Director, “So, the saddle flask would have been held in a leather holster and carried on the side of a horse.” 

But, even as it fell out of use amongst the general public, the saddle flask continues to be used in the context of country sports.  

 “It remains popular even today when people go out hunting – an activity which takes place in winter, when it’s very cold,” says Ronnie, “It was typical to have a ‘stirrup cup’ before going out on a hunt, a tot of something to calm you down before getting on a horse, and it was just as typical to carry a flask throughout the day.” 

This is the inspiration behind the latest reincarnation of The King’s Ginger.  

A modern interpretation of The King’s Ginger

“The new bottle allows the liquid to be the hero; it takes the design from staid tradition to a more refreshing, convivial experience,” says Guy. “During the re-design, we knew we needed to shed new light and energy on a brand which had been around for a long time and give it appeal to a new audience.”  

The result is clean and elegant, tactile and seductive. Its translucent golden bottle recalls honey or nectar, suggesting richness, vitality and purity. 

The elegance of the bottle is complemented by bold embossed lettering, which references The King’s Ginger origin story. “The embossing serves two purposes,” explains Guy, “it’s incredibly tactile, so it feels good in your hand and adds grip. And the vertical orientation invites you to pick up the bottle and investigate the lettering, naturally asking to be turned in the hand.” 

The tactile element plays into its functionality too, making it easier for bar staff to grab the bottle and pour – which adds to its modern appeal. “There’s a huge renewed interest in cocktails, driving interest to liqueurs such as The King’s Ginger,” says Guy, “The tall, tapered bottle is a bold move within the liqueur category, which is known for short, stout bottles such as the old King’s Ginger. But moving towards this more elegant style gives it better shelf stand-out, especially when they’re often placed at the back of the bar.”  

In contrast to the previous bottle, the new bottle is also fully recyclable. Sustainability is a key consideration behind the new design, broadening its appeal to a new audience of socially and environmentally conscious consumers.  

So, does the new King’s Ginger bottle reflect a different direction for the future?  

“The vision for The King’s Ginger is one of relevance to the modern audience – while at the same time, staying true to its roots. It draws out its origin story as a revitalising restorative: a high-strength liquid presented in a tall, lean bottle, perfectly suited to high-energy kingly pursuits such as horse-riding, hunting and fishing.” 

In today’s world, it’s no longer a liqueur solely associated with country sports; the latest design reflects a broader horizon for The King’s Ginger, envisaging it as the go-to spirit for a new generation of bon viveurs.  

Our new bottle of The King’s Ginger is available to buy here.

Category: History,Miscellaneous