As director of legendary second growth Cos d’Estournel in Bordeaux for 18 years, Jean-Guillaume Prats has been a privileged observer of the wine world. But he is even more privileged now, since he took a complete U-turn in his career and accepted the CEO position at Estates & Wines, the wine division of LVMH luxury group.
The first two letters have to do with fashion (Louis Vuitton) whereas the following two are the initials of two liquid empires. “H” is Hennessy, one of the leading brands in Cognac and “M” is Moët & Chandon, the champagne giant that includes the iconic and aspirational brand Dom Pérignon.
Over the last two decades, the group has been expanding in different directions. On the one hand, it has reinforced its leadership in Champagne with the acquisition of top maisons such as Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart or Krug. Furthermore, it has extended its sparkling producing know-how to other countries (California, Argentina, Brazil, Australia and Spain, although the Penedès winery was sold a few years ago) while gradually purchasing prestigious wine properties in various regions across the world: Terrazas de los Andes and Château Cheval des Andes in Argentina; Norton in California; Cloudy Bay in New Zealand, Cape Mentelle in Australia and since 2008 Numanthia (Toro) in Spain. All these sparkling and still wine operations outside France are managed by the Estate & Wines division.
Although the headquarters of Estate & Wines are located in Paris, Jean-Guillaume Prats travels twice a year to each winery in the group, including Numanthia in Toro. One of his visits is usually scheduled before malolactic fermentations start, so that he can assess vintage quality along with Numanthias’s director, Portuguese Manuel Louzada. In total, Prats spends as much as 120 days a year away from home.
SWL: In what way has your life changed since you took over Estates & Wines?
JGP: I'm privileged to be able to work with 13 wineries worldwide. I can easily move from a Pinot Noir from New Zealand to a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, or from an Argentinian Malbec to a Chinese Chardonnay.
SWL: I understand there are many Spanish connections in your life. Starting with your predecessor at Estates & Wines, Xavier Ybargüengoitia.
JGP: Yes, it is true. I hadn’t met Xavier previously and it was a real discovery for me. We spent three months travelling together; during that time I learnt more about vision and pragmatism than I had learnt in all my previous life. It was a great experience.
SWL: And one of your best friends is Spanish.
JGP: Telmo Rodríguez is a very close friend of mine. In fact, I introduced him to his wife. We have travelled a lot across Spain.
SWL: What do you think of Spain from a vinous point of view?
JGP: It fascinates me that you can have access to completely different wine expressions within a few hours' drive. From Sanlúcar de Barrameda’s Manzanilla to Málaga; from Rioja to Ribera del Duero; Priorat, Galicia… There is an incredible diversity and all those wine producing regions can be easily reached.
SWL: Obviously Xavier Ybargüengotia was a key actor in the acquisition of Numanthia. As a Spanish wine lover, would you consider purchasing a second winery in Spain?
JGP: I don’t think so. It’s very important for us to own just one winery in each country, unless we separate sparkling from still wines. We don’t want to become winery collectors. The idea is that each project and vineyard can be independently managed and our mission is to provide financial and human resources, as well as a distribution network.
SWL: What do you think about high quality Spanish wines? Do you think we still have to face many challenges?
JGP: There are very few Spanish wines that sell at high prices. Moreover, most of them are produced in tiny quantities. So the big challenge for Spanish winemakers is to produce these wines in higher volumes. Much of the success of Bordeaux and Napa is based on the high availability of good wines. This is one of the weaknesses of Spanish wines compared to top international brands.
SWL: What are the stronger points of Numanthia’s range among Estates & Wines big portfolio of wines?
JGP: Clearly we always draw attention to the fact that there are no other wine regions where you can make wine from such old vines.
SWL: There is an international trend towards elegant and less concentrated wines. Do you see this as a disadvantage for powerful reds such as the ones produced in Toro?
JGP: The craze for Pinot Noir is taking place around the world but this variety is not produced in Spain. The global trend is less oak, less alcohol and more forward fruit. It's a stylistic evolution and that shift is already happening in Spain.
At this point, Prats gets a piece of paper and draws two lines that eventually form an x. One stands for alcohol; the other for acidity. "The point at which both lines cross should mark the ideal balance, but we have been harvesting well above it for many years, focusing on extra ripeness and high alcohol levels. Now, however, we are a little behind," Prats says. I point out that Toro reds cannot possibly follow this trend. He concedes that they are still above the line, but far from excesses so frequent in the past.
He continues to talk about the group's new ventures in remote parts of the world. In China, they have planted vineyards in the region of Tibet, on a southern latitude but at very high altitude. This is a disease-free area where natural drainage occurs through the river Mekong. Sunlight hours are scarce but in contrast the growing season is extremely long. Only international varieties are grown. Meanwhile, Chenin Blanc sparkling wines made with the traditional method are being produced in the Maharashtra region in India; Sparkling wines are also and produced in China, but this time further north, in the Ningxia region, near Mongolia. Here Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are blended to produce a mineral and fresh style fizz.
SWL: Our last question: what do you drink when you relax at home?
JGP: I drink Manzanilla quite often; also Termes from Numathia, which I think is the label that offers the greatest value in our portfolio, and in general, very varied wines to avoid getting bored.