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Laurent-Perrier leads the celebrations: one of the last family-owned Champagne Houses happens to be Africa's favourite brand. Stephen Williams reports.

ON 1 OCTOBER, AS NIGERIA celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence, champagne corks will be popping across the nation. And the majority of those corks will be from bottles of Laurent-Perrier champagne.

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Unusually, while most champagne brands (or Champagne Houses) are now owned by large corporations, Laurent-Perrier is an independent family-owned producer. There are just 17 villages in the Champagne region that qualify as makers of a Grand Cru ("great growths"--the very best wines), one of which is Tours-sur-Marne, where the Laurent-Perrier estate and cellars are located.

The House has a long and fascinating history. It was founded in 1812 by an attorney, Alphonse Pierlot, but he had no family so it was his cellar master, Eugene Laurent, that he left it to and Laurent began to build the property's huge cellars. He was to die prematurely so his 29-year-old widow, Mathilde-Emilie Perrier, carried on the work.

She was a good businesswoman and the House thrived under her management until her death in 1925 when Laurent-Perrier's daughter took over. These were increasingly difficult times, with the financial crisis of the late 1920s and the eve of World War 11. The business was failing so it was sold to the late Madame Marie-Louise de Nonancourt.

She meant the business to be inherited by her first-born son Maurice, but he died in a Nazi concentration camp so it was left to his younger brother, Bernard, a resistance hero who fought the Nazi occupation. Bernard, now honorary chairman, and his two daughters Alexandra and Stephanie, have dedicated their lives to Laurent-Perrier champagne.

Over the 60 years of his careful management, the business has been turned around and the House has risen to great heights. "We are the number three champagne worldwide in terms of value, with among the highest sales of Premium Cuvee and Prestige Cuvee," Laurent-Perrier's head of public relations Anne-Laure Domenichini told New African at the vineyards and cellars. "We also have the Cuvee Rose which is the reference, the absolute reference, for Rose [pink] champagne."

Despite the austerity measure introduced in the late 1970s by President Murtala Mohamed and later rubber-stamped by his military successor General Olusegun Obasanjo banning the import of champagne into the country, Nigeria's love-affair with the wine continues. Laurent-Perrier is the number one champagne brand in Africa, perhaps because, thanks to the high proportion of the chardonnay grape which lends the champagne great finesse and freshness, it is ideal for hot climates.

Domenichini told New African that Nigeria is Laurent-Perrier's largest market in continental sub-Saharan Africa, with sales to the country outstripping those to Gabon, Cote d'Ivoire and Congo Brazzaville (which come in at fifth, seventh and eighth respectively for the Middle East and Africa regions).

"These figures are issued annually by the independent organisation that guards the interests of the champagne industry. If that seems odd because Nigeria is an Anglophone nation, and champagne is quintessentially of France, remember that the market for sparkling wines developed when the white wines of the Champagne region were beginning to be exported to England, and by the time they reached British shores the fermentation process had developed a sparkling character which the English greatly appreciated. Traders began to ask for the sparkling wines, and that began a tradition that was later built upon with sophisticated production techniques.

Today, champagne is mainly drunk to mark great occasions and as Domenichini says: "Champagne is a wine that teaches you to be humble, humble towards nature, because everything comes from the earth and it takes time--a very long time--and it takes patience and a lot of hard manual work to produce great champagne." That is why it is such a special wine, a true luxury.

Although many Nigerians consider that the country has little to celebrate in terms of Nigeria's achievements over the last half-century, learning from past mistakes will provide an opportunity for the country's fortunes to be turned around and allow Africa's most populous nation to realise its huge potential. That is surely a prospect that many Nigerians, indeed many Africans, would be willing to raise a glass to.
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Title Annotation:Celebrations
Author:Williams, Stephen
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Words:683
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