INTERVIEW-Remy CEO spirits high on buoyant China

* China could overtake U.S. as group’s biggest market

* Sees strong growth from Chinese cognac market

* Pleased with group performance this year

* Champagne division set to break even this year

* Family shareholders totally committed to business

(Adds further CEO comment, background and share reaction)

By David Jones and Gilles Guillaume

PARIS, Sept 9 (Reuters) - French drinks group Remy Cointreau RCOP.PA said China could overtake the United States as its biggest market within five years, as demand for its key Chinese cognac grows more than 10 percent annually.

The maker of Remy Martin cognac and Piper-Heidsieck champagne, which makes a third of group profit from the Chinese cognac market, says its growth in China had outpaced cognac rivals over the past 18 months.

“Overall, I would expect above 10 percent growth at least for the next 5-10 years, I don’t see any slowing down,” Chief Executive Jean-Marie Laborde told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.

“If the rate of growth of the world is still what it is today, definitely we will have our number one market in China within five years,” he said.

Remy Martin led the Chinese cognac market in the 1990s but has fallen to No. 3 behind LVMH's LVMH.PA Hennessy and Pernod Ricard's PERP.PA Martell in volume terms.

However, since its exit from the Maxxium distribution deal in April 2009 profit growth has accelerated and it is now No 2 in value terms.

“Over the 18 past months, I have by far the biggest growth on that market, it means that one day I will come back to the position I used to have, even if it takes time,” Laborde said.

Shares in the group, which also makes Cointreau liqueur, Mount Gay rum and Greek Metaxa, rose as much as 2.8 percent to a high of 45.9 euros before easing back to trade up 2.2 percent at 45.6 euros by 1340 GMT.

Remy shares are highly rated as a big emerging-market player in the premium spirits market and they trade on 19.5 times forecast March 2011 earnings compared with Pernod and Diageo DGE.L both on around 13.8 times June 2011 consensus earnings, and more in line with luxury goods group LVMH on 20 times.

Laborde, 62, joined Remy as CEO in September 2004, after spending most of his working life in the drinks industry with 20 years at Pernod followed by an eight-year spell running LVMH’s wine and champagne business Moet & Chandon.

He added Remy’s champagne division which makes Charles Heidsieck as well as Piper-Heidsieck is expected to break even in the current year to March 2011, after a loss of 4 million euros last year, and then move into profitability.

He said the group’s controlling Heriard Dubreuil and Cointreau families which own around 57 percent of the company were “totally committed to the business, totally supportive”.

(Reporting by David Jones; Editing by Dominique Vidalon and Erica Billingham)

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