A new winemaking style, new cuvees, new brand marketing, a new look, new HQ, new faces – there is hardly anything about Nicolas Feuillatte that has stayed the same in recent months. Number one Champagne brand in France, number three in the world and unbelievably a company that is still only 40 years old, Peter Dean was granted a rare audience with the key movers and shakers who are set to make a significant impact on the UK on-trade
Just over half of the 20m bottles produced each year comes out as Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne, the rest comes out under some of the 4,500 growers’ own brands.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer scale of the Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte operation, no matter where your emotions lie in the world of Champagne. The newly opened €25M visitor centre which fronts the four storey plant is like the lair of a James Bond villain intent on world domination – it is colossal, slick and very sexy… The Spy With The Golden Magnum.
At any moment you’d not be that surprised to see the ‘eagle’s nest’ hilltop location in Chouilly part to reveal a giant missile – presumably in the shape of a Grand Cru Nebuchadnezzar.
In the centre, through doors that go ‘swish’ you glide up an enormous staircase lit by ultra-modern chandeliers that resemble a swirling glass of bubbles, to a virtual reality pop-up, whose headset transports you (very realistically it has to be said) into the ‘enchanted world’ of the new-look brand.
In the plant itself the capacity and efficiency is staggering.
First you walk past shiny new tanks of reserve wine that hold 3.3 million litres but have the capacity to hold 10m. Then you are dwarfed as you walk down a 417-strong avenue of blending tanks that each hold 4000 hectolitres – that’s 40 million bottles. On one floor that resembles a giant car park designed by Ridley Scott are 470 riddlers, each holding 570 bottles that are riddled every six hours.
On the bottling line that works to the tune of 20,000 bottles an hour are giant robots that are simply frightening. And these guys are not wearing Gilets Jaunes or have two hour lunch breaks – there is a separate conveyor belt of bottles of Champagne that are looped around the ceiling just so the rest of the bottling line can keep up.
I’m no fan of seeing bottling lines on winery visits but this baby was different – this was like the world’s biggest and best-ever train set.
Of course none of this has any bearing on what’s inside the bottle (consistency apart) – big is not necessarily beautiful in that sense – but chapeaus where they’re due. Nicolas Feuillatte has gone from nothing to becoming France’s number one Champagne brand in just 40 years. They are number 3 in the world and were the UK’s no. 1 brand until 2015 when we were superseded by the States, partly because of the growth in the sector there, partly because of Brexit and Prosecco.
Champagne: The Next Generation
How Nicolas Feuillatte has got into this lofty position in such a short space of time is down to combination of factors: the business model, the entrepreneurial spirit and the Champagne they produce.
The reason for talking about them now and for my visit is because they are gearing up to impact the UK on-trade as hard as they can.
There is no escaping the dynamism within the company – there is a palpable energy within the place and also with the newly-installed executives we meet, many of whom will presumably have had to meet raised eyebrows in deciding to join a mass consumer brand from ‘more prestigious’ Houses. It feels like they are revelling in being part of a company that, despite its market positioning, still has the agility and insouciance of an upstart challenger brand.
The company was founded, after all, on an audacious entrepreneurial spirit by, on the one hand Nicolas Feuillatte, a Parisian coffee importer who opened up the US coffee market to African supply when the Brazilian harvest failed one year, and Henri Macquart a man who started storing excess juice from the over-abundant harvest of 1970 when vignerons had run out of capacity.
Together they formed the Centre Vinicole – Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte (CV-CNF) that now accounts for 5-6% of the entire vineyard surface in the Champagne region and incorporates 82 of the 140 cooperatives.
Throughout their marketing collateral Nicolas Feuillatte describes itself as a “growers’ Champagne brand” referring to the key part of the business model that the 4,500 growers own their land and grapes – of the 20 million bottles that CVCNF produces each year just over half comes out under the Nicolas Feuillatte brand, the rest (9.5 million bottles) are bottles that come out under the growers’ own identity.
And yes, you feel there is a slightly brazen attempt to reclaim the term ‘Growers’ Champagne’ going on there!
With decreasing freshness a constant challenge in Champagne because of climate change, the mosaic of terroirs that is afforded to Nicolas Feuillatte’s seven-strong oenologist team, means that freshness can be achieved in the blending process and Etienne Eteneau who has been in the team for six months having previously been the vineyard manager at Pommery, works with vineyard technicians and in the laboratory and team of oenologists to achieve this aim.
Of the company’s ‘calling card’ the Réserve Exclusive Brut, that makes up 80% of production, Eteneau explains that the blend has changed.
“There is a new approach – we are making it more dynamic and crispier.”
The way the team are achieving this is reducing the dosage, adding non malo into the blend and changing the blend – not by altering the 40/40/20% of Chardonnay, Meunier and Pinot – but altering the winemaking. “The selection of the terroir is different, for example we are following terroir that is fresher and altering the fermentation temperature,” Eteneau says .
Let them drink Champagne
Part of Nicolas Feuillatte’s ethos is to untangle Champagne from supreme luxury, and the logistics of its operation means that it can, of course, compete price-wise – Champagne for the many not the few
Critics would say that it has made some mistakes in the past with the UK off-trade but the way it is gearing up for an assault on the UK on-trade looks like ‘lessons learned’. It has signed a deal with Castelnau Wine Agencies that will get it on-trade presence.
It’s an interesting collaboration – CWA is owned by a cooperative competitor – but its experience in the UK on-trade and different market positioning makes for a good fit argues Dominique Lahure, Nicolas Feuillatte’s export area manager, who admits that Nicolas Feuillatte has lost focus in the on-trade.
“The first step of our strategy is to have an agreement with an importer which started in September with CWA. We have very different positioning and felt that by joining forces it could be very interesting.”
Lahure says that the company aims to be selling 50,000 bottles in the UK on-trade by 3-5 years’ time “they know our specific target” and won’t be drawn on how CWA will achieve that in what is a notorious battleground for brands – paid listings, and so on. “We are leaving all that to CWA,” says Lahure.
Success, though, will be “to gain distribution and visibility in key on-trade accounts – we have not set a commercial target – but to be where we can be. Increase visibility, availability and increase the brand image.”
The Champagne that Nicolas Feuillatte is launching through the UK on-trade comprises:
Réserve Exclusive Brut
Réserve Exclusive Rosé
Collection Vintage Blanc de Blancs 2012
Collection Vintage Brut Millésimé 2009
Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Millésimé 2012
Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs Millésimé 2008
Palmes d’Or 2006
We taste through the range with the as-yet two unlisted Grand Crus seeming like great value for money, the 2008 Blanc de Noirs in particular a standout. The company is quoting me RRPs of £39-40 for these two wines which, once you get down to the DPD price will seem like exceptionally good quality.
At a Buyer tasting event, Roger Jones singled out the Palmes d’Or as being great value compared to comparative wines of that standard.
The wines are being launched later this month with head winemaker Guillaume Roffiaen in attendance and we will provide more detailed notes then.