Embracing change: Nicholas Feuillattte
Virtual reality is changing the world, from reducing errors made during surgery to bringing schoolbooks to life and enabling us to browse shops from the comfort of our own homes. It is an exciting bandwagon full of tech firms, rollercoaster designers, casino operators, neurosurgeons and Hollywood execs.
Of all the drinks categories, you probably wouldn’t expect the often staid and traditional Champagne industry to be among the first to jump aboard.
But Nicolas Feuillatte is not your typical Champagne brand and it is leaping in with both feet, making virtual reality central to its 2017 marketing plans, so DRN went to Epernay to give it a whirl. You put on the goggles (we’re sure this isn’t the technical term) and are transported to a magical world of tranquil meadows and atmospheric spaceships, where you step into and explore giant bottles of Champagne, all the while drinking bubbly and fully immersing your senses in the experience. Had this been available in the 1960s, the psychedelic movement might never have happened.
Nicolas Feuillatte’s new €25 million Centre Vinicole is the perfect setting as it has a futuristic air, the sort of place a Bond villain would make a luxurious lair. We caught up with new managing director, Christophe Juarez – who is far too convivial to be a Bond villain – at his stylish office in the centre to get the lowdown on the brand’s plans for export markets.
“In the UK we have to work on our youthfulness,” he says. Founded in 1980, Nicolas Feuillatte is a relative spring chicken in the Champagne world and Juarez believes this will allow it to be more innovative. “We are more relaxed,” he says. “We are able to be more creative. We are always looking at new techniques, such as virtual reality. We are at ease with it and play with it.”
Nicolas Feuillatte made his fortune as a coffee merchant in New York and bought a vineyard in the Champagne region in the 1970s. He released his first vintage of 650,000 bottles in 1980. Sales soared as it reeled in a new generation with its accessible taste profile and elegant branding, and expansion was required. In 1986 he formed a conglomerate of 82 co-operatives, representing more than 5,000 growers, and instantly became a huge player in the region. He remained a roving ambassador for the brand until he died in 2014 at the age of 88.
Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte continues to go from strength to strength and is the bestselling Champagne in its domestic market, the third largest brand in export markets and the UK. Global sales in 2016 stood at 10.4 million bottles, a 4% decline on the previous year, and the dip was blamed on the UK and a refusal to bow to its “overly competitive pricing”.
The Centre Vinicole produces 20 million bottles a year and those that do not go into the Nicolas Feuillate brand go back to the growers or to other producers, so there is a huge potential to grow sales. “We have to be much more important
in terms of sales volume on export markets,” says Juarez. “The potential is significant in export markets. There is room to grow and we anticipate a lot of activity in the US, the UK and Japan.
“There is a big issue about brand loyalty in the UK. People are so attracted by the everyday low price and they always move from one brand to another. One of our key issues in the UK is to establish strongly our brand image and to be as visible as we are in France.”
Distribution is one obstacle to overcome as Nicolas Feuillatte is present in the multiples and on-trade but less so in independents and convenience, while Juarez says it will maintain its stance of trying to preserve value in the Champagne category. “We have to be strong and make a huge statement about the value of Champagne in order to be different from and play another game to that of cava and Prosecco,” he says.
“They are very good, because they wake up Champagne producers. We have to be in a position to say ours is a high quality product, totally different from other sparkling wines. It’s like Cognac, we don’t talk about it as a brandy, it’s a different category.”
Juarez joined Nicolas Feuillatte from a co-op in Cognac and also has experience working with wines from Burgundy, the Languedoc, Chile and South Africa as managing director of Laroche, part of the Advini group. He spent 20 years working in the luxury goods industry, so he is well qualified to take on this important role, which leaves him answerable to 5,000 growers.
“We have the luxury to use more bottles than we are currently selling,” he says. “The option of expansion is achievable in terms of production.” The supply is there. The demand simply needs to be created, and education can play a huge role.
“I believe as a category we lack a lot of opportunities to educate people that Champagne is another ballgame,” says Juarez. “The way the product is conceived and elaborated has nothing to do with anything else on the market.”
When asked if that is down to suppliers, retailers, generics or all three, he says: “Each player has to play their part. We need some collective campaigns to convey the image and all the technical background of the Champagne area. It’s not sufficient to say we are an appellation. We have to make people understand the difference.”
Nicolas Feuillatte produces some wonderful Palmes d’Or vintage Champagnes, and they can be part of the educational approach, showcasing the terroir and winemaking talents of the region. “I have some doubts about our ability to sell it on the market, so it’s an educational approach,” he says.
“It shows the difference between Champagne and Prosecco. One of the key issues is to build the right range, to have sufficient products and not confuse. I would rather be conservative in order to be right to the point. In terms of education, it’s interesting to show all the expertise and qualities we have in vintages and single varietals and ageing. It’s a very interesting experience.”
Brexit is a challenge, but that is true of every producer targeting the UK, and Juarez says we should expect big things from the brand. “Nicolas Feuillatte will surprise,” he says. “It’s the next surprise on the market. There is a lot of brand investment and we are bringing it to life.”