It's refreshing to hear someone promoting champagne without pretending it's a great wine. Marie Oudin-Vorstermans, export manager for Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, visiting Sydney recently, is not afraid of saying hers is a 'commercial' champagne. But, she says, "it is very good quality and it is not an intimidating Champagne." Bravo to that.
Nicolas Feuillatte may be a commercial champagne but it has several distinctions. It's the No.1 selling brand in France. And it's the third-largest globally, after Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. It's also the youngest brand in the top 10 champagnes, according to Oudin-Vorstermans. The company is 41 years old and the brand is 38, she says.
"We have no old buildings and there is not the same romantic atmosphere as in the traditional champagne houses, but at Nicolas Feuillatte you feel the passion and joy of those working there." And, she adds: "We never had the goal to be No.1, but we wanted to be the friendly champagne, accessible in the larger sense of the word."
Again, it's not fashionable to talk about co-operatives, but Nicolas Feuillatte is the brand-name of the co-operative Centre Vinicole – Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, which is Champagne's largest co-op, with more than 5000 growers delivering grapes to it. Representing more than 300 villages, they cultivate vines covering 2250 hectares, or 7 per cent of Champagne's total area.
This entity produces 24 million bottles of champagne a year, of which 10 million are sold under the Nicolas Feuillatte brand. You might well ask: what happens to the other 14 million bottles? The answer is that Centre Vinicole – Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte produces wine for other big Champagne brands – "not naming any names", says Oudin-Vorstermans. But Tyson Stelzer in his book The Champagne Guide 2014-15 writes that this co-op has such a huge capacity that it acts as "a second production and storage site for Moet & Chandon".
The brand Nicolas Feuillatte was created in 1976 by the man Nicolas Feuillatte, a Frenchman who was a part-time resident of Sydney, and who died in August aged 87. According to Oudin-Vorstermans, Feuillatte was an importer of coffee and chocolate into the US and began his champagne brand after inheriting vineyards in Champagne. Feuillatte was a flamboyant and well-connected man with friends in high places the world over and he passed away in the same week as his close friend, the actress Lauren Bacall.
Nicolas Feuillatte non-vintage Réserve Particulière is a soft, balanced easy-going wine with genuine Champagne character, and is not obviously sweet nor tart, as long as it's served at the right temperature. As any wine warms, sweetness becomes more noticeable. Sweetness is disdained by the purists, and acidity is disliked by the masses. You can be damned for one or damned for the other.
Oudin-Vorstermans is also not afraid to talk specifics: she volunteers that the non-vintage Feuillatte was sweeter in the past: "It's now nine grams per litre (of residual sugar) whereas in the past it was 10 or 11." This trend is in keeping with the taste of the wider market, which has been trending drier.
Wine can be a confusing subject and Nicolas Feuillatte is no exception. When people refer to Nicolas Feuillatte non-vintage, they may be talking of the distinctively blue-labelled Brut Réserve – formerly called Réserve Particulière, or not. This is the most familiar to Australians. In fact there are two Nicolas Feuillatte non-vintage champagnes available here. The cheapest, the gold-labelled Brut NV, is marketed after the wine has spent 18 months on the lees. It's sold mainly in France but Aldi stores sell it here for $29.99. According to Oudin-Vorstermans, this is parallel-imported stock and Nicolas Feuillatte doesn't guarantee its quality.
In contrast, the blue-labelled Brut Réserve has 36 months on lees (the legal minimum is 15 months.) It's imported, along with other premium labels including the deluxe cuvée Palmes d'Or, by Angove Family Winemakers.
Over the years, I've found the Brut NV somewhat patchy in quality and quite high in dosage. The Brut Réserve (Brut Particulière) has a better history, but was still often disappointing in the past. My chief complaints were lack of freshness and clean fruit aromas, and excessive sweetness. In recent years the wine has shown consistently much better: cleaner, fresher and less-sweet. At the normal price range of $50 to $60 it's fair value, but I've seen it advertised for up to $85.
At the latest showing I scored it 90/100.
The pink-label Brut Rosé NV ($50-$60) I found dark in colour with a strange black-ish tinge, and a very bold, plain style which lacked finesse. 87/100
The Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs 2006 ($90; 100 per cent pinot noir) was pale straw-hued, with aromas of meringue and iced pastries; soft, rich, rounded and full of fruit, but happily not finishing sweet. 92/100
I preferred it to the Palmes d'Or Rosé 2005 ($165), which is also 100 per cent pinot noir but not from such highly rated villages. Made by the maceration method (as opposed to the more common technique of blending red and white wines) it's a big, rich, dark coloured, quince-paste, strawberry and cherry scented, slightly heavy wine which is not my idea of a fine rosé champagne. "I think Burgundy when I drink Palmes d'Or Rosé," says Oudin-Vorstermans, and I know what she means. It's a style that polarizes people. I rated it 89/100.
My favourite of the group was the Palmes d'Or Vintage Brut 2004 ($155). This 50/50 chardonnay, pinot noir blend has icing-sugar, meringue and lemon/citrus aromas, and is quite full-bodied and rich but also tight and long, finishing with freshness and vivacity. 94/100