An Interview with Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte Head Winemaker Jean-Pierre Vincent

June 2008

JJ Proville: How long have you been with Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte(CNF)?
Jean - Pierre Vincent: It’s been 32 years. After completing my studies, I started as an intern in the business in 1976. I crossed paths with CNF 1986 and I’ve spent my whole career there.

JP: Where does your passion for the world of wine come from?
JPV: My passion stems from the love I have for the wine. I also love the region of Champagne, because it is a fabulous place. I would say after that, passion comes little by little. At first you work because you need to work, but gradually you begin to see every day the results of the day before and this builds the passion. If you had told me in 1976 that I would be one day head winemaker for a company that makes 9 million bottles a year, I wouldn’t have believed you.

JP: Your job title in French is “Chef de Cave.” What does this job consist of?
JPV: My first responsibility is to assemble the various wines from the different domains. That means I have to bring together all the different grapes and their respective winemakers together, and make sure their work goes smoothly. My next job is to make the wine itself, which means I assemble all the wines at the Centre Vinicole in Epernay, try every single cru one one by one, and sort them out. I then create the different blends and follow the fermentation process. The third part is to travel around the world and find out how people perceive the Champagne and the Nicolas Feuillatte brand. In preparing this particular event in New York, I realized that my career as head winemaker has evolved quite a bit – I hadn’t really been conscious of that until now.

JP: How long does the assemblage stage take and what goes on during that time?
JPV: The assemblage takes 2 months to do. There are 2 tastings every day, 7 days a week, with 12 wines to try at each tasting. The total is about 400 wines that I try out with my assistant. After that we sort them out, so for example we will take the ones we like for the various vintage blends and put them aside, select the ones for the brut blend, and so forth.

JP: Is that when you decide if a blend is good enough to be a vintage?
JPV: We examine the best wines that we set aside during the initial trial and decide in the months after whether or not the year is special enough to make a regular vintage blend or a special vintage blend like Palmes d’Or. (We in fact just made the decision this week to make a Palmes d’Or for this year.) We might also decide to keep the vintage for another year. We do this because as the process goes on, we can decide whether to make a lot of a vintage, whether it will age well and if we can use it for Palmes d’Or (which can sit well in a cellar for 10 years). Last year I decided to double the volume of Palmes d’Or because the blends were so good.

JP: How many people are working with you during this whole trial period?
JPV: I have an assistant (who will replace me eventually), three people that work in a lab and some in-house oenologists. This all happens at the Centre Vinicole.

JP: Are there any differences in marketing the Champagne between the US and Europe?
JPV: Our line of products is large enough that we could say, this particular product is more suitable for the US, and this one is more for Europe, but really nothing is created specifically. Take Brut Extrem’, for example. When we started it, we envisioned it as a product that would be sold in France, the Scandinavian countries, and maybe the UK, but that’s it. When we exhibited Brut Extrem’ at VinExpo, we got a lot of interest from the American market and now 80% of Brut sales are from the US.

JP: What are the unique qualities of the Brut Extrem’?
JPV: We have this saying that Brut Extrem’ is like a “diamond in the rough,” seeing as it is basically a raw product. The Brut comes out of the cellar as is, and we don’t add any “liqueur de dosage.” After, we decided how we were going to market it, and what we decided is that we would compensate for the lack of sugar with aging. And in the final product we are using a blend from 1996 which people think tastes a lot like honey, so it creates an interesting contrast of honey flavors with a taste that is very dry.

JP: What would make a sommelier choose CNF among all others?
JPV: It’s a complicated question, but it really boils down to how much one likes the product. Many people carry our product because the quality is high and people aren’t afraid to sell it, because they’ve tasted it and loved it. Of course, if you take a restaurant like Adour, if they don’t carry Dom Perignon that’s going to be a problem, but Alain Ducasse picked Palmes d’Or simply because he tried it and he really liked it.

JP: What unique qualities can Champagne bring to food over other wines?
JPV: At the beginning of the 90s we decided that we would start pairing foods with Champagne and it was tough, but the more we did it, the easier it got. There are always things that Champagne doesn’t go well with, like chocolate or asparagus. I think in general, you never try to make the dish go with the Champagne. It should be the chef who knows the wine and adapts it to the dish. For Champagnes like Palmes d’Or specifically, it helps to pair with subtle flavors. I’ve seen a lot of pairings before that I never thought would work, but in the end they were very successful.

JP: Do you have any favorite pairings?
JPV: The most recent one I can think is pouring Brut Extrem’ straight into an oyster. It was great. Sweetbreads and scallops are also excellent pairings. The atmosphere of the setting is also a very important factor.

Some Definitions: Chef De Cave: Cellar Master Centre Vinicole: Winemaking facility located in Champagne where most of the elaboration process happens. Assemblage: Stage after fermentation process when different wines are brought together to be tasted, sorted, and selected for use in the various categories of Champagne. Liqueur De Dosage: Mix of sugar and reserve wines added to the bottle after the sediment has been removed. The amount of sugar varies among the different Champagnes categories (Brut has very little to none).