Nicolas Feuillatte: Businessman who made his fortune selling Brazilian coffee beans before creating the champagne that bears his name

His close friends included Lauren Bacall, Jackie Onassis and Princess Diana

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The Independent Online

Nicolas Feuillatte’s handwritten signature became familiar to champagne drinkers worldwide, appearing on every label of the millions of bottles of the brand he created.

As a new kid on the block of the historic champagne houses, by retailing at reasonably-affordable prices, he turned Nicolas Feuillatte champagne into his native France’s best-selling brand and the world’s third most popular after Moët et Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. Less than 40 years since its creation, the brand now sells in 83 countries and retains more than 52 per cent of all champagne sales in the domestic French market.

For much of his life, Feuillatte was also an independent-minded bon vivant, socialite, jet-setter, nonconformist and hedonist, living in a luxury apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and throwing parties for celebs including Jacqui Onassis, Shirley MacLaine and Lauren Bacall, one of his closest friends, who died earlier this month. He also became a good friend of Princess Diana. He owned properties in Long Island, in Tunisia and later in Sydney, Australia. In the US, members of the Kennedy family and shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis were among his golf partners.

He had moved to the US aged 21 after the Second World War, predicting the boom in post-war instant coffee sales, and made his fortune by becoming the leading importer of coffee beans from Africa to the US. He had a hunch that African coffee beans would come into demand in the American market and he was helped by a severe frost in Brazil in 1955 which devastated much of the coffee crop. He won much of Brazil’s share of the US market on behalf of his African producers and by the early 1960s he was the leading importer of African coffee into the US.

Feuillatte was the first to sell African Robusta beans to American instant coffee producers such as Folgers. As a result, the Ivory Coast gave him a diplomatic passport and appointed him its representative at the United Nations in New York, giving him further clout on the cocktail circuit where his French accent won over such A-list celebs as Bacall.

A lover and connoisseur of the vintage champagnes, it occurred to him that friendly whispers among his celeb friends might help him market bubbly to those in the US who could afford it, and perhaps even to the less well-off as wines began competing with beer and bourbon for the American palate.

In his late 40s, after more than 20 years on the Manhattan social scene, he returned to France to purchase, along with his brother, 30 acres of vineyards in Bouleuse, in the Champagne region of north-eastern France. “The name of the vineyard was Domaine St-Nicolas,” he told the specialist American magazine Wine Spectator in 2003. “I loved the idea, because my name is Nicolas.” He first sold his champagne to his old friends in New York and later in Australia and Switzerland.

It was in 1976 that he joined forces with a cooperative of vignerons calling themselves Le Centre Vinicole de la Champagne (CVC) – the Champagne Wine Centre – based in Epernay in the Champagne region near Reims. That was where the Nicolas Feuillatte brand was born. Having watched sales soar, notably in France but also in the US, he sold the brand name to the CVC in 1986. In his honour the cooperative changed its name to the Centre Vinicole-Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte (CNV-NF), which now produces more than 10 million bottles of his signature champagne a year. Comprising 82 winemaking cooperatives representing more than 5,000 vineyards, it sits on a hill in Chouilly, overlooking Epernay and listed its net operating profits last year as €17.8 million.

Because of his name, knowledge and charm, the cooperative retained him as a roving ambassador for the brand. He also helped build his own company’s reputation as a sponsor of the arts, culture and culinary events around the world. Its website says Nicolas Feuillatte champagne “strives for delicate harmony and joyful elegance. Its light, fresh style is simple because of its complexity – complex meaning rich in aromas which must be perfectly integrated. Then balance, elegance and simplicity follow.”

One critic described the wine as: “10 per cent Chardonnay, 60 per cent Pinot Noir, 30 per cent Pinot Meunier, silver-tinged, salmon-pink, with a steady ribbon of fine bubbles .... filled with red fruit aromas, intense, developing notes of blueberry, blackcurrant and raspberry.” The brand’s showcase in Paris is its champagne house, the Espace Feuillatte, on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a few steps from the Champs-Elysées.

Feuillatte was born in the 18th arrondissement of Paris in 1926 to a family of merchants and import/exporters. According to a biography on the Feuillatte company website, he “courageously fought in World War Two,” but it is not clear whether he was with the Resistance or in uniform. “Returning from the devastation he had witnessed, he returned with a greater respect for life and humanity,” the biography said. µ PHIL DAVISON

Nicolas Feuillatte, champagne and coffee entrepreneur: born Paris 29 January 1926; died 14 August 2014.