Shared family values and a passion for sustainable winemaking have evolved the business partnership between Champagne producer Veuve Fourny and De Bortoli Wines into much more.
Leanne and Steve De Bortoli were travelling through the Champagne region almost 10 years ago, looking for a suitable brand to export to Australia, when they decided to visit Veuve Fourny.
“After we had decided as a company that we needed to import a Champagne back in 2011 to add to our on-premise portfolio, the next question was which one,” Leanne Bortoli recalls.
“We did some research and Veuve Fourny from Vertus kept popping up in the discussion. At that time they already had an agent in Australia who was bringing in a very small amount. Steve and I were travelling overseas for some promotional work so decided to take a side trip to Champagne to check it out.
“We visited another Champagne House where we had an appointment but our feeling was that it wasn’t quite right for us. Because we were in Champagne anyway, we decided to head to Vertus to see what had everyone excited about Veuve Fourny.”
Among the Champagne producer’s fans are wine writer’s Eric Asimov, Tim White, Tyson Stelzer and Max Allen.
As Asimov noted in The New York Times: “This small producer makes wonderfully interesting wines … Beautifully detailed Champagnes of great finesse.”
“We had not made an appointment so just decided to knock on the door and try our luck,” Leanne added.
“Charles Fourny was there that day and looked after us, showing us his wine. As far as he knew, we were just an Aussie couple wanting to try his wines. Halfway through the tasting we fessed up and said we were in Champagne looking for a brand to import.
“Charles very politely told us that Veuve Fourny was with another importer in Australia, but asked us how much we were looking to import. We said ‘Oh, about one or two containers to start with, and then see how it goes’.
“After that we left, but were very impressed with he wines. Charles and his brother Emmanuel did some research on us and were told we were a reputable family owned business, but in the meantime spoke to their current distributor about growing their business more in Australia. He didn’t want to … the rest is history.”
Since then, Fourny has visited Australia every two years to help the sales team and customers better understand the Veuve Fourny range of Champagnes.
On his most recent visit, Drinks Trade enjoyed lunch with the engaging fifth generation champagne producer at Sydney’s Aria restaurant.
Guests sipped Fourny & Fils Blanc de Blancs Brut (crisp with a long “stay in mouth”), Grande Reserve Brut (plenty of saline freshness) and Fourny & Fils Cuvee ‘R’ Extra Brut (lots of salinity with a fruity finish).
Charles is the eldest of two brothers who run Veuve Fourny. During lunch he discussed everything from the oscillating fortunes of recent harvests – 2018 was a corker, 2017 was difficult and 2019 is still in the balance. Fourny’s vineyard lost 30% of its grapes to extreme weather this year. The fruit that was left was “small but wonderful”.
Fourny also gave a fascinating explanation of terroir and how the chalk in the soil in his vineyards contributes to the salinity of the Champagne.
Other highlights from Fourny’s recent visit were mini masterclasses from the consumer dinners across the eastern states, including hosting a four-course Champagne dinner with Tyson Stelzer at Otto Ristorante in Sydney.
The trip was also a welcome chance for the Champagne producer to catch up with the De Bortoli family.
“Although distance divides us, we do communicate on a regular basis and any time our family is in France, they make an effort to get to Champagne to visit Charles and his brother Emmanuel,” Leanne Bortoli (above with Fourny) explained.
“On Charles’ recent visit to Australia, we mentioned that we want to visit Corsica next year. He holidays there regularly and spent a lot of time telling us where to visit, what to do, following up with a detailed email. But again with the insistence we stop by Vertus on our way there to visit them!
“Charles and his brother Emmanuel have both said that when they did the research on us 10 years ago, they like the fact we were very much a family business. We feel there is a real synergy between both companies. We both believe in owning your own piece of land, growing the business in a sustainable way.”
Challenging market for the small Champagne producer
Veuve Fourny is one of 4500 grower producers in Champagne and only one of around 100 that make it into Australia.
As Vintage Cellars notes: “Australia imports less grower champagne than any other country and also imports the smallest number of growers. Globally, one in five champagne hails from a grower, but in Australia we drink less than one in 60!”
Stephen Brook explained in The Australian: “When it comes to enjoying bubbles, Australia is a nation of champagne conservatives.
“Out in the fine wine shops, the restaurants and the big wine retail chains, we tend to stick with the favourites, the tried and true cuvees from the famous houses.”
Aussie Champagne expert Tyson Stelzer noted: “It is down to price and also brand reputation, the perceived cachet of the brands that spend their money on advertising.”
Stelzer also explored the issue in his The State of Play of Champagne in Australia in 2018 report, which revealed that Australia is a notoriously challenging market for champagne because it is highly price sensitive, overwhelmingly big brand driven, and dominated by the supermarket duopoly.
While Australians are indulging in more champagne than ever before, Stelzer points out that there is much work still to be done in introducing the full diversity of styles that Champagne has to offer.
‘Champagne houses comprise more than 96% of Australian champagne consumption, leaving just 1.6% to growers and 1.5% to cooperatives,’ Stelzer highlights. ‘The five biggest houses dominate more than 75% of the market.’
“Of Champagne’s top ten markets, Australia is dominated more by champagne négociant houses than any other, with market share by volume for growers dropping from a dismal 1.59% in 2017 to a devastating 1.43% in 2018, compared with 18.2% globally.
“Australian consumers have access to less than two thirds of the range of champagne houses offered by other equivalent-sized countries.”
However, he noted that “Australia is privileged to great representation of a number of little négociants who I consider like growers, including André Clouet, Veuve Fourny and Laherte Frères.”
Veuve Fourny is available primarily in key selected on-premise venues nationally.