After 32 years at the helm of Negociants – one of the world’s pre-eminent premium wine exporters – Managing Director, Brenton Fry is finally hanging up his hat.
While he admits retirement won’t be slowing him down, as one of the men who bought Burgundy to Australia, if anyone deserves to stop and smell the Pinot, it’s Brenton…
How did you get involved in the wine industry?
I started out selling Bordeaux to restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, for an Adelaide-based wholesale and importing company BH MacLachlan wine and spirits. It was the early days of fine wine in Australia and I knew very little about it.
Fortunately my customers were legends of the industry and incredibly generous with their knowledge – they would invite me to long lunches where they would introduce me to French bubbles and benchmark bottles, so it was a solid early education.
When did you start working with Negociants International?
I met Robert Hill Smith, from Hill Smith Family Vignerons, in a local wine options tasting group. We’d all get together every month to collectively share wines from around the world. Robert had put an ad in the paper for a business management role at Yalumba, and when I didn’t apply he called and asked why!
I joined Yalumba in 1983 with the brief to build a new wine import and export business – by 1985 Negociants International was established.
Negociants started out as more of an imports business rather than exports, with the aim of combining visits to wine suppliers with potential future distributors for Yalumba.
How did you go about introducing Burgundy to Australia?
I had dealt with Bordeaux before but Burgundy was unchartered territory.
I enlisted the help of a wine merchant, Pierre Beuchet, who lived in Burgundy and worked for one of the large negociant houses, as well as generous mentors such as wine writer James Halliday and legend Len Evans.
Together we went about the daunting task of establishing Australia’s palate for Pinot.
Pierre was fantastically helpful in tiptoeing us through the minefields of Pinot Noir through his introductions and James’ reviews introduced Australia to Burgundy as a style.
Pierre and James offered a shortcut to Burgundy by benchmarking the greatest Pinots, from the producers who could really make the wine sing, like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.
Once the benchmark wines were established the hard work really began – that’s when I had to delve deeper to discover the smaller producers and emerging stars.
How did you go about establishing an import portfolio from Burgundy?
It wasn’t an easy task because there were a lot of Domaines, and to be frank many of them were resting on their appellations.
Relationships are everything in the wine game, and when you’re selling wine from Burgundy you need to show producers that you know their appellations, their terroir, and that you take them seriously – that’s the only way you’ll ever really get to know their wines and get an allocation of the best.
What struck you most about Burgundian winemakers and producers?
What always amazed me was just how hard these people worked, in spite of their wealth.
You could go to any Domaine on a Sunday and there could be three generations there, all rolling barrels, topping up and hand labelling their wines after working all week in the vineyards.
If you looked at their appellations, a hectare could be worth millions of dollars US. These guys were some of the wealthiest people in assets but they lived a life that was wholeheartedly dedicated to their craft.
Did you meet any characters along the way?
There are a lot of characters in Burgundy, but Lalou Bize-Leroy is probably the most inspiring person I met while working there – she’s the owner of Domaine d’Auvenay and Domaine Leroy, and has singlehandedly built the Leroy brand to become one of the most sought-after Domaines in the region.
She is also one of the worlds top female mountain climbers – she’ll take everything she does to extraordinary heights.
What is the best bottle of Pinot you’ve ever had?
A 1978 La Tache – it’s the absolute benchmark for great Pinot in that it has so many layers of flavour – it’s so long, so rich and it has a touch of savoury but also a magnificent opulence. Y
ou can see 95% of the palate just by nosing it, and once you have, you just want to smell it again and again.
What has been your most memorable Pinot experience?
I was at dinner with James Halliday in France once and he ordered a bottle of La Tache from his birth year. They didn’t have the La Tache, but the waiter came back with a 1937 Romanée-Conti.
It was an extraordinary wine and held together so well, even in comparison to the Romanée-Conti of today, it was truly amazing.
What excites you most about the future of Pinot?
I have really high hopes for Pinot in Australia and New Zealand, particularly Tasmania and Marlborough.
I have to say that I don’t think the DRCs are any better today than they were back in 1978, they were amazingly great then and they’re amazingly great now.
But in that time period Marlborough and Tasmania have been slowly dabbling in the art of making great Pinot and it’s been exciting to watch them grow and develop in such a short period of time.
What are your plans for retirement?
I’m planning on going back to Europe regularly – at least annually – to spend time with the friends I’ve met over the years.
I still have a lot of things I want to do and certainly Pinot will be one of them – it’s the only variety that I would cut up with a credit card and snort – it’s that good.