Making more of France
Although value sales continue to slide for French wines in the off-trade (down 2.5% in the year to October 2016, according to IRI data), the one time of year when it fares better than most is at Christmas. And early reports indicate the 2016 festive season was no exception, with many Britons seeking out and trading up to well-known names such as Chablis, Sancerre and Côtes du Rhône.
“France continues to play an integral part in most of the off-trade plans at Christmas and most retailers pick French premium icons to lead their advertising and sales campaigns,” says Mark Kears, managing director for the UK & Ireland at Les Grand Chais de France. “France premium sales spike at Christmas and 2016 appears to be no exception.”
Laurent Delaunay, president of Badet Clément, agrees. “Christmas is a very traditional time of year and for many consumers that means drinking French wines,” he says.
And Fiona Juby, UK market consultant for Bordeaux Wines (CIVB), adds that several retailers, including Tesco and The Wine Society, promoted Bordeaux magnums in the run-up to Christmas.
Aside from Christmas, there are other strengths from France.
Katarina Luciakova, brand manager at Hatch Mansfield, says: “The stats show that French wine is in decline but that is also true for a number of other countries. What continues to perform well for France is the premium sector.”
Similarly, Kears notes that there is a shift in emphasis “to a real quality agenda”, where most of the French regions are in significant growth.
Marie-Annick Consola, UK & Ireland sales manager at Les Vignobles Foncalieu, says one highlight to date is that the Languedoc’s image is becoming more and more positive. “Wines are better and premium wines are even more present,” she says.
And Crush Wines reports its Bijou project, launched last year, has been a “resounding success”. It involves wines produced from “ancient vines in a unique micoclimate and volcanic terrain which means highly individual and stand-out style”. Commercial manager Emma Laval says: “Bijou attracts a top-end consumer demographic looking for affordable luxury and delivers high volumes and high cash margins to retailers – the perfect mix. A strong brand, it is able to ride the recent currency fluctuations.”
One challenge for France is that volumes of 2016 Loire and Burgundy are reported to be very low. Kears says: “There will be more impact from a very difficult 2016 vintage, which is now becoming a harsh reality, and creative collaborative planning is vital to grow France in 2017.”
He adds that Bordeaux is currently in decline but will see a “renewed vigour” as the vintage looks “exceptional”, aided by the fact consumers are buying into Bordeaux as gifts in a significant way.
“Additionally, the Rhône and the south are well placed to offset some of the limiting factors from certain Loire and Burgundy appellations, which have been severely affected by adverse climatic conditions,” says Kears. Nick Dagley, who represents Bordeaux producer Dourthe in the UK, adds that there is a “real opportunity” for dry white Bordeaux to take up some of this slack. “We just need to convince buyers and consumers of its undoubted quality, value and versatility. The CIVB is working hard behind the scenes to promote them.”
Juby at CIVB adds that exports of dry white Bordeaux wines to the UK have grown 7% in volume (year to September).
She says: “Bordeaux rosé has also seen some gains, albeit from a relatively small base, in part due to lighter colour styles preferred by today’s wine drinker.”
Luciakova at Hatch predicts the current interest in southern French wine will continue. “Similarly, brands with good consumer awareness, such as Louis Jadot, always perform well as consumers seek reassurance from brands they know.”
She adds that from Hatch’s Rhône portfolio of Jean-Luc Colombo, both Côtes du Rhône red and white continue to be popular but the company is also seeing growing interest in emerging appellations within the region, “for example, our Collines de Laure wines with their fruit-driven fresh styles and interesting stories to tell”.
Badet Clement’s Delaunay says the ongoing challenge for France is to continue to make wines that the UK consumer wants to drink, which is the New World approach to winemaking.
“They need to follow consumer trends and then make wines that correspond to them. Badet Clement is a specialist in creating consumer- friendly brands from the south of France and we have had great results with this approach over the past 20 years, but I still think there is room for a lot more French wines on supermarket shelves.”
He adds that the wines in Badet’s new premium organic Domaine de la Métairie d’Alon range, which have been made using a Burgundian approach, have been doing well. “We have also created two sparkling wines under our Les Jamelles brand to join the existing wines. The new ones respond to different sectors of the market.”
It also has a new “fun and fruit-forward” brand, Maison de la Villette, which is made under the Vin de France category, “to allow room for innovation and flexibility”.
NEW FOR 2017
Many producers are optimistic about their plans for 2017.
LGCF is creating new packaging for Chenet’s Original range, and will continue to develop Ice, a charmat method sparkling wine blended specifically for serving over ice.
Meanwhile, Kears says: “Calvet will see selective evolution of packaging which will enhance the premium nature of the brand and add exciting new appellations to the range as part of our Discovery theme.”
Les Vignobles Foncalieu is to introduce a Cabernet Sauvignon called La Toque. It also plans to carry on with its Albariño, which will be bottled under the IGP OC appellation as from the new 2016 vintage.
The producer says it is seeing strong sales for its Haut Vol rosé in Majestic and its Sauvignon Gris in Marks & Spencer.
Dourthe has enjoyed a good year to date for its 2015 Château Rahoul (Graves) and Château la Garde (Pessac-Leognan) in the en primeurs campaign. “Both of these appellations are on the rise,” says the company’s Dagley.
And at Crush Wines, Laval says sales of Bijou rosé have been so strong that Bijou changed vintage on its white and rosé last December and the 2016 will be on shelves by late January.
“Bijou Red sells consistently throughout the year. Sales of the red have been beyond expectation meaning a fast run through two vintages,” she says.
BREXIT AND FRENCH WINE
One of the concerns for France, of course, is what will happen when the UK exits the EU.
LGCF’s Kears says: “No one knows yet what form Brexit will take. It’s hard to say what impact it will have on sales but currency fluctuations will remain an issue around the triggering of Article 50.”
Dagley at Dourthe says he thinks there are signs that France’s decline in sales is slowing, but the weakening of the pound as a result of the impending Brexit, combined with low yields in key parts of France in 2016 “will undoubtedly have an impact on sales of French wine next year”.
Meanwhile, Delaunay at Badet Clément is reasonably positive about the future. He says wine lovers won’t suddenly stop drinking French wines for the sake of a few pence increase in price, but adds: “I do think they might broaden their repertoire and try regions they haven’t previously tried, such as the Languedoc Roussillon, for example, where they can get much better value. And it’s a region that offers more of a New World style.”
Ruth and Charles Simpson, owners of Domaine Sainte Rose wine estate in Languedoc, agree that the devaluation of sterling relative to the euro has meant great price pressure on all European wines.
But they also note that in the independent sector there is an interest in listing new offerings from France “if the price is right”.
Ruth Simpson says: “The one supermarket we deal with has reduced its southern France offering and this is clearly a response to a decline in sales in this category. However, we currently have a wine on promotion and sales have exceeded projections, showing that regardless of what time of year it is, pricing always has an impact. Brexit will certainly have a negative impact, especially at the lower end of the market.”