Bordeaux wine industry innovates to suit UK consumers

A quick look at the IRI figures for the top 10 bestselling wine-producing countries in the UK retail trade reveals a stark trend: the Old World is taking a battering and the New World is surging.

Market leader Australia is growing, along with Chile, New Zealand and Argentina, but Italy, France, Spain and Germany are all in ongoing decline.

France, which once reigned supreme, is now fourth in the chart and is seeing volume and value sales decline by more than 4%. Within that Bordeaux, the grandest Old World region of the lot, is suffering steadily declining sales.

The perception of the Bordelais among certain pockets of the UK trade is that they would just shrug their arrogant shoulders, roll their elitist eyes and forget about it.

But nothing could be further from the truth at Les Grands Chais de France – one of the largest producers in the region, the second largest producer in France and the leading exporter – which is working hard to produce tailor-made wines to specifically suit UK tastes. It is taking a New World approach to wine production, labelling and packaging, and starting to fight back against the marauding producers from Down Under and South America.

It has hired former Sainsbury’s winemaker Emma Holland and installed her in Bordeaux as export manager for the UK & Ireland – which accounts for 15%-20% of exports at LGCF – to ensure it gets its offering right. She says: “We have different winemakers for different markets. We have a winemaker for the UK who understands the profile of wine being drunk in the UK. Compared to France or other parts of Europe we have to make a more fruit forward profile and that’s due to the influence of the New World.

“French wine is declining significantly [in the UK]. It’s really struggling with the competition coming out of the New World.”

She says that pricing and vintage have a lot to do with it – the 2011, 2012 and 2013 vintages were difficult in Bordeaux, while Australia and Chile had bumper crops – but admits that the New World has stolen a march on the Old World in terms of giving UK consumers what they want.

“The French producers that are doing well in export markets are looking at themselves and modernising their ranges, their wines and their approach to packaging and how they interact with the consumer,” she says.

“Winemaking in Bordeaux has gone from being incredibly traditional to being at the sharp end of technology. The wines are more approachable, don’t have to be laid down for 20 years and don’t necessarily cost your mortgage. There is something beautiful for midweek drinking with friends. It’s not just a case of wines for your cellar. We intend to work on developing that image.

“The profile of the wines [performing well in the UK] is fruit forward, wines to be drunk within a year or two of bottling. We are trying to create something more everyday to tackle that challenge. We are very focused on that because we are so export focused.”

Stylistically the wines are adapted to suit UK palates, and the packaging has been modernised to fit the market. 

“I liken it to the Australian approach,” says Holland, an Australian who married a Bordeaux winemaker. “The Aussies talked to the UK trade and went back and made the wines people were looking for.”

Holland and her colleagues spend a lot of time talking to the trade and recent innovations to boost the company’s chances in the UK and take on the New World include a range of Calvet minis, which is “flying off the shelves”, and rosé wines that use Cabernet Franc to ape the pale salmon colour of the Provence rosé that Brits are currently craving, along with an increased focus on the trendy Malbec.

This all sounds far removed from First Growth producers such as Château Lafite and Château Margaux selling cases for £50,000, and the whole en primeur system, but Holland says: “You have two different Bordeaux: grand cru, with its history, the most fantastic wine tasting experience, tradition, culture, heritage – all that has a price; and then you have everyday drinking Bordeaux, a completely different market, different wine, different approach. It’s a challenge to do both of those things well.”

LGCF has a burgeoning business selling high-end fine wines from Bordeaux and its sales to the UK independent trade are soaring thanks to its diverse range of exclusive wines at a span of price points that goes up to the stratosphere. But at the more mass market end covered by the likes of IRI – supermarkets and impulse – a step change is clearly required and LGCF is driving this with its innovations, such as putting white Bordeaux in a bottle with a screwcap and Sauvignon Blanc on the label.

“You have to have a progressive mindset to keep it dynamic and innovative, keep ahead of the market and anticipate what your customers are looking for,” says Holland. “Being aware of what the rest of the world is doing is important.”

Before 2006 LGCF did not have a traditional negociant. It took over Crus et Domaines de France to plug this gap then set about taking over properties and becoming a producer in the region, renovating and restructuring vineyards and overhauling wine cellars to ensure everything is up to the highest standards it can achieve.

It is confident in Bordeaux’s ability to challenge the New World and win market share in the years ahead, but Holland admits there are obstacles to be overcome. “The notion of vintage is a challenge,” she says. “A buyer who knows about Bordeaux knows there is variation from vintage to vintage. If anything, the region promotes it as part of the en primeur system. 2013 was a difficult vintage and there are some buyers who just won’t look at it because they are so worried about the quality and the perception. Bordeaux and France have the challenge of vintages in a way that the New World doesn’t.”

The obvious elephant in the room is Brexit, as is the case for large swathes of the wine trade. “After Brexit there was initial shock horror – what do we do?” says Holland. “Then we realised we are on the outside and all we can do is continue trading and see what happens. If anyone makes any strategic changes it’s our customers.

“The last thing we want to do is give people the impression we don’t want to trade with the UK. We are waiting to see the impact it will have on wine sales. We just have to create even more reasons for UK buyers to want to buy French wine.

“We have to be even more innovative.”  

Related articles: