Bordeaux winemakers hunt for silver bullet

Driven by an infernal spiral of shrinking markets and falling prices at home and abroad, Bordeaux’s wine producers are searching, sometimes desperately, for new ways to bring their fabled product to market.

For many — including more than a few venerable chateaux — there is no margin of error: they must adapt or die.

Some are banking on eye-catching labels designed by marketing pros, others on the New World technique of plastering the name of the grape on the bottle, a near-heresy in France where primacy has always been given to place of origin.

Others are developing direct-to-consumer sales at their chateaux, or experimenting with technology-intensive wine making techniques. One vintner has started ”bottling” his product in soda-pop cans.

”Ten years ago I thought I was going to make a fortune. Now, as long as I don’t lose money, its OK,” says Armelle Falcy-Cruse, manager of the 30ha Chateau Taillan in Medoc.

Despite rising costs of production, Falcy-Cruse has kept retail prices unchanged for several years. ”Clients don’t like surprises,” she said.

She has also further opened Chateau Taillan to the public, increasing more profitable direct sales from 500 cases ten years ago to 3 000 today.

These are modest gains, but in an industry that has lost a million domestic drinkers and a significant chunk of its market share abroad in the last five years, anything that helps insure survival is welcome.

Breaking long-standing taboos in the conservative Bordeaux wine business, increasing numbers of producers are also copying their New World competition with ultra-design wine labels highlighting familiar grape varieties such as ”Merlot” or ”Cabernet” more than the geographic origin.

There are 57 such ”appelations” in Bordeaux alone, and more than 460 in all of France. Most are virtually unknown, even within France.

The Despagne clan — whose estate, at 310ha, is one of the largest in the region — is considering adopting both marketing techniques. Given the elevated price and prestige of their wines, which retail for up to €80, it would be a first.

”From an export point of view, French-style labels are a weak point,” said co-owner and graphic designer Gabriel Despagne. ”Our sales to traditional retailers, about 20% of turnover, fell by 10% over the last two years, and we make less money on each sale. We are considering launching a ‘Merlot’ and dramatically simplifying our labels,” he said.

He plans to call his next vintage ”Les Amants/French Lovers” — written in English and French — on a label with stylised Giacometti-like figures.

Wine-making techniques are also evolving.

Alain Raynaud, owner of the 15ha Chateau Quinault in St Emilion and president of the ”Cercle de Rive Droite” (Right Bank) winemakers association, watched prices for his wine fall by 25% in a few short years before deciding to adapt.

Skipping the normally de rigueur fermentation in large stainless steel or concrete vats, he put his freshly-crushed grape juice directly into oak barrels for fermentation to accelerate ”the joint venture between the wood and the wine,” he explained.

He markets the result, which he dubbed ”Exception”, at €70, mainly in the United States.

Another innovation — a reaction to tough drunk-driving laws — is a new alcohol reducing process.

”There are lots of problems for wine now and we need a new product to try and survive. We have to get out of this misery,” said Guy Renier, owner of 20ha in Entre deux Mers.

Renier used to sell all the wine from his estate in bulk directly to wine dealers, but when prices dropped from €900 to €600 per ”tonneau” (900 litres) in one year, he changed course.

This year he produced 2 500 bottles of a rosé with only six percent alcohol, half the normal level. If it sells, he will increase production ten fold.

The de-alcoholisation Renier used was developed by Bordeaux-based oenologist Michael Paetzold and costs roughly €50 cents per bottle. Launched last year, there are already 20 winemakers in the region experimenting with the new technique.

If all else fails, there is a solution of last resort. ”I am going to pull up at least 30ha of vines,” one Bordeaux grower, Serge Chiappa, told the Sud Ouest newspaper. Chiappa will receive €15 000 from the state for each hectare, but cannot replant.

Several thousand hectares of vines could disappear by the end of the year. – Sapa-AFP

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